61.1, February 2014

Web-Based Crowd Funding: Rhetoric of Success

Ilya Tirdatov


Purpose: To identify the main rhetorical techniques actually used to secure investors’ support in some of the most successful (most-funded) Web-based crowd funding projects. The study serves to bridge the gap between theoretical research of rhetoric and the needs of business communication practitioners by identifying the means of persuasion that can be used by online crowd funding entrepreneurs.

Method: Qualitative analysis of thirteen crowd funding project descriptions posted on a major Web site—www.kickstarter.com—was performed to identify specific rhetorical techniques via text coding. The sample included the most-funded projects to date, one from each of the thirteen project categories on Kickstarter. Aristotle’s concept of ethos, pathos, and logos served as a basic framework for developing a more detailed classification of rhetorical means of persuasion used in the projects.

Results: The most-funded projects have been found to contain all three types of rhetorical appeals (ethos, pathos, and logos), subdivided into a total of twelve specific subtypes most commonly encountered in the descriptions from the sample. The subtype definitions have been developed and refined over the course of several reviews.

Conclusion: The research data made it possible to create a “rhetorical profile” of a successful crowd funding project description representing a summary of the rhetorical techniques identified during the study. Although this summary reflects a hypothetical all-inclusive case, it can be used as a benchmark when drafting crowd funding project descriptions. The study also identified specific directions for future research that could determine the influence of project description rhetoric on donor decisions.

Keywords: crowd funding, crowdfunding, practical rhetoric, marketing communication, persuasion

Practitioner’s Takeaway

  • Textual descriptions of crowd funding projects represent a major component of the online solicitations for investment.
  • Knowing the persuasive techniques actually used in the texts describing some of the most successful (that is, most-funded) projects may be useful for individuals and organizations planning to try their hand at raising funds in same or similar online settings.


Web-Based Crowd Funding

Crowd funding or crowdfunding (also referred to as crowd sourcing and crowd financing) refers to a simplified method of raising funds for projects by simultaneously addressing a large pool of potential investors. Although the crowd funding concept may not be new, the method of using Web sites for soliciting funding from individual investors in a relatively informal environment represents a recent trend, and the modern definitions of the term often incorporate the online media. For example, the Oxford Dictionaries Web site defines crowd funding as “the practice of funding a project or venture by raising many small amounts of money from a large number of people, typically via the Internet” (http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/crowdfunding).

The popular crowd funding Web site www.artistshare.com that focuses on connecting creative artists with fans willing to provide donations, which was launched in 2003, credits itself for being “the Internet’s first fan funding [emphasis in the original] platform” (ArtistShare, 2012). Since then, several Web-based businesses have emerged, broadening the scope of crowd funding efforts beyond the artistic environment and extending it to business projects of various types. The majority of popular crowd funding Web sites existing today were created in or after 2008 (Gerber, Hui, & Kuo, 2012).

The existing crowd funding Web sites vary, both by the rules of soliciting investment and by the profile of admissible projects. Some Web sites, such as www.kickstarter.com, require individuals or entities seeking funding (hereinafter referred to as “project owners”) to establish a target amount of financing, with funds actually changing hands only when this target is reached (Kickstarter, 2012). Other Web sites, such as www.indiegogo.com, allow project owners to collect and keep the funds collected irrespective of whether the target has been reached or not (Indiegogo, 2012). Also, while both of these Web sites are rather versatile in terms of the types of projects published, other Web sites maintain a more narrow focus. For example, the Web site cofundos.org focuses on open source software projects, and www.pledgemusic.com specializes in securing support for musicians from their fans.

The textual descriptions of projects posted on crowd funding Web sites are usually intended to attract the maximum funding from the maximum number of investors by presenting a compelling statement that is supposed to demonstrate a variety of advantages to be obtained by investing in the project. Since Aristotle’s means of persuasion—ethos, pathos, and logos—also called “appeals,” address the persuasive function of rhetoric in a fundamental and comprehensive way, the crowd funding project descriptions appear to represent highly suitable material for in-depth analysis based on Aristotle’s concept of rhetorical appeals. Such analysis can also serve as a powerful means of developing practical recommendations for preparing compelling and persuasive crowd funding project descriptions, and can therefore have a high value both for academics and practitioners.

Definition of Aristotle’s Rhetorical Appeals

To establish a basis for the study, it is important to refer to the original definition of rhetoric and rhetorical appeals provided by Aristotle.

According to Aristotle, rhetoric represents “the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion” (Aristotle, trans. 1954). It should be noted that this definition is quite broad. Although Aristotle himself narrows it down, this definition forms the basis for a broader understanding and interpretation of rhetoric in modern times, as further discussed below.

Aristotle described three modes of persuasion—ethos, pathos, and logos—as follows: “The first kind depends on the personal character of the speaker; the second on putting the audience into a certain frame of mind; the third on the proof, or apparent proof, provided by the words of the speech itself” (Aristotle, trans. 1954). Aristotle further defines the three modes of persuasion. About ethos, he states:

Persuasion is achieved by the speaker’s personal character when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him credible. … This kind of persuasion, like the others, should be achieved by what the speaker says, not by what people think of his character before he begins to speak (Aristotle, trans. 1954).

This statement defines ethos as a way to achieve credibility. It also presents evidence that, according to Aristotle, the persuasive power of the rhetorical appeals depends on rhetor’s choices—that is, the things he/she chooses to include in or exclude from the discourse.

The modern definition of ethos has been extended beyond Aristotle’s original concept of achieving credibility through establishing good personal character of the rhetor. In her book about the rhetoric of online discourse, Gurak notes that, online, the ethical character of the rhetor is not being challenged in the first place, and it is the rhetor’s professional affiliations and “contributions to life on the Internet” that serve as basis for ethos-building (1997). The present study, which is fully dedicated to online discourse, is based on this modern interpretation of ethos suggesting that credibility can be achieved not so much by establishing rhetor’s moral character, but rather by different means, such as projecting the rhetor’s competence and professionalism. A simple example of an ethos claim can be found in one of the Kickstarter project descriptions promoting Rift—a high-tech gaming device: “The Rift is developed by a team of industry veterans…” (http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1523379957/oculus-rift-step-into-the-game). Here we see a claim of professionalism made via a reference to extensive practical experience.

About pathos, Aristotle says:

Secondly, persuasion may come through the hearers, when the speech stirs their emotions. Our judgments when we are pleased and friendly are not the same as when we are pained and hostile (Aristotle, trans. 1954).

Therefore, pathos is a mode of persuasion intended to produce emotions in the audiences. Aristotle’s definition provided above, together with the fact that he chooses to differentiate between pathos and the other two appeal types—ethos and logos—suggests that pathos appeals can cover a broad variety of discourse content that neither centers on logical reasoning, nor attempts to establish the rhetor as a credible source. Rather, pathos appeals are those intended to generate the desired emotional response by whatever means are appropriate to a given discourse situation.

It should also be noted that Aristotle does not narrow pathos appeals down to those intended to produce positive emotions only. He simply differentiates between the judgments made “when we are pleased and friendly” and those made “when we are pained and hostile,” but does not state his preference for either. For example, referring to the negative consequences of a failure to adopt the proposed course of action may (at list temporarily) generate negative emotions, such as those of fear and anxiety, but could still be a valid pathos-based persuasive technique.

One of the examples of a pathos-based appeal from a Kickstarter project started by a pop musician can be found in the following text: “…one of my favorite things about this is that i’ll get to MEET [emphasis from the original] you guys in person, and thank you for your backing with a kiss” (http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/amandapalmer/amanda-palmer-the-new-record-art-book-and-tour). In this case, both promises contained in the text (that of a personal meeting with the artist, and that of a kiss) involve positive emotional rewards offered in exchange for project support.

Finally, the following sentence defines logos:

Thirdly, persuasion is effected through the speech itself when we have proved a truth or an apparent truth by means of the persuasive arguments suitable to the case in question (Aristotle, trans. 1954).

Based on this description, logical arguments used in the discourse to support certain claims (and not belonging to either ethos or pathos as defined by Aristotle) can be classified as logos-based appeals. This mechanism of logical argumentation described by Aristotle serves as the basis for identifying logical claims in the crowd funding project descriptions as follows. Since the ultimate goal of crowd funding project owners is to secure funding, the “truth or an apparent truth” to be proved in this case would be that their projects are worth the investments. The logical and factual content supporting this “truth” (and not belonging to either ethos or pathos based on the respective definitions of each appeal type) is therefore considered as logos-based claims within this study. The specific approach to logos appeals categorization is further discussed in the “Methodology” section.

One example of a logical argument supporting the need for donations can be found in the Kickstarter project aimed at restoring a historic movie theater: “The Catlow still draws enough customers to keep the doors open, but the expenses continue to rise; mortgage, utility and supply bills, employee expenses, cleaning staff and, of course, taxes” (http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/468036259/rescue-the-historic-catlow-theater-from-extinction). In the present study, this sober, logical narrative was classified as one of the subtypes of logos-based arguments, namely those explaining the need for donations without offering any specific rewards to donors.

Aristotle also establishes the difference between the modes of persuasion related and unrelated to the art of rhetoric:

Of the modes of persuasion some belong strictly to the art of rhetoric and some do not. By the latter I mean such things as are not supplied by the speaker but are there at the outset—witnesses, evidence given under torture, written contracts, and so on. By the former I mean such as we can ourselves construct by means of the principles of rhetoric. The one kind has merely to be used, the other has to be invented. (Aristotle, trans. 1954)

However, this distinction involves a certain ambiguity. In fact, the things present at the outset that Aristotle talked about may actually be referred to by the rhetor within the discourse via inventional persuasive tactics, thus demonstrating the rhetor’s “faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion.” That is, rather than leaving evidence to speak for itself, the rhetor makes (1) a conscious choice to use (or not to use) such evidence as the “available means of persuasion,” as well as (2) the choice of the specific format and rhetorical techniques for presenting the evidence, giving this evidence a valuable rhetorical meaning.

For example, a speaker may be a famous figure in a certain field, but when a specific audience has no prior knowledge of this fame, it could be highly beneficial to establish the speaker’s high standing by referring to it in the most rhetorically-effective way. Therefore, such evidence (not being rhetorical by itself) becomes rhetorical once included in the narrative, even though it may be based on facts or phenomena already existing outside of the discourse. From this perspective, the act of “inventing” mentioned by Aristotle represents the rhetor’s conscious choice of deliberately referring to these facts or phenomena in order to meet the goals of the discourse and choosing a rhetorically effective way of doing so; this interpretation of Aristotle’s concepts constitutes the basis for the present study.

Rhetoric in Crowd Funding and Related Fields

Due to the novelty of the online crowd funding concept, prior research related to the rhetoric of crowd funding solicitations appears to be scarce to non-existent. Existing research focusing on the motivations of crowd funding participants fails to offer in-depth rhetorical analysis of crowd funding project descriptions. One study involved a comprehensive qualitative analysis of 39 interviews with project owners and investors performed through coding the interview transcripts and identifying the common themes/motivational factors addressed by the interviewees (Gerber, Hui, & Kuo, 2012). However, there may be a gap between the underlying motivations of participants and the actual rhetoric used in the most successful crowd-funding projects, with motivation research being highly relevant to, but still substantially different from the present study. For example, the present study found rhetoric of identification to be the scarcest rhetorical technique of those analyzed, while in the study by Gerber, Hui, and Kuo, identification (developing a sense of belonging) was found to be a major motivational factor.

Several studies of rhetoric were dedicated to fundraising, an area both similar to and different from crowd funding. Both processes involve broad solicitation of (often small) financial contributions from multiple individual donors. The difference is based on the fact that, unlike crowd funding, traditional fundraising covers nonprofit/charitable activities (Webber, 2004), while the genre of crowd funding includes both for-profit and nonprofit projects. However, even the for-profit crowd funding project solicitations may incorporate rhetorical elements similar to those used in fundraising (which will be discussed in more detail below), making the studies of fundraising rhetoric at least partly relevant to the realm of crowd funding.

Ritzenhein (1998) performed a content analysis of actual fundraising letters to address the limitations of the “best practices” that, previously, had largely been based on personal observations and experiences rather than solid academic research. The study did not specifically mention Aristotle’s means of persuasion, but the emotional and logical support for arguments could be directly linked to pathos and logos, respectively. One of the conclusions of the study was that emotional arguments were used more frequently than logical ones, with a 60-40 ratio between the two types of arguments.

A more recent study explored persuasive techniques used in fundraising letters based on the Aristotelian triad of ethos, pathos, and logos. Similar to Ritzenhein, the researchers referred to the scarcity of solid research-based practical advice on the persuasive techniques to be used in fundraising messages. This research resulted in the conclusion that credibility (or ethos-based) appeals were the most effective ones for soliciting donations, with a close tie between emotional and rational appeals (Goering, Connor, Nagelhout, & Steinberg, 2011).

In her article Myers (2007) explores the use of pathetic appeals in charity letters. Providing an overview of how the definition of pathos evolved from ancient to modern times, the author emphasizes the role of style in pathetic appeals. That is, it is not only important what is being said to stir audiences’ emotions, but also how exactly the narrator says it, and what specific language and format tools and techniques (ranging from parallelism to the use of boldface characters) are employed in the narrative.

In her rhetorical analysis of charitable contribution reply forms, Schaffer does not make specific references to Aristotle’s modes of persuasion. However, at least two appeal types—pathos and logos—can be identified just by looking at the form “features” she identified. For example, “offer of goods” in exchange for donations involves practical benefits for donors, and could thus be viewed as a rational (or logical) appeal. At the same time, features such as “emotional language,” “generosity statement,” and “thanks statement” seem to point in the direction of pathetic rhetoric (Schaffer, 2002).

Since crowd funding mainly represents a Web-based activity, studies of online and digital rhetoric are also relevant to the present research project. A study of art gallery Web design rhetoric using Aristotle’s triad as a framework identified the usefulness of all three appeals (ethos, pathos, and logos) in the vast majority of cases (Quesenberry, Garland, & Sykes, 2006). Rife addressed rhetoric as a tool of digital survey recruitment, with findings suggesting that the use of very simple ethos-, pathos-, and logos-based techniques could greatly improve recruitment rates. For example, the number of survey responses increased when the author positioned himself as a student rather than a teacher as a method of building ethos (Rife, 2010). Focusing on computer-mediated discourse, Branham further explores the meaning of ethos in digital communications, noting that shaping ethos can be a bilateral, feedback-based process. Rather than projecting a pre-determined ethical image, rhetors can “…perceive and process the self-presentations of their human conversational partners,” thus adapting their ethos-building strategies to a specific audience (Branham, 2009, p. 38).

A study focusing on business communication addressed corporate ethos on the Web (Isaksson & Jørgensen, 2010). While attempting to identify similar ethical themes in corporate self-presentations, the authors seemed to have inadvertently touched upon the issue of overall relativity in the distinctions between the three modes of persuasion, a problem also addressed by Killingsworth (2005) and discussed in more detail in the “Methodology” section. Namely, they have focused on ethical claims of expertise, trustworthiness, and empathy, establishing a similarity in the use of these claims across three countries. However, here we can see a synthesis (or else a blurring of distinctions) between the three appeals. For example, ethos via claims of expertise may also be viewed as a logos-based appeal, since a company possessing expertise is likely to be able to offer higher-quality products and services. At the same time, ethos via empathy with potential customers seems to carry a heavy emotional component, thus creating potential for the interpretation of the respective claims as pathetic appeals. And yet again, a corporation demonstrating empathy and understanding of its customers’ needs may simply be perceived as one likely to deliver customer-oriented products and services together with better customer service, and that brings us back to the realm of the rational (and thus—logos).

Such dilemmas of differentiation between the three rhetorical appeals demonstrate the need for creating custom classifications of appeals (based on highly specific and clear appeal type and subtype characterization) relevant to specific discourse genres. They also emphasize the relativity in Aristotle’s original classification, which can be used as basis to create a specific research methodology and appeal classification, but not as all-encompassing classification ready for use “out of the box.”

The goal of a study by Connor and Gladkov was to develop and apply such a classification (“operational system”) based on Aristotle’s three appeals to assist in future examination of fundraising discourse (Connor & Gladkov, 2004). The system was, in turn, based on Connor and Lauer’s classification originally designed for academic essay writing and incorporating a total of twenty-three appeal subtypes within three main categories of “rational appeals” (logos), “credibility appeals” (ethos), and “affective appeals” (pathos) (Connor & Lauer, 1985). This approach of using Aristotle’s triad as a baseline framework for developing specific appeal definitions (relevant to a certain discourse genre) was also adopted for the present study, as further discussed in the “Methodology” section below.

Using Aristotle’s triad of ethos, pathos, and logos as the basis for analysis, Hansen considered the rhetoric employed by National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in proposing regulatory changes to other agencies with the relevant authority. The paper describes the practical application of rhetorical strategies, such as attempts at eliminating the perceived subjectivity by removing human agents from logos claims (Hansen, 2003). His definition of logos, further discussed in the “Methodology” section, helps establish the appeal categorization principles used in the present study.

With the majority of crowd funding project owners in this study’s sample offering certain products to investors (as a reward provided in exchange for donations), much of the crowd funding solicitations represent a marketing communication activity, making the advertising and marketing rhetoric research highly relevant for this study.

Promoting the idea of “relationship marketing,” with collaborative two-way relationships between buyers and sellers presented as an alternative to the traditional concept of marketing mix (with its standardized approach towards customers), Andersen used the Aristotelian triad of ethos, pathos, and logos to analyze marketing communication processes (2001). Ethos (interpreted as a process of “developing an understanding of the communicator’s intentions and qualities” reflected in the audience’s beliefs about the communicator’s personality) and pathos (seen as the “communication climate” which defines the audience’s perceptions of communicator’s intentions) were seen as necessary elements for initiating constructive interaction with clients (logos), the latter interaction being defined as “persuasive communication through argumentation.” The author mentioned that rhetoric had been unjustly neglected in relationship marketing, emphasizing the inter-dependency of the three rhetorical appeals and stating that consistency between these three elements in marketing communication influenced the process of building and maintaining relationships with customers.

Using a more fundamental approach, in his literature review Tonks (2002) argued that the ancient theories of rhetoric continued to have a high relevance in the modern realm of marketing and should actually be considered a “core concept” for understanding and improving the marketing practice. According to Tonks, “[t]he acquisition of power through marketing rhetoric is considered to be fundamental to marketing practice and marketing rhetoric is … an instrumental device for the everyday reality of marketing managers or for anyone who practices marketing” (2002, p. 816).

In his article dedicated to copywriting rhetoric, Marsh (2007) notes that, in advertising, gathering product facts as basis for creative development reflects Aristotle’s concept of invention, which involves generating ideas for a compelling narrative. Similar to Tonks’ views on the role of practical rhetoric in the marketing field, Marsh advocates convergence between rhetorical studies and advertising, both in academic and workplace environments. He notes that, while advertising may actually be the most widespread form of modern rhetoric, “…the discipline is virtually absent in rhetorical studies” (Marsh, 2007, p. 168).

As noted above, crowd funding may be considered a “close relation” of marketing, which is also suggested by the article “Crowd-funding: Transforming customers into investors through innovative service platforms” (Ordanini, Miceli, Pizzetti, & Parasuraman, 2011). Therefore, the present research project was intended to build upon Tonks’ and Marsh’s arguments supporting the study and application of rhetorical theories in advertising and marketing by providing a detailed analysis of rhetoric in this particular field of business/marketing communication.

Modern rhetoric as a practical art of persuasion seems to receive surprisingly little attention from business practitioners, being largely confined to the realm of academia. The present study therefore aims to bridge the gap between the academic traditions of studying rhetorical theory and the practical requirements of business activities, demonstrating how rhetorical tools can be used effectively in a particular business setting and providing a basis for developing specific practical recommendations related to the use of crowd funding project rhetoric.


Scope of the Study

The study involved rhetorical analysis of textual descriptions of crowd funding projects posted on www.kickstarter.com, a Web site selected based on (1) its relative versatility in terms of the types of projects covered and (2) the proven track record of helping secure substantial financing (in excess of $100,000) for several projects.

The Kickstarter Web site lists a total of thirteen project categories: Art, Comics, Dance, Design, Fashion, Film & Video, Food, Games, Music, Photography, Publishing, Technology, and Theater. Thirteen “most-funded” projects (that is, those that had the highest levels of investment to date) have been selected from the respective page on www.kickstarter.com (http://www.kickstarter.com/discover/most-funded?ref=sidebar), one from each of the thirteen categories covered by the Web site. These projects are listed in Table 1.

The project descriptions posted on www.kickstarter.com incorporate graphical elements, which, alongside with the texts, can serve as powerful rhetorical tools to attract potential investors. The focal point of this study, however, was textual descriptions; graphical elements are suitable for future research.

The review of the crowd funding project descriptions resulted in a clearer definition of the scope of work. Included in the study were the body texts, that is, the overall descriptions of each project presented on a single Web page. Based on the project presentation structure and content, it appeared that these overall descriptions, containing the most important information about each project and incorporating all three of Aristotle’s modes of persuasion, served as the primary platforms for appealing to potential investors. In addition to graphical elements and videos, excluded were hyperlinked information (the information presented on Web pages other than the one with the body text and connected to it via hyperlinks), figure captions (alongside with figures), FAQ sections (usually presented as hyperlinks), and the separately presented information on specific rewards obtained in exchange for specific amounts pledged. The information on pledges and rewards, although important, was often quite extensive and, at the same time, partly repetitive, the latter making it more likely to “clutter” the results of rhetorical analysis. It was excluded in order to (1) maintain focus on the main project descriptions presented in the body text and (2) avoid “diluting” the body text analysis results with extra (often repetitive) data.

Coding and Development of Rhetorical Appeal Subtypes

The present study was implemented by the author of this paper. I have coded the project descriptions during the course of four reviews. The first review involved coding the textual descriptions of the selected projects with priori codes denoting Aristotle’s three types of rhetorical appeals/modes of persuasion—ethos, pathos, and logos; I have color-coded (highlighted) the text using a different color for each of the three rhetorical appeals. During the first review I also aimed to develop emerging codes for specific techniques (subtypes of rhetorical appeals) used within each type. This second set of codes has been implemented as “subcodes” of the priori codes. The coding with emerging codes (subcodes) was mainly conducted as part of the second review. Since further color-coding was not practical for multiple subcodes in terms of future ease of reference, I added notes describing the appeal subtypes (such as “LOGOS L1”) after each individual coded fragment. During the third and fourth (additional) reviews, I have further checked and updated the subcodes as required. These additional reviews were performed to refine the appeal subtype definitions and to ensure the correct classification in those cases where the subcodes were assigned to text potentially meeting the criteria for more than one subtype. Generally, the study followed the constant comparative method of qualitative research (Glaser, 1965), with data analysis being performed not only after, but also during the coding.

1table1bAfter the completion of subtype coding, I have counted the numbers of occurrences of each subtype across all projects, with a view to performing both qualitative and empirical analysis of the results. The rhetorical appeals have undergone a thorough qualitative analysis across all projects in order to identify the predominant rhetorical techniques that may have contributed to the success of the respective projects.

For the purposes of coding, one sentence was considered to be a single unit; that is, a single subtype of rhetorical appeal found within a single sentence was counted as one occurrence of this particular subtype of rhetoric. In those cases where a single sentence incorporated more than one rhetorical technique, it was counted as one occurrence of each of the individual rhetorical techniques found within that sentence. Where one or more localized rhetorical elements (such as forceful adjectives classified as pathos—“amazing,” “cool,” etc.) were present in a sentence, that counted as one occurrence of the respective appeal. In some cases, where more than one sentence was used to support a certain rhetorical appeal, each of these sentences was counted as an individual occurrence of the respective appeal, even if some of these sentences, when considered separately from the others, did not incorporate that specific appeal. Each item on bulleted lists and other lists (no matter whether large or small in terms of the amount of text) that was presented as a separate line was treated as an individual sentence.

Practical Aspects of Rhetorical Appeal Classification

While some rhetorical appeals were easier to classify (for example, ethos-based appeals were some of the most distinctive ones in the texts), logos-based appeals were sometimes more difficult to identify, as well as to differentiate from the pathos-based appeals. Indeed, how does one distinguish pathos and logos in a text promoting a gaming console or the upcoming tour of a rock band, both representing means of entertainment that could be considered exciting but hardly practical? The arts and entertainment focus in several of the projects rendered the use of pragmatic logical arguments to support them somewhat challenging and almost always ambiguous in terms of differentiating logic from emotion.

Noting the existence of a general problem with interpreting Aristotle’s triad of ethos, pathos, and logos, in his book about modern rhetoric Killingsworth pointed to the difficulties of differentiation between the three modes of persuasion: “The problem is that authors demonstrate their character (good or bad) in every utterance; likewise, the emotions of the audience might attach to just about anything in a text; and without reasoning, nothing would make sense” (Killingsworth, 2005, p. 25). These observations appear to be valid in practically any discourse situation, including crowd funding. Due to the existence of a certain overall ambiguity related to Aristotle’s triad, as well as the issues specific to this study’s context as described above, in this research project Aristotle’s triad was used as a framework that had to be interpreted within and adapted to the realm of crowd funding in order to develop a robust basis for analysis.

Therefore, I had to make certain choices in terms of establishing criteria of differentiation between pathos and logos. The approach adopted during the review of the project descriptions was to classify as logos the information generally lacking elements of hyperbolized/emotional narrative and being relatively sober and objective in tone. At the same time, the more emotional text (for example, incorporating forceful adjectives) was considered to represent pathos. In those cases where “sober” descriptions included the emotional elements, the respective sentences were considered to carry elements of both logos and pathos.

Although an explicit attempt at persuasion could seem to be lacking in the neutral/descriptive parts of the narrative (that have been classified as logos for the purposes of this project), the classification was considered to be valid due to the following reasons. First, the objects of promotion could probably not be “sold” to potential donors by means of emotional and explicit persuasive techniques only. For example, for the respective target audiences the factual data on technical characteristics and features of high-tech gaming devices (promoted in Projects 8 and 12) or advanced electronic watch (promoted in Project 4) could carry much higher persuasive value than the most elaborate and emotional pathos-based appeals. Second, even the specification-style data presented in the format of brief summaries, or other facts and descriptions related to the projects and objects of promotion, were likely to have been products of careful selection of those data that could have the highest persuasive power.

As noted by Welch in her discussion of postmodern logos, “[e]lectric rhetoric is utterly associative, a defining feature of oralism, which has links and transitions that resonate more than they lineate” (1999, p. 106). According to this interpretation of logos, laying out a complete argument based on linear logic is not actually essential in modern “electric” rhetoric (that is, rhetoric conveyed by electronic means of data exchange)—it is enough to simply present information that produces the desired associations in the minds of audience members. In the context of crowd funding project descriptions, this means that presenting rhetorically appropriate factual information (for example, about a technological gadget) without accompanying reasoning may actually be the appropriate way of generating the desired audience response. For example, while dealing with technologically savvy target audiences, it may be enough to say that a certain electronic device has a 1980 x 1200 screen resolution, without explaining why exactly such a resolution means better user experience, and such factual information would still represent a highly effective logical appeal. In his paper, Hansen defines logos as “proof of the message that is embedded within the message” (in the case of the present study, proof of the need to make crowd funding donations), and provides further definition of logos as “…facts and proofs that, from a scientific point of view, lack the bias that comes from subjectivity” (2003, p. 3). This modern interpretation of logos provided by both Welch and Hansen as content that may be presented not only in the form of full reasoning, but also as factual data without explicit argument (which is implied, but not explicitly incorporated in the narrative), was used in the present study.

While the development of the appeal subtype classification system itself was a simpler process, the main issue encountered in this study involved making determinations related to the classification of specific text fragments that, for various reasons, either could be potentially attributed to more than one appeal subtype, or required decisions on the part of the researcher as to whether they should be included in the classification at all.

In view of these difficulties, rather than aiming to perform an all-encompassing comparative analysis across all appeal subtypes to rank them by popularity and potential importance, my approach was to adapt the research methodology to the actual findings and focus on the more specific and less ambiguous aspects of the rhetoric found in project descriptions. Instead of addressing the question of how the frequency of use of the rhetorical appeals (by subtype) compares between the project descriptions, my goal was to address and qualitatively analyze specific techniques identified during the study.

Findings: Specific Rhetoric of Crowd Funding Projects

Generally, all of the project descriptions analyzed incorporated all of the three basic modes of persuasion (appeals). During the coding reviews, I have categorized and characterized the subtypes of Aristotle’s appeals actually used in the project descriptions. These subtypes are listed in Table 2 and discussed in detail below. The information on the occurrence of appeal subtypes across the projects is provided in Table 3.


E1—Ethos via a reference to professional expertise, practical experience in the field, and/or prior success in a field same as or similar to the one relevant to the object of promotion

This subtype of ethical appeals was used in eight out of thirteen projects. An E1 appeal could be as simple and straightforward as the one shown below (example from Project 8):

Look what we’ve accomplished already! [E1]

Screen Shot 2014-03-31 at 3.10.49 PMAn example of an E1 appeal from Project 5 shows the use of two different ethos appeal subtypes within a single sentence:

We have already manufactured and sold incredible, premium dress shirts (check out this article on us by Inc Magazine from February [E3])—3 limited lines of dress shirts and undershirts—so we know the process [E1].

Here, we see a reference to successful prior experience with products similar to those promoted within the crowd funding project, representing appeal subtype E1, combined with a reference to a third-party testimonial about this successful experience (subtype E3).

Project 12 contained another typical example of an E1 appeal which was, at the same time, mixed with emotional content coded as the P2 subtype of pathos-based appeals:

The Rift is developed by a team of industry veterans [E1] passionate about changing the way people experience video games forever. [P2] We’ve tackled projects of similar scope: we’ve designed and manufactured consumer hardware; we’ve built well-adopted software development kits for the game industry [E1]; and now we’re excited to build a product that can so radically change the way people play their favorite video games. [P2]

It should be noted that appeal E2 (ethos via involvement of a notable/famous figure in the field or one who created notable/famous works in the past) was represented by references to the type of high standing in the field that, by definition, usually requires professional expertise normally gained through experience. Therefore, these two ethos subtypes—E1 and E2—could be considered to be associated with the same basic type of claim—that of credibility via a high level of professionalism. The difference of subtype E2 was that the high level of professionalism of the famous project owners/participants was also widely recognized by a large number of people.

In those cases where it was possible to make a distinction between the two claims—that of fame/recognition and that of expertise/experience—both subtypes were considered to be present in the same text. Example from Project 1:

There are only a handful of people on earth who know the ancient techniques of Japanese woodblock printmaking, and David is premier among them. [E2] He’s dedicated 30 years to honing his craft. [E1] We’re lucky to have his immense talent on board. [E1]

In this case, the first sentence referred to the project owner’s standing at the top of his profession and thus was coded as E2. The second and third sentences did not refer to fame or recognition, but strictly to experience and level of ability of the project owner, and therefore were coded as E1.

Generally, it should be noted that either E1 or E2 appeals (or, in four cases, both of these two subtypes) were present in twelve out of thirteen projects under consideration. In view of a certain similarity of E1 and E2 appeals as discussed above, potentially the paramount use of these appeals intended to build the credibility of project owners through arguments related to recognition, professionalism, experience, and/or past successes could point to their notable role as a means of persuasion utilized in successful crowd funding projects.

E2—Ethos via involvement of a notable/famous figure in the field or one who created notable/famous works in the past
The involvement of notable or famous individuals (or those whose work was recognized as such in the past) as project owners, project participants or persons otherwise affiliated with the project owners was referred to in eight out of thirteen projects.

An example (from Project 3) of a “mixed” sentence incorporating both pathos and E2 appeals is provided below:

The company brings together a stunning array of dance styles and backgrounds, [P1] featuring an all-star cast of Broadway gypsies from MOVIN’ OUT, MEMPHIS, WICKED, COME FLY AWAY, LION KING, IN THE HEIGHTS, SPIDERMAN, BILLY ELLIOT, PROMISES PROMISES, and former members of legendary dance companies Parsons Dance, Momix, Hubbard Street, and Pilobolus [E2].

Perhaps one of the most distinctive uses of E2 appeal can be seen in Project 6, where the project owner was a scriptwriter for Hollywood productions likely to be known to many potential donors:

From Charlie Kaufman, writer of Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, [E2] comes Anomalisa his first animated film

A further development of E2 arguments within Project 6 is provided in a list of the creative team members. As we can see below, the ethos argument was implemented via links to a popular Web site (www.imdb.com) offering information about notable figures in the film industry:

Anomalisa will be produced at Starburns Industries with the creative team…

Exec.Producer Dan Harmon http://www.imdb.com/name/nm1363595/ [E2]

Exec.Producer Dino Stamatopoulos http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0821786/  [E2]

Exec.Prod./Director Duke Johnson http://www.imdb.com/name/nm2122478/  [E2]

Producer Rosa Tran http://www.imdb.com/name/nm1533266/  [E2]

The owner of Project 9 appears to be a well-known pop musician. However, interestingly enough, in Project 9 we do not see much development of the E2 appeals related to the project owner. We can assume that since Project 9 seems to address the established fan base of the artist, it was considered that there was no need to elaborate on the artist’s standing and recognition. The mere mentioning of her name may have been considered to be sufficient. At the same time, Project 9 does briefly use E2 appeals—but only those associated with other project participants and persons associated with the project owner:

….with the help of producer/engineer John Congleton (who’s worked with a zillion amazing people including St. Vincent, Modest Mouse, and Xiu Xiu [E2]), we made what I believe is my best f…….. album to date [P1].

but best of all I talked some of my musician friends (like DJ spooky, kristin hersh from throwing muses, conrad keely from …trail of dead, and one of my songwriting HEROES robyn hitchcock) [E2]

The description of Project 13 included a variation of the E2 appeal subtype. Project 13 could probably be considered as one that, unlike the majority of other projects analyzed in this study, mainly represented a charitable solicitation. It involved financing of upgrades to a historical movie theater. The theater was the property, but not the creation, of the project owners. The owners used ethos-type rhetoric to emphasize the historic significance of the theater, thus substantiating the importance of the project and the credibility of themselves as people trying to preserve a historic landmark, but they did not attempt to use ethos-based appeals directly related to themselves. Examples:

The architects were Betts & Holcomb, but the building’s main claim to fame is the participation of the noted Prairie School sculpture and designer Alfonso Iannelli—a collaborator of Frank Lloyd Wrights on Midway Gardens. [E2] ArchiTech Gallery has a detailed bio of him here. [E2]

Gene Autry, Sally Rand and Red Norvo were among the more prominent acts to appear here. [E2]

E3—Ethos via third-party recommendations, reviews and testimonials
From a certain perspective, subtype E3 may seem to deviate from Aristotle’s concept of ethos, which is supposed to be related to the credibility of the narrator. Indeed, many of the E3 appeals used in the project descriptions covered testimonials related to the objects of promotion rather than to the project owners or participants themselves.

However, the mechanic of supporting the validity of an argument via references to the opinions of others about the object of argument (supplementing or replacing references to its inherent value) is that of ethos and thus deserves to be considered as such. Also, the parties whose testimonials are provided in the project descriptions may be considered to join the project owners in their promotional effort, thus becoming “co-narrators.” Therefore, the rhetorical objectives of emphasizing their credibility (ethos) are similar to those of building the ethos of project owners—supporting the value of the object of promotion via its endorsement by an authoritative party/individual rather than by referring to its inherent value.

Finally, at least in some cases it could be argued that third-party testimonials related to the product created by the narrator serve to reinforce the credibility of the narrator and his/her narrative. Therefore, this particular technique was included in this study as a subtype of ethos-based appeals.

The testimonials were provided in project descriptions both as parts of paragraphs covering other topics and as separate lists of quotes and/or sources. Below is an example of a “mixed” sentence (incorporating a pathos appeal as well) from Project 3:

Dubbed “smoldering” by the New York Times [E3], Mark Stuart Dance Theatre brings gravity-defying movement and dramatic storytelling [P1] to the stage, screen, and printed page.

In Project 4, we see an example of a more structured and, at the same time, extensive use of testimonials in the form of a separate list including the sources with hyperlinks to full reviews on external Web sites, and quotes from the reviews (the example below shows three out of eight line items on the original list of testimonials):

Daring Fireball—The watch itself is a very cool idea; I’m in as a backer [E3]

Forbes—Proven track record…Incredibly useful product [E3]

Engadget—Allerta intros Pebble smartwatch, inPulse’s attractive younger sibling [E3] …

Examples very similar to the above can be found in other projects as well.

Project 8 incorporates another variation of the testimonials format, where the sources are referenced via hyperlinks to the reviews/testimonials without direct quotes in the body text:

Engadget! PC World! Kotaku! The Guardian! Joystiq! Forbes! GameSpot! BusinessWeek! The Verge! Wired! IGN! The New York Times! Time! [E3]

Project 13 includes links to videos representing TV coverage of the object of promotion—the historical movie theater:

The Catlow & Boloney’s on ABC-TV’s ‘190 North’ [E3]

Boloney’s & Catlow on WGN-TV’s ‘Chicago’s Best’ [E3]

Ethos-based appeals of the E3 subtype appear in seven out of thirteen projects. Mostly used in the form of (in some cases extensive) lists of quotes and sources, the latter including authoritative entities such as Forbes, The New York Times, and others, these appeals seem to represent a notable component of the respective project descriptions and are likely to be a useful means of reinforcing crowd funding solicitation messages.


P1—Pathos via forceful descriptive terms and emotionally charged general text (not belonging to any of the other three subtypes of pathos-based appeals)

This appeal subtype was represented either by individual instances of use of the respective adjectives and adverbs within sentences, or by text fragments (sentences or parts of sentences) with emotional narrative. This subtype was encountered in the majority of the projects—eleven out of thirteen.

Some examples of text with forceful/emotional descriptive terms are provided below:

stunning designs, lovingly researched and executed (Project 1),

inventive and fast-paced (Project 1),

beautiful hand-made paper (Project 1),

cool battle scenes (Project 2),

action-packed and gravity-defying (Project 3),

stunning array of dance styles and backgrounds (Project 3),

amazing dancers (Project 3),

beautiful downloadable watchfaces (Project 4),

amazing apps (Project 4),

beautiful… console (Project 8),

The same descriptive terms belonging to the P1 subtype were repeatedly used across multiple projects. These included words such as “amazing,” “beautiful,” and “cool.”

Examples of the second category of text fragments belonging to the P1 appeal subtype did not necessarily include forceful descriptive adjectives or adverbs, but rather were generally emotional in nature:

What is Ukiyo-e Heroes? A ton of fun, that’s what. [P1] (Project 1)

Ministry of Supply is launching the Apollo dress shirt, building performance tech into classic style. It’s from space, yes outer space. [P1] (Project 5)

Deep down, you know your best gaming memories happened in the living room. [P1] (Project 8)

i think kickstarter and other crowdfunding platforms like this are the BEST way to put out music right now—no label, no rules, no fuss, no muss. [P1] just us, the music, and the art. [P1] (Project 9).

The frequency of these appeals varied greatly across some projects. The variation could be attributed to a combination of (1) personal writing style of the project owners and (2) the nature of the objects of promotion. The largest numbers of occurrences were observed in Project 8 (promoting a new video game console) and Project 9 (promoting the performances by a pop artist)—they were twenty-nine and twenty-seven, respectively. As compared to these two projects, all others involved a far more modest use of P1 rhetoric, ranging between two and ten occurrences per project.

The P1 appeals were absent in two of the thirteen projects (Project 10 and Project 13). Project 10, covering photography, had a relatively short text description with limited use of pathos-based appeals. Project 13 involved extensive use of P2 appeals, some of them carrying descriptive elements that could otherwise be classified as P1.

Since the majority of the project descriptions included the P1 rhetoric, this could potentially point to the usefulness of incorporating the emotional narrative techniques in crowd funding project descriptions.

P2—Pathos via references to positive, emotionally rewarding implications of supporting the projects, or to the negative implications of the failure to support the projects

This appeal subtype was the only one encountered in all of the project descriptions. Considering the fact that the majority of projects in this study belonged to the “arts and entertainment” category, it was probably natural that emotional descriptions of positive and negative implications of providing donor support were relevant to and used in all projects.

Pathos-based appeals (P2) are both similar to and different from logos-based appeals (L2) described below. Both appeal subtypes involve promises of rewards. However, pathos-based appeals (P2) are more emotional in nature both in terms of the descriptions themselves and the rewards offered, while logos-based appeals (L2) have more sober tone of descriptions and promise comparatively more “logical” and practical benefits. Below are the examples of both subtypes of appeals found in Project 9:

P2 appeal: if you’re a freak for surprises… this is the package for you.

L2 appeal: the COMPACT DISC will be in a … hard-bound case and include an art booklet.

Examples below are intended to offer a clearer picture of the exact types of P2 rhetoric encountered in the project descriptions.

A somewhat generic P2 statement was made in Project 1:

We’ve worked hard to give you the coolest designs possible, and we’re sure you’ll love our main line of giclée prints [P2].

Another P2 statement from Project 3 illustrates P2 appeals found in this and other projects, that is, a general reference to rewards (separately described in detail with breakdown by donation levels):

We’ve got some amazing rewards for each level of support! [P2]  Find the one that excites you the most and jump on the MSDT bandwagon! [P2]

Project 3 also contained the “negative” rhetoric related to the implications of failure to secure financing for the project; this was a mixed case, since it also involved an element explaining the payment terms (subtype L3):

If our entire $12,000 goal isn’t met before the deadline, no money changes hands [L3] and our workshop and entire project will be in big trouble. [P2]  We know you won’t let this happen! [P2]

Subtype P2 appeals could also be related to supporting a cause of a broader scale (one affecting not just the donors, but many others as well) carrying both emotional and practical value, such as avoiding outsourcing and creating jobs in the United States:

Finally, we’re hugely supportive of manufacturing in the United States. [P2] Everything from the fabric to the packaging is made in the USA. [P2]  Like recently successful Kickstarter project Flint and Tinder, we’re focused on bringing jobs to America. [P2]

The example from Project 7 below shows appeals more directly related to the object of promotion, but also affecting both donors and others:

With your help, we can all start eating and sharing great food. [P2]

Some of the P2 appeals included both largely emotional and more specific/practical offers of rewards, such as the following example from Project 7:

It is only with your support that we can bring the Nomiku into production. [P2] We’d be honored to have you on board and grow with us. [P2] At the $299 mark you can get your very own Nomiku! [P2] Do we have some recipes we want to share with you!! [P2]

Here, the goals of (1) bringing the Nomiku into production and (2) “getting on board” and “growing with” the project owners do not seem to offer any practical benefits to donors (and could thus be considered to be mostly emotional), while (3) getting “your very own Nomiku” and (4) getting recipes could be considered as more “practical” offers.

Technically, the appeal concerning the reward received in exchange for $299 could be categorized as L2 as well and represents one of the “borderline” cases. However, in this case, the reference to getting “your very own Nomiku” (which is a partly emotional appeal to the sense of ownership expressed through informal language) in combination with the exclamation mark at the end of the sentence and the surrounding pathos-containing narrative was considered to justify the use of the P2 code. Likewise, the promise of recipes followed by double exclamation marks and the emotional narrative style of the sentence meet the criteria for pathos-based appeals established for this study.

P3—Pathos via identification with the audience

The identification appeal subtype was the rarest one of all, being used in only four out of thirteen projects. Since P3 appeals were considered to be emotional in nature (as those not having any direct relevance to the inherent value or usefulness of the objects of promotion and aimed to produce a sense—or emotion—of identification), they were classified as pathos. The example below taken from Project 8 shows how the P3 argument is developed in four sentences:

We love console games. [P3] There’s something about a big HD TV and digital surround sound that fills up a living room. [P3] Shooters, platformers, sports games, arcade classics and experimental indie games just feel bigger on a TV screen. [P3] It’s how most of us grew up gaming. [P3]

It should be noted that, in this example, sentences two and three have been assigned P3 code only as part of the P3 argument actually formulated in sentences one and four.

A very informal example of rhetoric of identification can be found in Project 9:

this is a package i dreamed up for people who like to get S___ IN THE MAIL, CONSTANTLY. [P3] when i was a teenager i used to love 7”-of-the-month-clubs, punk rock style, and fanzines that would arrive with weird ziploc bags full of crap in them. [P3]

In Project 11, identification with the audience is accomplished by the author via repeated use of the pronoun “we”:

For too long, we’ve been seduced into believing we should do less. [P3] It’s time to redefine what we’re capable of. [P3] We are all artists now, and the connection economy we’re living in relentlessly rewards those who do work that matters. [P3]

A laconic identification statement (that could probably be used as an advertising slogan) was found in Project 12:

Designed for gamers, by gamers. [P3]

However, because P3 appeals were the rarest among other subtypes, they cannot be considered a mainstream technique of crowd funding project rhetoric, at least within the sample used in this study.

P4—Pathos via claims of exclusivity of the objects of promotion or of the opportunity to support the projects

Similar to P3 appeals, P4 claims of exclusivity were classified as pathos due to their lack of any direct relevance to the inherent value or usefulness of the objects of promotion; their main focus was on generating positive emotional perception of the objects of promotion as something exclusive and/or unique. The exclusivity claims were found in twelve out of thirteen project descriptions. Several examples are provided below.

This example from Project 1 contains a claim of exclusivity related to the entire project and also uses the word “unique,” which was one of the most common adjectives used to support claims of exclusivity:

This is truly a unique art project [P4].

A claim of exclusivity related to the object of promotion is made in Project 4:

Pebble is the first watch built for the 21st century [P4]

In Project 12, exclusivity rhetoric was used by referring to superior characteristics of the object of promotion:

…technical specifications above and beyond other consumer headset available today. [P4]

The example from Project 2 incorporates another type of exclusivity claim—one that is related to a “special offer” (available only to project donors) rather than the main object of promotion:

This magnet is exclusive to the pledge drive, so this is pretty much your only chance to get it. [P4]

The description of Project 7 contains a reference to a discount available to donors only, which is another variation of the “special offer” theme:

This is the last chance [P4] to get the Nomiku with the Kickstarter discount! [L3]

Another example of P4 appeals related to offers available to donors only can be found in Project 9:

I’m also making sure EVERY PRODUCT sold through this kickstarter is unique to this campaign… [P4]

Yet another type of exclusivity claim was found in Project 5, where the text refers to a certain proprietary technology used to create the object of promotion:

The fabric is ready. Through over a dozen iterations / prototypes, we’ve found our secret sauce—the proprietary Apollo blend of fibers [P4].


L1—Factual data on the objects of promotion, their features and functionality

The “Methodology” section provided a conceptual clarification of the approach to categorizing the logos-based appeals adopted for this study. The logos appeal subtypes have been identified and classified in accordance with that approach, and the first one of them—L1—deals with facts concerning the object of promotion. These appeals are present in eleven out of thirteen project descriptions and, in those project descriptions where they are missing, they are substituted by other subtypes, such as L5.

A typical example of the L1 subtype from Project 1 is shown below:

The handmade woodblock prints measure 7” x 9”, or koban … size. [L1]

As we can see, the above text represents specification-style factual data about the object of promotion.

In some cases the L1 data was presented in the form of a short list of product specifications, as shown in this example from Project 4 (the example below shows four out of ten similar line items on the original list):

Tegra3 quad-core processor [L1]
1GB RAM [L1]
8GB of internal flash storage [L1]
HDMI connection to the TV, with support for up to 1080p HD [L1] …

The example above also demonstrates the project coding principle adopted for lists.

Another example from Project 4 deals with product features:

Pebble is a customizable watch. [L1] Download new watchfaces, use sports and fitness apps, get notifications from your phone. [L1]

However, not all of the objects of promotion were “tangible” items that could easily be described using technical data. The mixed example below from Project 3 (also including a pathos appeal) is related to a dance-theater performance:

STANDARD TIME is a 90-minute action-packed and gravity-defying [P1] dance-theatre piece exploring social conflict and moral evolution. [L1]

The following example illustrates information about one of the “tangible” items being promoted in Project 9, which is generally related to sponsoring pop star performances:

…hard-bound ART BOOK (similar to the “Who Killed Amanda Palmer” book) which will contain the art, photos, lyrics, behind-the-scenes looks at some of the artist’s creations, and much more [L1]

The content categorized as logos/L1 lies at the core of each project description. Lacking in explicitly persuasive strategies, it allows readers to understand what probably amounts to the key aspect of each project—that is, the actual features and characteristics of the objects of promotion.

L2—Information on the practical benefits of making donations, that is, what rewards are included/offered to donors and how the donors will be able to benefit from the objects of promotion

Subtype L2 text is present in eight out of thirteen projects. It should be noted that, in those projects where the L2 text was missing, the same objective (explaining the benefits/rewards offered to donors) was likely to have been met by the associated appeal subtype P2.

The following example from Project 2 provides information about what is included in the offer to potential donors:

…with most pledges, we’ll also be sending out a brand new Roy Greenhilt fridge magnet, matching the ones we’ve made in previous years featuring OOTS characters Belkar, Elan, and Vaarsuvius. [L2]

The abstract from Project 12’s description provides information about what is included in the physical package sent to donors and also describes the prospective benefits of having access to what appears to be an online support and forum platform:

We’re including a copy of DOOM 3 BFG Edition, the first Oculus-ready game, with every Rift dev kit on Kickstarter. [L2]

All of the Rift dev kits include access to the Oculus Developer Center, which provides the SDK, technical support, and serves as a community for Oculus developers. [L2]

Another example from Project 12 illustrates the second subcategory of L2 appeals, which has to do with information about the general benefits that can be derived from acquiring the object of promotion:

We’re also working on out-of-the-box engine integrations for Unreal Engine and Unity, so that anyone interested in working with the Rift, including indie developers, can get started right away! [L2]

The following quote from the description of Project 5 discusses the benefits as well:

Apollo uses Phase-change Materials (PCMs) to pull heat away from your body and actually store it in the shirt—like a battery. [L2]  This way, when you get back into your AC’ed office, the shirt will release the heat back to you and keep your skin at the temperature it should be at. [L2]

L3—Information on financial and other terms, where the project owners explain the affordability, discounts, what happens if the targeted funding amount is not reached, shipping conditions, etc.

Perhaps representing one of the simpler subtypes, L3 content is related to explaining the basic aspects of donating. Subtype L3 content was found in nine out of thirteen projects. While the basic funding mechanism operates in very much the same way on Kickstarter (projects not reaching the funding goal are cancelled and donors are not charged), the inclusion and format of references to this mechanism appeared to be optional and varied across the project descriptions, thus being a matter of rhetorical choice. Other conditions were strictly project-specific. An example of both can be found in Project 2 (the one with the greatest number of text fragments coded as L3):

For the next 30 days, you’ll be able to make pledges to help support this project, ranging from $1 to whatever you can afford without your spouse/parent/financial advisor slapping you. [L3]

If the final deadline comes and we’ve reached our goal, then everyone gets charged the amount they pledged at once and we get to work printing and mailing books and magnets and what not. [L3] But if for some reason we don’t meet our goal, then the whole thing is called off. [L3] No one gets charged, no fees are applied, everyone just keeps their money. [L3]

Another example from Project 9 demonstrates L3 subtype content written in the less formal style characteristic for the entire project description:

**ALL SHIPPING COSTS ARE INCLUDED IN EVERY PACKAGE, NO MATTER WHERE YOU LIVE!** [L3] please bear this in mind when you look at the prices. [L3] it was easier to do things this way, but it also means, in the spirit of art-in-the-mail-democracy, that those of you living in new york might be paying a little bit more to cover the shipping to the people in, say, tibet. [L3]

L4—Information on why exactly donations are needed, and how donations will be used by project owners (not necessarily demonstrating benefits to donors)

Subtype L4 content is encountered in ten out of thirteen project descriptions. To put it simply, L4 content answers the questions of “why do you need this money,” and “where is the money going.” The L4 content, which does not emphasize the direct benefits and rewards offered to donors, may be considered a tool to demonstrate that the solicitation for donations is, indeed, justified, and that they will be used for a “good cause” and not just as a means of personal profit.

The L4 content ranged from more general and short statements to detailed lists. An example of the shorter statements provided as part of text paragraphs is shown below:

The more that is pledged, the more copies can be printed… [L4] (Project 2)

Below is an example from Project 4 of a short itemized list of expenditures to be funded by the donations:

While we’re close to entering production, your contribution will help fund:

  • Production tooling . [L4]
  • Large component order. [L4]
  • Global Bluetooth certification. [L4]

An example from a highly detailed list of expenditures can be found in Project 13 (the original list contains a total of nine line items):

What does The Catlow need to “go digital?” [L4]

  • A digital projector [L4]
  • An upgraded audio system to deliver digitally produced sound. [L4]
  • New lenses to display the movie properly on the screen. [L4]
  • A server to download and store the digital movie content. [L4] …

Generally, subtype L4 content serves to demonstrate that donors’ money will be spent well.

L5—General data, such as background information about the object of promotion and/or the project and statements of a problem that needs to be solved (by the object of promotion)

The L5 content found in eleven out of thirteen project descriptions provides a background for the projects, either in the form of describing the problem (which is claimed to be solved by the object of promotion and/or the project), or in the form of general background information “setting the scene” for the description of the project or the object(s) being promoted.

A typical example of general background information from Project 1 is provided below:

For hundreds of years, Japanese woodblock printmakers worked in a thriving popular art
scene. [L5]

The following text, also related to the background of the project, was found in Project 10:

In The Olympic City, we’re documenting the successes and failures, the forgotten remnants and ghosts of the Olympic spectacle. [L5] Some former Olympic sites are retrofitted and used in ways that belie their grand beginnings; turned into prisons, housing, malls, gyms, churches. [L5] Others sit unused for decades and become tragic time capsules, examples of misguided planning and broken promises of the benefits that the Games would bring. [L5]

An example of a “problem statement” can be found in Project 2. It is specifically related to the project owner’s ability to meet the needs of clients:

Problem is, we ran out of copies sometime in 2010. [L5]  That means that many readers (especially those who only discovered the comic in the last two years) have had no opportunity to get it. [L5]  Because it’s such a long book (288 full color pages, the longest OOTS book yet), the cost of a second print run has been too high for me to raise on my own. [L5]

This mixed example from Project 5 represents “problem—solution” type of rhetoric, where the solution has been coded as L2:

Moisture management: Your body naturally sweats throughout the day. [L5] Using an engineering-driven approach, our unique blend of fibers will wick moisture away from your body, keeping you dry—in the hottest or tensest of situations. [L2]

Generally, the type of L5 content included in the project descriptions may have partly depended on the type of project and the object of promotion. Project 1, belonging to the “Art” category, was less likely to include “problem—solution” type of rhetoric, since the paintings offered as the objects of promotion did not really solve any practical problems. On the other hand, Project 5 belonging to “Fashion” category promoted clothing that could be presented as a solution to existing problems involving personal comfort.


The classification of rhetorical appeal subtypes presented above was the major finding of this study. Making up most of the body text of project descriptions, the respective content illustrated the predominant rhetorical techniques actually used for the most-funded projects.

All of the thirteen most-funded projects contained all three types of Aristotle’s rhetorical appeals (with varying combinations of appeal subtypes), a situation not necessarily common to all kinds of rhetorical discourse. All of the rhetorical content subtypes were found in more than half of the projects considered, with the exception of subtype P3 (identification with the audience).

To summarize the results, a hypothetical profile of a successful crowd funding project description was created, incorporating all of the predominant subtypes—that is, those encountered in more than half of the project descriptions (as mentioned above, the only subtype that failed to meet this criterion was P3). Such a project description will establish the credibility of the project owner or his/her associates by referring to their expertise/experience (subtype E1) and high standing in the field (subtype E2). It will contain background information about the project (L5) along with a detailed description of the object of promotion (L1), refer to its unique nature (P4), and show both “practical” (L2) and “emotional” (P2) rewards to be obtained by providing donor support. The narrative will include forceful descriptive terms (P1). The testimonials from authoritative sources about the object of promotion, project, and/or project owner (where available) will be included as well (E3). The financial terms of providing donor support, discounts, shipping conditions, and other details will be clearly explained (L3). The project owner will also state why exactly the donations are needed and what they will be spent for (L4).

While the inclusion of all of these rhetorical elements in a single project description may not necessarily be required—and there was not a single example among the thirteen project descriptions where all of the appeal subtypes were present at the same time—this profile could potentially be treated as a reference for developing crowd funding project descriptions.

The assortment of appeal subtypes identified during this study suggests that, as could probably be expected, writing a “rhetorically perfect” project description may not be enough to attract significant investment in the absence of certain facts or phenomena existing (or not existing) beyond the scope of the rhetorical discourse. While some appeals can literally be “invented” (per Aristotle’s original definition discussed in more detail in the “Background” section) within practically any project description, the effective use of others is largely contingent upon the actual existence of such facts or phenomena in the external environment. An example of the former can be seen in appeal subtype P1, since the use of forceful adjectives and emotional delivery style is largely a matter of discretionary choice. However, appeals such as E3 (dealing with testimonials from authoritative sources) can only be used effectively if such testimonials do, indeed, exist. That is, the project owners could certainly exercise discretion and provide testimonials from their friends and spouses rather than Forbes or New York Times, but it is likely that such testimonials would carry less weight, and, thus, would not qualify as “effective” use of rhetoric.

Therefore, it appears that, in addition to inventive discretionary rhetoric, it may be advisable for project owners to “bring to the table” other beneficial factors, such as experience and/or fame in a related field, solid third-party testimonials, and, first and foremost—a great product to sell. The textual descriptions of crowd funding projects, and the rhetoric they contain, do not necessarily serve as the dominant factors influencing investors’ decision to contribute funds to a specific project. Nevertheless, the same is likely to be true for many marketing situations considering the concept of “four Ps” of marketing—product, price, promotion, and place (Silverman, 1995). This concept suggests that both proper product and proper promotion are essential elements of a successful marketing strategy, where one element cannot exist without the others. That is, using the very best promotional methods may not be sufficient in the absence of a good product to sell and, likewise, having a great product may not be enough to sell it in the absence of effective promotional techniques.

Furthermore, it seems that not all is lost to those who would prefer to rely on a rhetorically strong project description to secure donor support. The largely discretionary rhetoric (such as pathos-based appeals P1, P2, and P4, and logos-based appeals L1, L4, and L5) gets the highest scores both in terms of numbers of projects it is included in and in terms of the total numbers of occurrences across all projects. At the same time, the “non-discretionary” rhetoric is mostly limited to ethos-based claims—those that have some of the lowest scores along the same criteria. Therefore, this study’s results themselves do not suggest the presence of excessive entry barriers (existing beyond a rhetorically effective project description) that would prevent aspiring project owners from trying themselves in the crowd funding realm. But, even if such barriers did exist in the form of objective circumstances preventing the majority from entering the lucrative business of crowd funding, it appears that having a rhetorically effective project description would be likely to improve the chances of success (as compared to not having one), with all other factors being equal. This simple consideration served as the rationale for the present study.

In sum, the success of crowd funding projects is likely to be determined by several factors, some of which have been considered above, and textual descriptions of the projects represent just one of them. At the same time, in view of the role played by textual descriptions in the online presentations of crowd funding projects, the use of compelling/rhetorically effective argumentation in these descriptions seems to be a necessary (if not sufficient) condition of success. It could be argued that, while the use of effective rhetoric in a textual description may not necessarily secure the broad support of investors in the absence of other essential components, lack of such rhetoric may potentially weaken the online presentation of a crowd funding project, especially when compared to other project descriptions that employ more persuasive techniques.

This study represents a starting point for further research on rhetoric in crowd funding project descriptions. Future studies may address other rhetorical elements of project descriptions such as images and videos. The future studies may also involve rhetorical analysis of a larger pool of the most successful crowd funding projects and their comparison against the least successful projects (those that did not reach the funding goal and/or received very little funding). Dissimilarities in the use of rhetoric between the two could provide a basis for more definitive conclusions as to the role of rhetorical means of persuasion in the ultimate success of the projects. For example, the presence of a certain rhetorical technique in the majority of most-funded project descriptions in combination with its absence in the majority of the least funded projects could provide a better basis for drawing conclusions on the technique’s importance for project success.

Finally, comprehensive studies could be undertaken, perhaps at an inter-disciplinary level, to attempt to identify the relative importance of project descriptions as compared to other factors influencing donors’ decisions. The results of this research project could be used to initiate new studies of crowd funding rhetoric and to further develop the knowledge of rhetoric in marketing, where such knowledge could have a high practical value.


I would like to express my sincere gratitude to the faculty of Minnesota State University—Mankato for providing their support to this research project. I am deeply grateful to Dr. Gretchen Perbix for her mentorship and detailed comments, and to Dr. Nancy MacKenzie and Dr. Ann Kuzma for taking their time to review my project and support its schedule. Dr. Roland Nord has always offered me his valuable advice. Dr. Jennifer Veltsos’ comprehensive course in marketing communication prompted me to come up with the topic for this study, and Dr. Lee Tesdell and Dr. Gwen Westerman helped me realize that the discipline of technical communication can be approached as a set of practically useful methods and guidelines while fully maintaining its scholarly significance, which was a premise for the present study. Finally, I would like to thank the three unnamed reviewers for their insightful comments.


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About the Author

Ilya Tirdatov is a leading expert in scientific and technical translation in the English/Russian language pair, currently working on major international projects in Houston, Texas. His articles have previously appeared in professional publications in the U.S., Russia, and India. He completed the study described in this paper as part of a graduate program in technical communication at Minnesota State University—Mankato.
Contact: ilya.tirdatov@gmail.com.

Manuscript received 18 May 2013; revised 19 October 2013; accepted 4 January 2014.