For much of history, musicians, artists, playwrights, and other creatives were supported not by sales revenue from their latest release but by wealthy individuals or organizations. These patrons of the arts sponsored creatives whose work they liked — giving them the financial freedom to simply keep creating more art. Commercial success rarely, if ever, factored into the equation.
This is essentially the core idea behind Patreon, a service that allows fans to support their favorite creators financially and provides a platform for artists to build communities around their work. From its founding in 2013 by musician and YouTuber Jack Conte, it has grown to provide a thriving online ecosystem for creators and is now valued at $4 billion.
The story of Patreon is vital because it represents a brand that puts customer-centricity at its heart and, by empowering its clients, capitalized on the needs of a new online media ecosystem. It's also that of the new media landscape, where traditional distribution channels and their gatekeepers have been bypassed completely. For better or worse, this allows a diverse range of disparate voices to connect directly with their audiences.
So without further ado, let’s take a deep dive into Patreon.
Starving Artist to Startup Sensation
The internet’s profound impact on, well, pretty much everything can’t really be overstated — but its effect on the way that we consume media was perhaps the most revolutionary.
There’s hardly a single artform whose mode of distribution has not been fundamentally altered.
A single’s success is now measured in streams instead of physical CD sales, while films are increasingly released simultaneously across both cinemas and on subscription streaming services like Netflix or HBO Max. TV must now compete with a wealth of online content, and even visual art has entered new uncharted territory with the arrival of the NFT.
The disruptive force of the internet took years to uproot and transform the creative industries — but its implacable march from the mid-90s onwards has now created an online ecosystem of popular platforms where creatives are empowered to circumvent traditional industry gatekeepers.
Musicians no longer need record labels, film-makers no longer need executives, and artists no longer need galleries. But while creatives were able to get their content out on the web and seen or heard by millions – there was no viable way of turning their activities into an income that could allow them to keep on creating full time.
Patreon’s founder, Jack Conte, was a YouTuber and musician who had successfully harnessed the power of YouTube to find an audience online. While his creativity certainly showed no bounds, his budget was presenting a severe limitation to his vision.
After maxing out his credit cards and investing over $10,000 for a music video that features robots and a recreation of the Millennium Falcon’s cockpit from Star Wars — Conte felt dissatisfied by the financial returns he was generating from ad revenue.
In an interview with The Verge, Conte explained the pressures that eventually led to the founding of Patreon:
“What world are we in, where creative people are pouring their hearts out, uploading stuff to the internet, getting millions of views — this is not like the starving artists problem. A million people are seeing this. Ten football stadiums full of humans are about to watch this thing that I made.
"Thousands of comments and excitement and passion and energy from the community. And I’m going to get paid $160 for this? What world is this? And how is everybody not screaming about this problem right now? It felt so obvious.”
Conte’s solution was to go back to the days of patronage and seek support directly from his fans; having already circumvented studio execs to distribute his work, why not do the same to get paid? This was the spark that led him to create a service that directly links up creators and their fans.
Conte teamed up with an old college classmate, Patreon’s co-founder Sam Yam, to turn his ideas into reality and build the Patreon platform. Yam’s experience and connections in the startup world meant that Patreon quickly snowballed, gathering the necessary investments for it to grow.
In just 18 months, over 125,000 patrons were actively using the platform to “make recurring payments to creators”, while total payments processed by Patreon “hit the $1 million landmark.”
As of June 2021, Patreon has over 6 million patrons and 195,219 creators and boasts an impressive array of popular podcasters, vloggers, and musicians who use the platform to earn as much as $200,000 per year.
True Crime Obsessed currently tops the charts with 49,000 patrons. And while podcasters rule the roost at the moment, there’s no single genre or topic that stands out — with an ever wider range of creators using Patreon to get paid and support themselves.
Dealing With The Internet’s Incendiary Side
Patreon’s story is intertwined with that of Web 2.0 — the internet of participatory, interactive platforms that enabled user-generated content, such as Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia, and of course, YouTube.
As such, the next chapter of Patreon’s story is a familiar one, because by removing the traditional barriers for distributing and financing media, these platforms have empowered all voices. This means that, as well as budding musicians or creators from underrepresented groups, those spreading disinformation and extremism have also been able to find their audience online and get paid for it.
While the commentary and criticism surrounding extremist content hosted and promoted on YouTube has focused mainly on YouTube’s role and responsibilities, Patreon has still had to wrestle with the fact that the diverse range of the views and voices that it empowers includes many creators that are outside of the mainstream — and some that could be considered extremist.
The platform, therefore, has extensive community guidelines that outline its stance against hate speech, threatening behavior, doxing, and harassment.
But this has not spared Patreon controversy. By attempting to remain open and accessible for all viewpoints that fall within its guidelines, it has attracted the criticism of those who believe online channels should do more to fight extreme content. Conversely, in the instances where it has de-platformed creators, it has been accused of censorship.
In response to the removal of controversial YouTuber Carl Benjamin in 2018 for breaching the site's community guidelines, a collection of prominent Patreon names left the platform. This included the right-wing psychologist Jordan Peterson, who’d been earning upwards of $80k per month from Patreon. Alongside Conservative commentator Paul Rubin, Peterson founded Thinkspot, a “censorship-free” competitor in 2019.
Indeed, Patreon is being forced to confront the fact that “creator” doesn’t just apply to people like Conte — but to “YouTube shock-jocks, porn game developers and camgirls”. And while it's eager not to define what is and isn’t art, the incendiary nature of the internet is slowly but surely pulling it into the fray of online flame wars.
The Future of Patreon
The crowdfunding industry is set to keep on growing as the online media ecosystem continues to diversify. Looking to the future, Patreon is committed to giving its creators better tools to focus on hosting content and fostering community by providing “ways for creators to be more closely connected to their fans”.
On top of this, the brand is looking at ways it can continue to improve creators’ ownership of the relationships they have with fans and the accompanying data. As Conte put it:
“With one change, they (content platforms like YouTube) can cut my traffic in half. I’m left as a creator with suddenly half the views, half the ad revenue, and none of the control. Now I’ve actually lost touch with half of my audience.”
Indeed creators, and particularly YouTubers, have been complaining about this issue for a long time, so it makes sense that Patreon want to bridge this gap, providing a safe (and stable) haven for creators — where they have a greater degree of control over how they communicate with their fans and keep them up to date.
What Can You Learn From Patreon?
1. Speak To Your Target Audience In Their Language
In order to generate buzz around Patreon and integrate it into the online community of creators, the brand is an active presence on YouTube — where a large proportion of its clients publish their content, It also uses the specific language of vlogging to communicate brand messages.
From instructional videos detailing how to set up a Patreon account to coaching videos aimed at helping creators deal with burnout, the brand makes sure it is speaking to its audience in their language, using a medium they’re comfortable with.
The Takeaway: When communicating with your target audience, it’s important to think about delivery just as much as the message. Perhaps you want your brand to appeal to a demographic that hasn’t really taken notice yet, such as younger consumers.
If that’s the case, do your research, think about the social media platforms they might use and how they communicate, find out what’s important to them and what type of messages resonates with them. Try to incorporate your brand messaging into relevant mediums, and you’re more likely to get your audience’s attention.
2. Don’t Underestimate The Value Of Transparency
Patreon’s goal of empowering creators to build communities with their fans has partly been so successful because they have created their own community of creators, allowing them to foster a strong emotional connection with their clients.
In practice, this means that not only is the platform providing creators with a way to earn money from their fans, but it also acts as a gateway to an active, interconnected online community.
While the success of this approach lies partly in the brand’s use of creative brand messaging (as mentioned above), transparency also plays a key role. The brand, which often utilizes its founder Jack Conte, speaks in a very open and clear way about its decision-making process, its goals, and the challenges that it faces.
For Patreon, this transparency is essential in building trust and ensuring that not only new creators continue to sign up but that the platform’s highest earners stay put —instead of seeking lucrative deals elsewhere.
The Takeaway: Transparency is a vital quality for a brand to aim for, indeed 94% of consumers identify it as a key factor that would make them more loyal to a brand or company.
So if you can be open and honest about the decisions you are making, you’re more likely to see your customers stick around, even through hard times.
3. Empower Your Customers
Patreon was founded to solve the glaring gaps in the new online media ecosystem, which meant popular creators weren’t getting paid. But the service and the brand that they created are about far more than just providing a platform that links artists with patrons. Everything about the brand’s identity exudes empowerment, even the call to action on the Patreon home page is “Are you ready to take back control?”.
Patreon’s brand messaging — many of which take the form of YouTube videos — focuses not just on encouraging passionate and creative people to take the plunge and try to make their art into a livelihood, but also provides tips and tricks for those already hustling on the platform with ideas and strategies for promoting Patreon accounts to followers.
Patreon doesn’t charge its members a flat fee but earns revenue by taking a cut from the money that creators earn (between 5 - 12%). Therefore Patreon only makes money when its members do, so by providing resources, support, and community to encourage and empower its members to succeed, it is also investing in its own growth.
The Takeaway: All brands need their customers to achieve some level of success with their products or services in order to continue growing sustainably.
Some brands still engineer obsolescence into their products to make sure consumers purchase the latest iteration on a regular basis — we’re looking at you Apple!. But, generally speaking, your brand should be doing everything it can to empower your customers and improve their lives. Do that, and you’ll have a much greater chance at sustainable growth.
It’s important not to forget how brand strategy can play a big part in this process. While focusing on strong customer support is essential, you can also empower your customers with resources such as videos, social media posts, or guides.
As well as thinking about your product or service, try to identify any barriers or pain points that might exist and work out ways these could be removed to increase customer satisfaction.
Patreon represents just one interesting innovation that has helped to fuel the growth of online media. By finding such a glaring gap in the marketplace the brand has been able to carve out an invaluable niche in this new media landscape, but its success was never guaranteed.
Great ideas can sometimes fail because they’re not backed up by a strong brand, so the value of Patreon’s efforts to create a transparent, inclusive digital community that empowers its clients should not be overlooked.
More than anything, Patreon’s story backs up the importance of knowing who your target audience is and understanding how best to speak with them. With Latana’s audience segmentation tools you can build custom target audiences and track how your brand is performing with them over time. This empowers you to learn the right way to communicate with them and opens the way to build your own community around your brand.