Patreon may be the web's best way of letting fans give back to their favourite creators, but it's so much more besides. Here's everything you need to know....

Are you a YouTube watcher, or a YouTube creator? A podcast listener, or a podcast maker? Whichever side of the content creation fence you sit on, at some point in the last couple of years you’ve probably heard of Patreon.

As the world’s biggest platform for helping digital creatives receive ongoing payment – and helping fans get more of their favourite content – Patreon is changing the way we all think about the web’s creative endeavours.

But what’s the story behind the funding? What’s the future for Patreon, and how can you get involved yourself? We’ve been speaking to Patreon’s Head of Creator Partnerships, Bremner Morris, to find out…

Fan-powered finances

“Patreon was founded almost six years ago with the intent to give creators independence and control over their audience,” says Bremner, “and through that, give them a source of sustainable income for their craft.”

In other words? Fair, ongoing pay for the people making the stuff you love. And, as with all the best ideas, Patreon’s inception was borne from experience with the matter at hand:

“Jack, our CEO, was a successful musician and content creator on YouTube,” Bremner explains. “But, while pretty much every video he put out would get more than a million views, he was only ever getting paid a few hundred dollars at most for each one through adverts.

“Occasionally, though, he would experiment with direct-to-fan monetisation. So, for example, he once sold USB drives with his music on directly to his fans through a YouTube video, and sold $30,000-worth of them. He thought that was amazing – that fans would be willing to compensate for his creativity like that – and quickly realised that there was a viable business model there.”

According to Bremner, Jack’s lightbulb moment was that “there was something broken with the relationship he had with his fans” through platforms like YouTube. As a result, Patreon was created in earnest not long after.

“He and a classmate from Stanford University decided to build a platform where fans could communicate directly with the creator, and where they could compensate them on a recurring basis, in return for some kind of extra value back.

“So, one way of thinking about it,” he adds, “is like a series of paid fanclubs. We’re allowing each creator to run their own unique, Netflix-like subscription service, and letting them have a source of revenue that comes directly from those fans.”

Patreon’s big hitters

In the nearly six years since launch, Patreon has exploded in popularity. “It’s gone from Jack and a few friends to more than 100,000 active creators on the platform,” Bremner says, “and last year alone we processed around $150 million in payments.

“All told, we’ve sent about $300 million in payments back to creators, and we’ve been growing by roughly 100% every year.”

And, as you’d expect, Patreon’s success as a platform means success for its myriad creators, too. Seemingly, for every ten emerging talents, there’s one huge profile pulling in pretty astronomical figures on a monthly basis.

“There are lots of examples like that,” Bremner reveals. “Across 100,000 creators there are lots who make hundreds of thousands a month.”

You don’t need to go far to find a few. From the cynical film buffs at RedLetterMedia, pulling in $27,000 (£21,000) a month from fans, to ex-journalists like the gaming-focussed Mark Brown, who founded YouTube channel Game Maker’s Toolkit, and who now earns over $9,000 (£7,000) a month.

“We have a lot of success stories like that in the gaming space,” says Bremner, “with a lot of people who used to work for traditional gaming publications but now release content on YouTube and make a sustainable living through Patreon.

“Another recent example that springs to mind is a YouTube news videographer by the name of Philip DeFranco. He had a contract with the Discovery Channel to be a kind of new age news anchor, releasing most of his content through YouTube. It was a multi-million dollar contract, but he decided to buy himself out of that deal because he wanted more independence and control over his content.

“So he launched on Patreon about a year and half ago, and a huge amount of his overall revenue now comes from that. And, likewise, we now have a lot of podcasters who supplement their income through Patreon.”

Changing the status quo

So, we have to ask, what is it about the way the web is currently set up – and how people interact with videos, podcasts and the like – necessitates a platform like Patreon?

“If the internet were created today,” Bremner asks, “would it be funded by ad revenue?” It’s an interesting question. After all, nobody especially loves sitting through ads before they get to what they tuned in for in the first place.

“In our opinion, the creators – the people who are actually creating value online – are being undervalued by that old model. And at the same time, the fans are getting fed up with the types of clickbait content that tends to drive successful ad revenue.

“The fact is that those existing, ad-based payment models aren’t enough to sustain the more niche content creators – the guys who have smaller audiences. But those niche audiences are really loyal, and they want to be able to consume that content on a regular basis, and to help ensure that that content sticks around for a while.

“Both sides of the equation are wanting to opt out of ads,” he explains, “and there’s a desire from the audiences to help make things sustainable, so Patreon’s role is to be the glue that holds those two sides together.”

At the centre of all of this, though, is the fact that Patreon isn’t all give and no take; fans who support their favourite creators always get something back in return:

“The relationship between fan and creator is really a ‘value for value’ one,” Bremner adds. “We’ve seen some creators try to use Patreon in more of a traditional ‘crowdfunding’ way, but the really successful ones treat it like the membership club that it is.

“That’s where the person making the video is getting financially rewarded, and the fan gets rewards like exclusive content, merchandise, or access to cool community features.”

Get involved (and get paid)

If this all sounds like a win-win situation to you, chances are you either have a burgeoning online audience already, or you’re now thinking of getting into the world of YouTube, podcasting or blogging.

If that’s you, we’ve got five top tips straight from Patreon HQ:

1. Figure out what makes you, you
“Creators really need to think through what their value is, and carry that through to their Patreon page. In order to change fans’ ingrained idea of ‘content being free’, creators need to figure out what their value is and offer more of it, exclusively via Patreon. That’s critical.”

2. Ask your fans what they want
“You also need to understand what your audience wants to see. If you have an engaged audience already, you should really ask them what they might want in terms of Patreon membership rewards. They’re the experts, after all.”

3. The price is right
“You’ll need to price your tiers of membership carefully based on the value it gives you, as well as how likely you are to convert fans. It’s like an equation; a given tier needs to be beneficial to the fan, and for you in terms of your time and effort each week. If you have a tier that unlocks access to an extra video per week, for example, factor that into your processes so that you’re not getting drowned in work.”

4. Spread the word
“Because fans are used to getting content for free, being successful on Patreon does require a decent amount of ‘marketing’ in order to help them understand why they should participate. After all, a fan doesn’t become a patron because they like Patreon; it’s because they like the creator, and in 75% of cases that’s how they hear about Patreon in the first place.”

5. Be positive!
“You should be confident that what you’re offering is really exciting, unique and valuable to your fans – and you should be proud that you’re starting a membership service. We see that whenever people use apologetic or passive language in their Patreon messaging, they’re less successful as people who use exciting and active language.”

The future of funding

There’s only one thing left to ask: what’s next for Patreon, and – by extension – the entire gamut of online content creation?

Bremner thinks the way we see the likes of YouTube will change over time, and our relationship to the people making the stuff we love will only become more and more personalised:

“I think people are going to effectively end up choosing to cobble together a bespoke ‘subscription service’ made up of the five to ten people that they really want to fund directly and engage with in a deeper way. Think about it like unbundling your TV service,” he explains, “so that you could just pay for the programmes you really like, but get more from those programmes at the same time.

“Creators, meanwhile, might end up having smaller audiences on the whole, but they’ll be a more loyal audience that will help fund the stuff they really want to make.”

Ultimately, he believes the Patreon’s massive influence will be felt all across the web, even if we rarely spend much time on the site itself:

“Patreon.com doesn’t need to be the focal point for any of this,” he says in closing. “We can just sit in the background, opening up exclusive experiences across the internet – whether that’s on YouTube, in your podcast app, or wherever you access your favourite content.”

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