“9 Year Old Building an RPG to Prove Her Brothers Wrong!”

Who wouldn’t want to support that?


On the surface Susan Wilson’s Kickstarter looks like the heartwarming outpouring of support for women in Tech. The project is written from the point of view of her daughter Mackenzie Wilson. “Mackenzie” asked for $829.00 to attend “RPG STEM Camp” to learn to use the popular program RPG maker. As of the writing of this blog has netted over $21,000 USD in crowd support.


The problem? Some Redditors did some digging beyond the headline and things seem to get fishy.


In short, Susan Wilson’s tactics in this case give every impression of this Kickstarter being a “cash grab” rather than a real funding project. The point of this blog is not to judge, condemn or presume to know the truth (That’s for the comments section on Reddit), but to take a look at how image is perceived on the Internet and how Susan could have avoided the growing backlash.



Reddit’s case:

  • Susan Wilson is using spam and unsolicited @Replies on twitter to promote the story (a violation of Kickstarter TOS)
  • The project appears to be a “Fund my life” project which is prohibited by Kickstarter.
  • Susan Wilson is a powerful business leader who does not need to raise $829.00.
  • There is an implication that The Judgement Group, of which she is SEO and founder, has not delivered on its promises or has swindled people.
  • There are tweets and news stories which demonstrate Susan Wilson engaging in “Cybersquatting” which is against the law.
  • There are quotes which show she has, in the past, pretended to be less well off than you would expect the CEO of a 100 million dollar company to be.
  • If she only ever wanted $829.00 why is there an option for $10,000.00 in backing?
  • The RPG camp does not call itself a STEM camp, but the Kickstarter does. Some question if the project has been keyword stuffed to mislead people.


It’s important to note that, unless you want to believe Susan Wilson is a scam artist, many of this can be dismissed. Susan Wilson may well have a thousand dollars to give her 9 year old daughter to attend the RPG camp- but raising the money together is certainly a good lesson and fun family project. Just because you head a 100 Million dollar company does not mean you are rich. Not every business person is George Bluth. And using social engineering or marketing tactics to make your Kickstarter heartwarming is no crime- it’s just a tactic. If every marketer were demonized for playing up primary messaging points we’d all be out of luck.


If you can dismiss the bulk of this circumstantial argument, why are people so willing to believe they’ve band bamboozled?


Online Trust is Fragile

“With the first link, a chain is forged.” – Star Trek


What really triggered the character assassination image was Susan Wilson’s poor choice in using spam to spread her message. Of all the questions in this story about ethicacy this is the one on which there can be no benefit of the doubt. Spam and “brute force” tactics online will get you a bad reputation. If you’re willing to break Twitter TOS, if you’re willing to “invade” people’s private feeds with your automated messaging then that raises a question in people’s minds. That question is: If you have to spam to get attention, what are you really up to?


And on the Internet- if someone wants to figure that out? Everything you’ve ever said in public is fair game. The character assassination piece on Susan Wilson seems very alarming. However, as a piece of journalism it makes a lot of assumptions. It’s engineered to create a narrative that may or may not be true.


But none of that matters to those who have already had their trust broken by black-hat tactics. That she engaged in cybersquatting suggests a pattern of behavior. It sets up the perception that this latest venture may just be more of the same.


What’s the takeaway? Don’t give negative sentiment a reason to fester. Don’t break people’s trust.


Reputation Management by Response Management

But you can’t always control that. Mistakes happen. It could be that Susan Wilson was unaware of how uncouth cybersquatting seems (not to mention illegal). It may be that the Twitter spam resulted from a lot of passion. We all love to crow about our projects.


But where this whole PR issue falls apart is response. She missed her chance to re-establish trust with her audience once the question had been raised about her intentions.


Susan and Mackenzie set out to make $829.00. Perhaps Susan, being a business veteran, had a very good notion that the headline for the project was ready made to share. Perhaps she was entirely aware that focusing on the “geeky gamer” side of Mackenzie would endear her. And she certainly knew that playing the “Women in Stem” angle gave the message a lot of weight.


That she placed the 10,000 dollar backer level there suggests she had at least some idea she was sitting on a lot of potential. As a businessman there is nothing wrong with recognizing the market potential of a story like this. But, what Susan didn’t know was what to do when the powder keg exploded.


The issue comes down to a mismatch of promise and delivery. Backers joined the Kickstarter expecting not just to support young Mackenzie’s dream. They expected to be supporting the cause of women in STEM fields. For the donor it was not about the money, it was about the good feeling they got from making a difference. But people began to think maybe they weren’t making a difference. That Susan had broken her promise.


Always Deliver on Promises

Where could Susan have prevented this? When the Kickstarter started exceeding the goal.


At some point Susan & Mackenzie saw that their project was bringing in a mint. The exact point of their misstep was when they acknowledged this on the Kickstarter page. They updated the donation options, a smart move when you have such an outpouring. But they did not update the section on how the money would be spent.


The message changed from, “Help teach Mackenzie a lesson on how to build her own projects and support the cause of women in tech!” to, “Keep sending!”


When people weren’t told how the surplus would be applied they were left to their own assumptions. Don’t let people imagine a message you are at perfect liberty to control.


The proper move would have been to expand the project, maybe consider starting a fund to support other girls in tech. Or- if they wanted to keep the project from becoming open ended? They could have offered to put all the excess revenue toward Mackenzie’s game! She could have hired artists, musicians, learned the lesson of running a business, and put out the best game a 9 year old ever made.


But the silence is what caused this uproar.


In short, the lesson learned about sentiment here? You can’t control what the Internet will say about you. You can control how you respond. When in doubt? Look closely at the promise you’ve made to the public and consider how, because of or in spite of new developments; you can continue to deliver on it.