The LilBubome project successfully raised $8,225 from 233 backers in a fantastic display of science communication on an international stage. The project is a case study in what's required to be successful, so we interviewed the researchers to combine anecdotal advice and analytics data to show the story behind this successful experiment.

Daniel Ibrahim, Dario Lupianez, and Uschi Symmons first got the idea for their experiment when they were exchanging internet videos of cute cats. The three postdoctoral researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Genetics were fascinated - was there more going behind this cute cat, Lil Bub, and its unique looks that genome science could reveal?

The idea was floated to sequence the genome of Lil Bub to understand the interesting physiology. An email was fired off to Lil Bub's owner, and after some friendly exchanges and a few weeks later, the project had legs. The team knew that they could do much of this work in their free time, their daily expertise revolves around rare genetic mutations.

The only thing missing was $6,000 in funding for using an Illumina genome sequencer and some reagents to gather the genome data. And so they committed to raising the funding for the LilBubome.

Daniel Ibrahim: We saw Lil Bub on the internet and we were immediately intrigued, both personally and scientifically by her looks. We felt it would be interesting sequence her. And then because she generated such a wide interest from all sorts of people we didn't want to pursue this sort of research in the classical way but rather have it as an open process and show everyone who isn't involved in everyday research how it's going on. The sequencing seems kind of lucky context.

Stumbling upon, and then refining, the right idea

Early on while developing the idea, the team gathered lots of feedback from their peers and colleagues. It took them constantly talking to new people to understand what made the Lil Bubome so interesting.

Dario Lupianez: Before we started we were like… we have no idea. At the time we were talking to people of course. And you know, the thing is we always got positive feedback. “It's a crazy thing you're doing but it's cool.”

We knew we were on the right path, and so then the only thing that we were missing was to get this started. But, what can I say, at some point we didn't know which direction to go because everything was suddenly new for us. Feedback was so helpful for this.

Daniel Ibrahim: For me it was like perfect small talk fodder, and it was crazy how people reacted. Like, “Oh, hey, you could do this”, or “we could do that”. Everybody would come up to us and get drawn in, so that gave us a feeling that this might be something that people might be willing to pay attention to.

Getting specific

One of the biggest challenges was turning the idea into a compelling story. This took effort, but paid off hugely as the video has now been watched over 150,000 times across websites like Gizmodo, Reddit, Buzzfeed, and more. It's evidence that taking the time to think about story behind the science will help connect to a larger audience.

Daniel Ibrahim: I remember when creating the project, the project creator has all the different fields for the project details, like the goals and budget. I think there’s a section where the limit was 200 characters or so, and the thing I had written up was seven times as long, and I thought I was being brief! We knew what we wanted to say but we didn't really know how brief we needed it to be.

Dario Lupianez: One of the lessons we learned was the capacity of attention that people have is so low. So you really need to show the important things, and be brief. And because of that, I think we really took our time to make a great video because we felt that would be really what would touch a lot people.

Launching the campaign

The outreach campaign was a whirlwind of excitement, which steadily grew in momentum and energy until the final pledge that pushed the project over. In total, 248 backers pledged $8,225 to allow the project to move forward. Blog posts, press releases, Reddit AMAs, social media, and international press coverage all contributed to success, but it started by building momentum with their immediate networks.

Dario Lupianez: I think we went through different phases. For example, in the beginning it was like we put all this content here. Nobody's coming here, what shall we do? At some point you realize that you need to make noise. You need to feed the audience, and kind of treat them nicely, right?

Daniel Ibrahim: The first week of the campaign I was traveling and we had some technical issues. The first two days was only Dario and Uschi were doing outreach, they started quickly posting to all of their friends, and it was taking off. We were checking analytics, I don’t know, hourly probably? I was amazed every evening. I remember those first days were very interesting, very new. But we were kind of unhappy with the sound issues in the video, which we then fixed the day after I came back, and uploaded a new version of the video. And only then I posted it to my friends and then we get a similar increase on that day. Then we started organizing. OK, we need to post more. We need to do this. We need to write an article here and there, and contact people. It was pretty hard work.

Dario Lupianez: You definitely need to be active, because it's not something you just launch and you put some content and wait or hope that the people are actually aware with what we are doing. So we really need push harder, and that was the point. Before you start a campaign you don't really know how active you need to be, but it's a lot.

Daniel Ibrahim: I understood also that not everything needs to happen immediately. You need to check in within a week. Your outreach continually grows like as you start to reach out to larger and larger networks. Did the things that I want to happen, did they happen? And what can I do?

The Researchers

Berlin, Germany
Daniel M. Ibrahim
Philadelphia, USA
Uschi Symmons
Berlin, Germany
Darío G Lupiáñez

Quick Stats

  • $8,225 raised
  • $196 pledged per day
  • 248 backers
  • 24,249 pageviews
  • 132 traffic sources

Campaign Timeline

Day 1

Project Launch on facebook and twitter (link)

4% Funded

Day 3

Lilbubome.wordpress blog post (link)

10% Funded

Day 13

Article in The Node (link)

21% Funded

Day 15

Project Featured in Experiment Newsletter

28% Funded

Day 21

LilBub Official Facebook and Twitter Posts (link)

53% Funded

Day 34

Reddit AMA (link)

87% Funded

Day 35

Article in Der Spiegel (link)

107% Funded

Day 38

Article in Gizmodo (link)

115% Funded

Day 42

Campaign ends, articles in Buzzfeed and Washington Post (link) (link)

126% Funded

Drumming Up Momentum

The project unfolded with many small events driven by their outreach to relevant audiences, culminating in widespread press coverage across many science related websites and mass media newspapers like Der Spiegel and Washington Post.

Daniel Ibrahim: I think it was very helpful for us that we had the first few weeks of trying to do it on our own and realizing how much work it is. And then the Facebook and Twitter posts from Mike (Lil Bub’s owner) dropped one day and it was crazy. The (several thousand pageviews) traffic we got from that was insane. In the end, in Germany this didn't really matter because Lil Bub is not that famous in Germany to be honest.

I remember that day Dario drew out a newspaper article using our press release [1] in Berlin in parallel which got some attention. So then we got contacted by Der Spiegel, which is a very big website in Germany. And at least in Germany, for me it was very interesting to see how fast it got published. So we get published on the newspaper Der Spiegel which was a very nice article. And the shorter article on Der Spiegel's online site, and the next day a press agency called me in the office and says, "Can we do a press release about this? Do you have time for interview?" So I gave them a half-hour interview and they wrote up a really nice article. They released the article two days later, it was on all the German the news blogs and sites because they just probably copied the press agent's article.

I think something similar happened with a Gizmodo piece. It was great to have a relatively large blog writing about it. Because once you're on a frequented site, people just copy and get interested. I think a colleague of ours told us that we are on Washington Post and we were like, "What!? How did that happen?" We never noticed this, so he's sending me a scan from a newspaper article from Santiago, Chile, that he got. That was a bit surreal.
Dario Lupianez: Early on, trying to get into the media, we thought maybe we were just not popular enough or we haven't built our network enough. But later on when we were really sure that we were moving traffic a lot from our earlier targeted outreach, everybody kind of gets connected and it's easy if you want, it's kind of a small world then.

Daniel Ibrahim: I think one thing that was true also was that at the point that If you know that somebody with a large reach is going to write about you, then you better have content on your site. So in our case it was very helpful that Mike didn’t post about us on the first day because then he would have directed people to an empty site and we would have gotten funds, but people would have been underwhelmed and he would have probably had to post again. That’s why even if you have a large outreach and your friends can contribute and all the people that you know, let them know that this project exists. If somebody else is going to write about it, it’s cool if the site is very active and being updated and you know what you want to show.

Who Are The Backers?

In order to meet the funding goal, the project would have to average $150 in pledges every day of the campaign. They found that backers who came from targeted and specific outlets (related to cats or science) pledged more, meaning their targeted outreach ended up driving a lot of pledges.

Dario Lupianez: You could really see individual sites writing about you in the analytics dashboard[2]. I remember Catster wrote about us without contacting us. You could just see it in the click number. When new backers came through, we would go like, "Okay, were did they come from?" OK Catster. So that was really kind of interesting.

Table 1: A sample of 80 of the 283 backers and the traffic referrals

Source Backers Total Average % Total % Backers
Facebook 36 $1114 $31 22.6% 28.8%
Gizmodo 10 $320 $32 6.5% 8.0%
Twitter 9 $225 $25 4.6% 7.2%
Catster 3 $225 $75 4.6% 2.4%
Lilbubome.wordpress 5 $206 $41 4.2% 4.0%
Google 6 $155 $26 3.1% 4.8%
GenomeWeb 2 $125 $63 2.5% 1.6%
Mentalfloss 3 $120 $40 2.4% 2.4%
De Spiegel 3 $100 $33 1.2% 2.4%
Reddit 3 $75 $25 0.9% 2.4%

Dario Lupianez: I think that also you can really see, because of the different comments that people leave. For example, before losing a pet. l remember when I have to remember that sometimes you get a high donation like a hundred and then you want somebody that goes and says “I’m a scientist, I really think that what you are doing is great, I would like to support you in whatever you do”, then you have other people that say “I love your blog and I know that you’re doing something good and I just want to give you a piece”, so you can really see if people are coming from a more scientific background or just as good people.

Daniel Ibrahim: I lost count of who all the backers were. In the first half I knew in very many cases, I knew where they came from. Like I saw friends of mine that I haven’t seen in years giving a hundred dollars and other people that know about it and I thought that was really cool but there was a part of those people I told about it before. What was really crazy was the ones I didn’t know I kind of Googled just to know who it was and say “Okay, this is a scientist”. Other ones would leave a note identifying who they are and why they’re here or why they left that much money.

Eventually it was just people giving money. We wanted to thank everyone personally, but I must say I was just amazed by everyone who gave something because it’s really cool and actually for one of the purposes of this crowd funding campaign was also communication so I guess I rather have a hundred and seven people giving twenty dollars than fifteen giving two hundred and fifteen.

On Science Outreach

One of the biggest goals of this campaign was to also effectively communicate science, and to teach others about genetics, mutations, and Lil Bub. Instead of thinking of fundraising and communication as being at odds, they realized that successful fundraising is an outcome of effective communication.

Dario Lupianez: We had tried to reach out to people that don’t know about science or that they might think that science is not a good thing. For example, manipulating Lil Bub or something like that, so I was always fearing that we might not get the opportunity to talk to these people and explaining what we are doing in the right way. When I realized we kind of succeeded in explaining to people what we wanted to do, that we only need a blood sample and that we are not causing any harm to her and that we are actually doing something food for her, that really brightened things.

Daniel Ibrahim: We also had people in our institute and in our work group that were kind of critical about the project cause they thought okay this is bullshit what they are doing. They just want to have a tabloid or whatever and recognition. Once we did this they went, "okay I get what you’re trying to do and that’s kind of interesting to see". The outreach part was personal for me because there’s just so much bad science reporting out there and I thought maybe we could do it better. We were giving it a shot.

On Becoming Better Scientists

Daniel Ibrahim: Another thing that I found extremely difficult and helpful is that if you publish things on the web, you publish faster and less critical than when you publish scientifically, and we are not trying to do that. That’s why in the beginning we took very, very long to draw up things because usually as a scientist when you publish something, you know it’s sure, you know what you’re are saying is true. Whereas if you publish things that you might just explain briefly and in bland terms, nobody will care about afterwards because you haven’t clarified, or it’s more important to put it out than have it one hundred percent correct.

With outreach, we were motivated to do it well. As soon as we got feedback from other strangers, we wanted to answer and then we would do it immediately. I remember getting up one morning and getting a half critical comment from a backer and, I don’t know, I just brushed my teeth and set up an email and wrote immediately just to be as quick as possible. You just start doing it like that. The more feedback you get, the more quickly you get to produce things that you can share online.

Dario Lupianez: Yeah definitely. I mean, I think it was a great experience for us, and the way to learn how to communicate. I think that also with many of these new technologies that we have it’s something that you cannot ignore at all and one really needs to use social media to talk about science and to communicate and to do this and of course setting up the crowd funding campaign that was the perfect thing for that.

Daniel Ibrahim: We were forced to be trained in a lot of skills that you don’t necessarily need to be trained in and when you just work in the lab you can avoid that but it’s kind of helpful to do things and to shout out and say “I did this!” or “I did that!”,” Listen to me I think it’s important!”, I guess many people do very good work and then don’t shout about it loud enough... and then they’re angry that nobody listens to them.

Key Takeaways

Daniel Ibrahim: I have another thing that I can recommend to other people too. If you decide to do crowd funding, you should think about why you do it because I bet there’s easier ways for us and how we could have gotten the money but there was an added benefit and there was an act of will from us to communicate. If you want to fund part of your PhD thesis and you don’t know how to get the money otherwise, it’s a great reason. Also, if you think that you want to raise awareness of a certain audience that would love to know about this before it is published in some random journal then this is also a brilliant reason and you should think about what is the project that you can fund through the crowdfunding.