“If I could quit my job and have more time, I could make this a full-time business.”
“Is creating this volume of content worth it for the revenue it generates?”
“I feel like ads and sponsors are influencing the direction of my art.”
“I need ways to expand my income without packing in more ads.”
If any of those sound familiar, you’re in good company. Every creator wrestles with monetization, from the ‘when’ to the ‘how.’ If the ‘how’ lets you retain creative control over your work while you scale your business, even better.
In this article, we want to introduce you to the membership model, an effective, field-tested way for independent creators like you to drive predictable revenue for your creative work. With the membership model, you can earn monthly revenue directly from your audience without depending on ads or sales.
- Andy, Mike, Jason, and Brooks, run an independent podcast about fantasy football that supports all four of them full time.
- Licensed therapist Kati Morton left two part-time jobs to focus on her YouTube channel.
- Indy, Flo, Tony, Markus, and Julian built a YouTube show about World War I that has taken them all over the world.
We could go on, but you get the idea.
So, let us ask…What if you could tap into a small group of your most passionate fans, ones who would be thrilled to support you financially month after month? What would that mean for your life? More time? More freedom? The chance to leave a job you despise? Something else entirely?
Bremner Morris, Patreon’s Head of Creator Partnerships, and his team have helped hundreds of creators, counseling them on what the most successful creatives do differently to generate regular monthly income using the membership model.
Their work includes successful projects with a wide variety of creators—including artists, YouTubers, podcasters, writers, and many others. What follows is their framework: a simple, step-by-step guide you can use to drive predictable revenue—month after month—with membership.
Step One: Determine Your Ability To Invest in Membership
The membership model requires significant investment from both creators and patrons. Not every creator is ready to pursue the membership model, and not every audience is engaged enough to convert right away. Let’s help you decide if you’re ready to move forward.
What does membership mean?
When you offer membership to your most passionate fans and followers, you’re not asking for donations. In fact, you’re not “asking for money” at all.
When you launch a membership business, you’re entering into a value-for-value exchange with your fans.
Asking for donations only goes so far. Approximately 1% of your audience would be willing to make monthly donations to support what you already provide for free. That’s a small number because you have a lot of competition. The more talented artists like you in the world, the more directions a consumer’s pocketbook is pulled. As a result, you have to find a way to justify a small (or even better, large) expenditure out of your fan’s monthly entertainment budgets.
As it turns out, you can turn that 1% of your audience into 10%-15% if they receive something extra in return. If you’re willing to engage your fans more regularly and commit to a benefit-driven system, you have a good shot at converting that 15% of your audience into active subscribers.
But first, you have to determine if your audience is ready for the change.
Step Two: Define What Success Looks Like
Establishing a membership-based revenue model to support your art takes time away from what you’re doing now and may dictate what you do in the future. In other words: if you’re going to pour time, energy, and emotion into this project, make sure it’s worthwhile to you. As you consider membership, decide what your success criteria are; doing so will guide the rest of your decision-making.
Define the target—monetary or otherwise—that justifies your efforts
How much do you need to make per month to make the extra work worthwhile? How many fans do you want to engage with you? No matter what motivates you, it’s important to know what needs to happen for you to consider it a success. For an independent creator, that could be $1,000/mo. If you’re a team of actors who produce comedy videos every week, that number can (and should) be higher, maybe something more like $5,000/mo.
Alternatively, you could define a number of fans—say, 200—whom you want to be active post-launch. Maybe you want to convert 10% of the readers who visit your comic every week. Picking a number will help you decide what to offer your fans in exchange for the membership and select pricing tiers accordingly.
If your goal is low, then you can stick with low cost entry and benefits that don’t suck all your time. If your goal is high, you either need a sizable fan base or you need to offer premium benefits at a premium price. The better you know your audience, the easier it will be to set up a realistic target.
Take action: Decide what level of participation or income would make offering membership to your fans worthwhile for you.
Step Three: Establish Your Goals
Note: When we mention “goals” we are referring to your personal success criteria, not the optional goals feature on your Patreon page).
If you meet your first financial target, what happens next? Think in concrete terms linked to financial success. If you hit $1,000/mo, what would that allow you to do? What about $10,000/mo? Many creators find it helpful to set a series of goals they’d like to accomplish; small at first, then bigger with greater audience participation.
If you are a podcaster, that might mean doing an extra show per week.
If you’re a musician, it might mean leaving your label for independence.
If you’re a comic artist, it might mean hiring a colorist so you can produce more pages.
Hit enough targets and you could even leave your “day job” behind to pursue your passion, supported by happy fans.
Many creators have had—and then funded—amazing ideas to enhance their work and reward fan participation. For example, The Great War is a video series about World War I posted on YouTube each week. One of their goals was to travel to important sites of the war. When they hit their goal, the whole crew packed up to film episodes in historically relevant sites, starting with Poland. It was a massive success, and they made repeat trips to new countries.
Deciding what you would do if you hit major milestones in your membership numbers will help you pitch the idea to your fans. If they can get excited about those goals, too, they’re that much more likely to support you.
Take action: Write down three goals you’d like to achieve if you hit certain financial targets.
Step Four: Set Up a Benefit Structure
Most benefits fall under five categories: access/insight, engagement, fan recognition, digital benefits, physical benefits. Successful membership models typically combine several of these benefit types. Focus on benefits that will best engage your audience and their interests.
This type of benefit involves giving your fans a ‘sneak peek’ into your creative world. If you’re a musician, for example, you might tape and share creative sessions in the studio. Fans love access to a work in progress or ‘making of’ videos. Some artists maintain a private snapchat with insight into their creative process. Not everything is about the finished product—many fans want to see the journey, too.
With this benefit, you offer fans the opportunity to interact with you directly. You can conduct livestreams, set up a channel on Discord or Slack, and even host an in-person event for fans. The more exciting the interaction, the higher level of support you can expect. For example, YouTuber Peter Hollens offers to fly out any supporter who’s “crazy enough” to support him at $750/mo. Each fan who does gets to hang with him and his family on the set of a new video.
Patreon slang for fan recognition benefits is “where the fans get the feels.” It’s all about helping fans feel good about the money and time they invest in your community (as they very well should). If you produce videos or podcasts, you can add supporters to the credit roll. If you make a CD, you can put their names in the sleeve. Some creators have a ‘fan of the week’ spotlight that encourages engagement. Ultimately, you’re giving a shout-out to the fans who proudly support you.
Digital & Physical Benefits
If you enjoy creating bonus content, chances are some (or all) of your fans enjoy consuming it.Depending on how much you charge and how much work it takes, you can easily distribute digital or even physical works to your supporters. For example, if you’re a comic artist, you might draw bonus comics or sketch your characters in goofy costumes. Many fans happily pay for access to the sketches. Alternatively, you could offer computer wallpaper to download. Some creators mail little gift boxes to their higher-tier monthly supporters.
Finding the right mix of benefits
Selecting benefits is a balancing act between effort and impact. If a benefit takes significant effort but has a low impact on your bottom line, you have three options:
- Offer the benefit as-is and risk burnout
- Raise the cost of the benefit
- Skip that benefit and do something else instead
For example, a podcaster could create a bonus episode once per week. It would take a few hours to produce, but would attract small donations from a large number of fans. Low effort, high impact. Keeping your definition of success in mind, plan your membership tiers such that you will earn enough money to make your endeavors worthwhile at rates your budget-minded fans can get behind.
Some of the best benefits don’t take a lot of extra time, but attract a lot of members.
Take action: Choose at least three tiers of membership to pair with reasonable monthly benefits.
Step Five: Create a Marketing Strategy
At this point, you should know what you and your fans will get out of optional membership. Next, you should decide how to communicate those benefits to your audience. Think about your social media presence and how you currently engage with fans. How will that change when you transition them toward a membership model?
Do you need to adjust how frequently you communicate? Will you need to change the content you share?
Educate your fanbase
If you have a website, you could change the copy on your site to promote your membership benefits. One of the most successful ways to explain a new membership option is to film yourself explaining the change. You can talk about things like benefits, goals, and what the project means to you. Help your fans understand how the membership will benefit both them and you.
Generate excitement for launch
Drum up anticipation across social media channels before the big launch. Fans who are hyped for the ‘big reveal’ are more likely to sign up. Drop hints that something exciting is coming, and then start teasing what could happen in you meet your goals. However you decide to approach it, it’s critical that you have a marketing plan. You’ll need to prepare your platform, produce new marketing content, and decide what activities you want to do for launch.
In addition, it’s not a bad idea to have some material prepped and ready to go. That way, you know you’ll meet initial deadlines for benefit fulfillment. Finally, carve out some time in your schedule to communicate with fans as they adjust. Being there to answer questions and troubleshoot problems will only strengthen their commitment in the long run.
Take action: Make a list of changes you need to implement to announce membership and benefits to your fans.
What comes next?
The initial launch won’t be the end of your efforts. You’ll have benefits to create, new options to try, and feedback from fans.
As you proceed, you’ll need to consider things like…
- How to drive ongoing conversions
- How to prevent churn and increase fan loyalty
- How to manage your benefit fulfillment and ongoing obligations
All of these things will help you increase the steady income you gain from your initial launch activities. After that, the sky’s the limit.