If you’ve looked at what other creators are doing on Patreon, it can be daunting to see how many different ways they leverage their resources to run a successful business. Every creator has a unique take on Patreon that works. So where does your business fit in?
This article dives into what types of businesses are on Patreon. This information will help you categorize your own efforts and brainstorm ideas to succeed on the platform. By the way, you don’t have to stick to just one business model: most creators use a mix of two or three models to achieve a hybrid that works best for them!
Ready to turn your creative passion into a thriving business? Get started on Patreon today.
Defined as: Access to a community curated and moderated by the creator.
While many communities are built around an authority figure or teacher, you don’t have to be a subject matter expert to start building a community. The primary value of a community is access to a group of people interested in and/or learning about the same subject you are. Creators provide that value by setting up a centralized, structured place conducive to positive interactions.
It’s worth noting that, even if you don’t feel like an expert right now, community members will come to view you as such simply for being the person in charge of your community. Plus, as you and your community members exchange information over time, you’ll become more of an expert than most people who join.
If you are knowledgeable enough to guide others in your field, that’s great: the expertise you bring to your community serves to enrich interactions and further incentivize membership. It’s a model that works for many subject matter experts, like Irshad Karim and Martin Berkhan.
Irshad’s entire Patreon began as a subreddit community. As an art student, Irshad decided to share homework ideas, lessons he learned, and other takeaways that helped him grow as an artist. The resulting community is now self-sustaining: while he’s still active there, he focuses more time on patrons while the members of his community help each other on the subreddit.
As a reward, community access is extremely popular. For example, the first reward (amongst many other valuable rewards) offered by Martin Berkhan is access to his fitness community:
If you’re not into teaching, can you still benefit from hosting a community? Absolutely! Many creators on Patreon set up private channels on Facebook, Discord, website forums, subreddits, and more. Doing so adds value to what you offer, while often taking work off your shoulders as fans will jump in to answer each other’s questions.
Defined as: A business model created around education and teaching.
Training, tutorials, online courses, and other ongoing educational content all fall under the educational business model. Maybe you offer basic art lessons for free, then charge for “premium” lessons — deep dives into more advanced concepts. Or, perhaps you put together tutorials every time you write a new song.
Even if your core model isn’t education, you can create educational resources by documenting how you make what you’re creating. On the more time-intensive end of the spectrum, some creators make patron-only tutorial videos that show step by step how they make their art. On the less intense end of the spectrum, you might post checklists, scripts, and other miscellaneous elements that go into making your creative work a reality. Some artists even release Photoshop layers and brush packs so that their followers can recreate their work.
How might you incorporate educational content into your membership business today?
In general, there are three kinds of gated content: a content library, bonus content, and premium content.
Defined as: A collection of your past material that fans pay to access.
If you produce a lot of ‘evergreen’ content (i.e., content that will be useful in the long term, not just for a month or two), then a content library makes sense. Some creators make their current content free, then lock access to it by adding it to a library (or “vault”) that patrons can pay to unlock.
If your content is most valuable immediately upon release, then a content library wouldn’t be a great strategy. (Better in that case would be providing early releases for patrons only.)
Consider Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu, who makes Muay Thai documentary videos in Thailand. While she posts many free videos showing her training, fights, and other related topics, only patrons get access to her full library of documentary Muay Thai videos. Everyone else only sees the most recent 15 videos.
Defined as: Extra content of the same type/style as you usually produce, but gated.
It’s not premium. It’s not “better” than what you already do. But it’s extra, and it’s not free. A good example of this is, a podcaster offering an extra episode that is for their $5 patrons only. It doesn't matter what you create. Whether you make videos or write articles, just make more of them to use in your pitch for membership. If your audience already likes your free content, they’ll probably want — and be willing to pay — for anything extra you make, as well.
Defined as: content that’s higher quality or more advanced than your free content.
If you’ve ever heard of a ‘freemium’ model, this is it. It’s all about providing premium content that’s better than your free offerings in some way. Perhaps it’s longer. Maybe it’s a deep dive into a related topic. It could even have bonus materials accompanying the main offering that make it more valuable.
For example, creator Rob Swift teaches fans how to play the guitar. The higher dollar amount you pledge, the more in-depth the lessons and accompanying material.
Defined as: increased interaction with, access to, or recognition by the creator.
There’s almost always a little bit of the fan relationship model in creator businesses. The reason is simple: grow your fanbase long enough, and there will be members of your audience who think you’re awesome.And with a little extra incentive, they’ll gladly part with a few dollars per month to become a larger part of your life. This business model encompasses three primary reward types: recognition, behind the scenes, and increased access to the creator.
People want to be recognized as a big supporter of something they love; recognition rewards meet that need. You can do shout-outs, put their names in the credits, give people badges, or even offer branded, exclusive merch to patrons (in that case, people are paying more for the recognition of being part of your community than they are for the t-shirt or baseball cap). For example, Suede earns over $3,000/mo on his anime reviews primarily through recognition-based rewards.
Behind the Scenes is a different manner of giving the people what they want. Just like people follow celebrities on Instagram just to see what they’re doing, patrons enjoy behind the scenes rewards to know more about what you do as a creator. While some behind the scenes rewards are more educational in nature, others (like using Patreon Lens) are purely so patrons can get a glimpse of your day-to-day life.
Finally, motivated fans will pay for the chance to talk to you. Perhaps it’s through a monthly hangout, a Q&A session on Discord, or even one-on-one conversations for high dollar supporters. Sometimes, just knowing that their opinion as a patron is valued more highly than non-patrons is enough for supporters to pledge.
For example, Pentatonix drives value to the $10/video and $100/video tiers through contact with fans:
The fan relationship business model is ideal for creators who can’t commit to more complicated rewards, but whose fans would love to get to know the person behind the performance.
Defined as: offering material for whatever patrons are willing or able to pay.
The ‘pay-what-you-can’ (or PWYC) business model is often used like traditional crowdfunding (although it doesn’t have to be). Just because you’re letting fans pay whatever they want doesn’t mean you can’t offer something of value. But to be a true PWYC model, it means that everyone gets the same rewards regardless of the support amount.
Sometimes, that means a single tier for which patrons are encouraged to donate whatever they can. Consider the following tier created by The Billfold, a site about how people save money, spend it, and repay their debts. Their 432 patrons drive over $2,000/mo in pledges via a PWYC tier.
Other times, suggested tiers are posted along with colorful descriptions to encourage patrons to choose certain levels. All the benefits at each tier are the same, however, so it’s simply a clever variation on ‘pay what you want.’
How you set up a PWYC model just depends on how you’d like to run your business.
Defined as: a specific service or product offered in exchange for monthly pledges.
This category is closer to many ‘normal’ businesses: think software in exchange for monthly subscriptions, recurring consulting appointments, or commissions. It’s an exchange of time or physical goods for money.
Evan Bourcier, a filmmaker and educator, uses this model to drive revenue for a $100/month tier. It’s priced more highly than his other tiers because it requires his direct attention and knowledge.
Or, consider Patronizer, a tool that lets you put together lists of patrons for acknowledgement in things like video credits. The more you contribute to Patronizer, the more patrons you can import into your video credits. It means smaller creators can contribute smaller amounts, while more successful creators with high patron counts pay more for better access to the tool.
If you have anything that could be distributed monthly — be it physical merchandise, software, or consultations — then this business model could be a good fit.
Very few creators use just one membership business model for their Patreon pages. Popular combinations include…
- Community + Education
- Education + Gated Content
- Fan Relationship + Gated Content
- Fan Relationship + Community
- Pay-what-you-can + Community
In fact, many of the creators in earlier examples rely on a blend of business models. Leangains is a Community + Education mix. Pentatonix uses a combination of Fan Relationship + Gated Content. The Crime Junkie Podcast uses a combination of Gated Content, Fan Relationship, and Product Model (with rewards including early and exclusive access to merch).
There’s really no limit to the combinations you use, as long as they make sense for your business. So, which membership-based business models will you try?