People in artistic fields dream of being their own boss. There's nothing more empowering than bringing a creative project to life independently, whether that's a game, a film, a podcast or a book.
Patreon made those dreams a reality when it launched in 2013. Artists can now set up a page on the platform and monetise their community by offering exclusive content to fans willing to pay every month.
"Patreon is an easy way to launch a subscription service," says Blessing Adeoye, host and producer at media brand Kinda Funny. "The features are awesome for connecting with the most core members of your community. And it allows people to subscribe at various levels, meaning you can be creative in terms of how you treat various tiers of patrons."
"The joy of Patreon is that your audience is supporting your ability to create"
Patreon simplifies the process of monetising a community, handling the financial side and allowing creators to focus on their work rather than running a business. And while a lot of creators on Patreon come from the YouTube crowd, the platform supports a wide variety of projects.
Creating a Patreon also means not having to worry about your content appealing to a wide audience, like you would for a Kickstarter campaign for instance.
"The joy of Patreon is that your audience is supporting your ability to create, and if one or two pieces here and there exist because you wanted to make them, not because they'll have wide appeal, it's unlikely to impact your income," says game critic Laura Dale. "You can create works that appeal to a smaller audience, or that take longer to create, without worrying that you're going to see a dip in income that puts you at risk."
There are three different plans you can choose from when you join the platform as a creator. Patreon Lite gives access to the basics (hosted creator page, communication tools, workshops), in exchange for 5% of the monthly income you earn on the platform. Patreon Pro takes 8% of your monthly income, but gives access to more tools, including unlimited membership tiers and analytics.
Finally, Patreon Premium is targeted at established businesses and gives access to enhanced support, merchandising solutions, and more. It'll take 12% of your monthly income. That's the tier Kinda Funny is on.
"We have a dedicated partner manager," says Joanna 'JoeyNoelle' Takegami, social media, community and production manager at Kinda Funny. "I send [them] all of our support needs and they guarantee a two hour response to any of our customer service issues."
Having Patreon do some of the legwork doesn't mean you won't have anything to do. There are common sense initiatives, good practices and golden rules to follow to have a successful Patreon page. And if you're unsure about something, remember you can always get in touch with Patreon to ask for some guidance.
Make sure you have a big enough audience
This one goes under "common sense" -- Patreon is not a platform for launching a brand new business. You need to have built a reputation elsewhere before you can monetise your existing community on Patreon.
"I think believing [you can make it without an existing following] shows a misunderstanding of what Patreon is and what a successful one is built upon," says Daniel Krupa, co-founder of YouTube channel RKG. "If you're truly starting from scratch -- you don't have a small and engaged audience -- you need to figure out what you want to make, who is your audience, and how you connect with them.
"For a Patreon to really work you need to have a strong relationship with an audience that deeply values your work. That's the crux of the whole thing. People aren't short of free content, so you need an audience who values what you're making, and therefore believes it's worth supporting."
Make sure your project actually fits Patreon
While there are all sorts of creators using Patreon, some models fit the platform more easily than others.
"Patreon best suits projects that are a continuing service," Adeoye says. "Don't think of it as Kickstarter crowdfunding, where it's one and done. It's a subscription service, meaning if you produce music, podcasts, videos, or any sort of content on a continual basis, it's a good fit."
If you're a big developer with a few shipped games and want to make a few extra bucks, the chances are Patreon won't really work unless you manage to remain approachable -- the platform is not for faceless corporations.
"Patreon is always going to be best suited for independent creators, where it's clear that the funding is going directly to the people who they've chosen to support, rather than into the pockets of a much larger company," says Chris Bratt, co-founder of YouTube channel People Make Games. "There are certainly some examples of the latter working, but I do think it's a harder sell."
"You can always add commitments later on, but it's much harder to take them back"
Chris Bratt, People Make Games
Your project also needs to be clearly defined, with a transparent roadmap that you should stick to as much as possible.
"The projects that make most sense on Patreon are ones where you can clearly explain up front what sort of things you plan to work on, and with what regularity," Dale says. "If you start developing a game supported on Patreon then change genre halfway through, you've got an audience that has been paying for something that may no longer be what they thought they were supporting. Just be clear about what you are creating, and deliver regular content on a predictable schedule."
Take the time to really think about that schedule as retracting Patreon promises could hurt the community. In an early draft of its Patreon page, People Make Games committed to creating a new video every two weeks.
"It actually takes us the best part of a month to create each episode, although we'd only learn that later on," Bratt says. "Promising a video every two weeks would have been a disaster, leading to rushed work and, eventually, an apology to our community for having not lived up to our commitment. We changed our page just before launch day. You can always add commitments later on, once you're sure they're feasible, but it's much harder to take them back."
Find the right balance for your reward tiers
Patreon pages are set up around reward tiers, each one corresponding to a different membership level. Balancing these out can be a juggling act. Set your prices too low and you'll be missing out on opportunities; set them too high and you'll be missing out on potential patrons.
"We spent a lot of time looking at other creators who use Patreon and getting a feel for the landscape in terms of pricing," Bratt says. "It helps to look outside of your own industry for this, by the way. We ended up getting the idea to create bespoke art prints for our patrons from the German educational channel, Kurzgesagt. Nab some of the best ideas you come across."
Once that's done, a good golden rule is to diversity your tier offerings.
"It's important to recognise that your community is made up of people of a variety of different financial situations," says Andrea Rene, director of operations at What's Good Games, a weekly podcast. "People who want to support you as a creator might not be able to do it at a very specific level if you only offer one or two ways to do so. So if it's within your bandwidth, it's great to offer a variety of ways for people to support you.
"But there's also a balance of offering enough and offering too much. If you give your patrons too many ways to support you, then you're going to be overcommitting yourself and not getting the return on investment."
One way to make sure you strike the right balance is to ask your community directly.
"We polled the audience to figure out what was important to them and structured our Patreon around that," Takegami says. "Then we added extra tiers on top of that for the hardcore [followers]. But it was really important for us to not gate any of our main content only behind Patreon. We know that not everyone can pay, so we want to make sure that Patreon rewards are extra and on top of things."
"We know that not everyone can pay so we want to make sure that Patreon rewards are on top of things"
Joanna Takegami, Kinda Funny
This idea of Patreon rewards being bonus content on top of your usual work is a good approach, as it avoids antagonising fans who don't pay. Dale also decided not to lock her content and chose a different solution altogether.
"I took the approach of setting only a single $1 per month tier, and letting people opt to support me with larger amounts if they choose," she says. "I know other creators have tiered access, but I don't personally want to be the kind of creator that fragments my audience into haves and have nots.
"I find that by not locking any of my content behind a paywall, and just trusting my audience to support me where they can, I am able to feel a lot more comfortable about my creator and backer relationship. I don't feel undue pressure from my audience, and they know they're not being strong-armed into support they can't justify."
When you first create your Patreon page, it can be tempting to promise the Earth to attract patrons, but make sure you can actually bring these pledges to life.
"One absolute golden rule for me is to make sure that you're 100% able to deliver on any tiers you promise without absolutely killing yourself in the process, and also not be afraid to refresh those rewards after you've launched," RKG co-founder Gav Murphy says.
Rory Powers, another RKG co-founder, adds: "You should always under-promise and over-deliver. Not every Patreon needs to have 15 reward tiers. Find out what your audience really wants and give it to them, even if that's just one reward."
That golden rule is particularly important if you're thinking about having merchandise as one of your reward tiers.
"I think a mistake that first-time creators should be on the lookout for is over-committing to physical goods," Rene says. "Managing the shipping process, particularly if you're going to allow international patrons to also partake in your physical rewards, can be incredibly taxing and incredibly expensive. There's a diminishing line of return between what you offer as a monthly reward, what they pay for, and what it costs you. Not just the hard costs of the actual shipping materials and fees, but also like the time it takes you to manage those physical goods."
Adeoye adds: "Learning what you're able to achieve within bandwidth as a creator, along with understanding what the audience wants is a very important aspect that will come through trial and error early on."
If you're using Patreon for videos or podcasts, consistency shouldn't be difficult to achieve, as the content naturally lends itself to the platform's business model. But if you're using it in the run up to launching a game, or any type of one-off content, make sure you deliver content consistently.
"Because you're building this relationship with your community, you have to be really regular with using it," Takegami says. "I know that [Patreon] recently ruled out different options where you can just use it as a tip jar, but I think using it to foster communities is where it shines the best."
Patrons need to feel like their monthly membership is being rewarded, so having a content drop at least once a month is good practice -- even more often would be ideal. "Some creators put out content very sporadically and that can be a little bit more difficult to support with the Patreon model that is a monthly membership," Rene says.
Be genuine and open with your backers
If someone is willing to pay every month to see your work, chances are they appreciate your personality, too -- don't be afraid to show it.
"Patreon campaigns tend to be most successful when you are open about the person behind the content, and share some of that openness with your backers," Dale says. "Tell them about your creative process, show them work in progress ideas, ask for their feedback on projects, and offer them the chance to feel closer to the person making the work. Patreon campaigns tend to work best when your audience is supporting you, the person, as much as the specific project you are working on."
Patrons tend to really appreciate these extra nuggets of content about yourself, so think about ways you can craft content that feels genuine.
"There's no shortage of ways to reach your audience, but I think the best ways are the ones that feel personal," Powers adds. "Instead of just slapping your Patreon URL onto a video, insert a quick 20 second video talking to camera about how excited you are about this month's extra content. Instead of tweeting a link to your Patreon, post a short, funny clip from a bonus episode. If you post the same link, insert the same [voiceover], or say the same thing every time, people will grow numb."
Keep things fresh to attract new patrons
In order to sustain your community after launch, make sure you come up with new ideas regularly. A new concept might be enough to turn a YouTube viewer into a Patreon subscriber.
"Kinda Funny has a stream at the beginning of each year that features new goals, announcements, and shake-ups that refresh the Patreon," Adeoye says. "It gives our community something to look forward to and during this time we see a spike in Patrons.
"Identifying the different ways people consume your content allows for a better understanding of how to make content"
Blessing Adeoye, Kinda Funny
"Identifying an untapped audience comes through paying attention to the people interacting with you and considering how that translates to your wider community. There are many ways people can interact with a creator and these communities often differ in tone and vibe. Identifying the different ways in which people consume your content allows for a better understanding of how to make content and encourage [your community] to get involved."
Dale adds: "Keep trying new things, and keep being ambitious. I keep aiming to pull off projects that I'm convinced are too pie in the sky to work out, because if they do work out, they tend to be the bits of content that grow my audience."
It all comes back to the idea of reassuring your future patrons that they will get their money's worth.
"I want people to look at that RKG Patreon payment going out of their bank every month and think: 'Fuck yes, this is worth it'," Murphy says. "We refreshed our Patreon at the beginning of this year to really reward the people who support us most generously.
"[We've launched an] Early Access show for everyone on our $10 and above tiers. Every month we're going to drop all episodes of a new show -- Netflix-style -- for people to binge and that show will then roll out publicly week-by-week a month later. For me, this is perfect because it creates real value for those $10-plus tiers, while at the same time giving people who maybe aren't able to support us financially an extra video every week for free."
This is a unique selling point for RKG, with the potential to bring in more patrons. And that's what Patreon is about -- working out what makes you unique, and producing something that can't be found elsewhere so people see the value in subscribing.
"Try and come up with a simple sentence, something Tweet length, that explains why people should pay attention to your work -- what you are making, who you are," Dale adds.
Pay attention to your community
While you will want to attract new patrons, a lot of energy will go into taking care of your existing community -- they're the reason you're making ends meet.
"To be an 'internet celebrity' is trying to catch smoke in a bottle. You can't try to do this"
Greg Miller, Kinda Funny
"For me it's always been about worrying about the community you have, not worrying about the community you want," says Kinda Funny co-founder Greg Miller. "To be an 'internet celebrity' is trying to catch smoke in a bottle. You can't try to do this -- if you go for it it's just gonna slip through your fingers all the time. I always say: make the content you believe in and the people will come to it because of that."
You also want to make sure you're taking care of your entire community -- not just the part of it that pays your salary every month.
"It's really important when creating a Patreon that you don't alienate parts of your community that cannot financially support you," Dale says. "You don't want to create a hierarchy, where those who spend money feel like they are superior to your fans and supporters who support you in other ways, by listening to or sharing your work."
Having a community manager can be a good option, but you can also decide to do it yourself to stay close to the people who support you.
"We don't have a community manager, so we have a direct line to our community through social media and through things like behind-the-scenes blogs, Q&As, and private livestreams with our most generous supporters," Murphy says. "We're constantly listening to our community either on our Patreon page or directly chatting with them in our Discord. For me that's one of the coolest aspects about this entire thing."
Bratt adds: "Whenever you write a post for your patrons, it gets sent directly to their email inbox. I've never properly understood the value of newsletters before now, but after a couple of years on Patreon, I totally get it. This platform has given us a way to directly communicate with some of the most passionate members of our community whenever we need to. I can't overstate how important that feels."
Set clear community guidelines to avoid toxicity
Toxicity is the plague of every online community. While being on Patreon should theoretically separate the wheat from the chaff, that doesn't mean toxicity can't happen.
"If you're building a community, it's on you to form a set of clear guidelines for what is and isn't appropriate within that community," Bratt says. "Making these guidelines publicly available will hopefully serve as a reminder for people to be kinder to one another, but it also lets your mods reference them when they need to step in and act on your behalf.
"Getting those guidelines right may seem daunting. If you're struggling, go look at the communities you enjoy being a part of and see what works for them. That's what we did."
When toxicity does happen, there are different approaches to dealing with it.
"For us it's practicing what we preach," Miller says. "Our policy on the community has always been simple: if you're gonna show up and be an asshole, if you're gonna show up and troll people, if you're gonna show up and be a bigot, we don't want you and we don't want your money. If you want to have a conversation, that's a different story, but if you just want to be an asshole, I'm not gonna be a part of that."
Patreon allows you to refund membership fees, which is a powerful tool for fighting toxicity when it happens -- don't be afraid to use it.
"We do our best to reach out to people individually and privately when they violate our [community behaviour] expectations," Rene says. "But we have absolutely no problem refunding Patreon membership fees if we need to remove somebody from our community. That can be a really tough thing for video game developers specifically, because in their mind it's a consumer that's paid for a product, and there's a lot more stickiness when it comes to booting people from communities when there's a monetary exchange.
"If you're gonna show up and be an asshole, we don't want you and we don't want your money"
Greg Miller, Kinda Funny
"But on Patreon, we get around that by saying: we don't like how you're behaving, we've given you a warning and you've persisted, so now we have to remove you. And in order to make sure that you don't feel like we've taken something from you, we're going to refund your Patreon fee as well."
Vocally condemning toxic behaviour is one side of the coin, but rewarding good behaviour is also a good way to show your community how it should be done.
"I like to uplift and respond to the positive voices in the community," Adeoye says. "I believe encouraging these voices helps foster more positive behaviour."
Be aware of the monetary peaks and troughs
Don't expect to earn steady income every month, even if you have a big community. Factors totally outside your control will have an impact on your earnings.
"Patreon lacks long-term security," Bratt says. "When the next financial crash rolls around and money feels tight, Patreon commitments will (quite rightly) be some of the first things that people will want to cut from their monthly spending. I can't guarantee what my income will be this time next year and that can be a stressful thought. Your income will almost certainly drop at the end of each month, as a few people cancel their pledges ahead of being charged. This is totally normal, although it'll probably freak you out the first few times."
Earnings drop just after Christmas or around tax season as well, Dale adds. She warns against a settings option that sends you emails every time a backer drops or reduces their pledge amount.
"In the early months, I stressed far too much about tiny income fluctuations, assuming drops of a few dollars here and there were signs I wasn't doing things right," she continues. "There's a thousand reasons someone might reduce or drop financial support unconnected to my work quality, and I wish I had done a better job of not letting that get to me."
Always keep in mind that Patreon is not free either, with some costs that you may not have thought about and can be a burden for smaller creators.
"It's tough when you're looking at the things that you want to offer and also balancing how much it's going to cost, [plus] credit card processing fees are a thing that you have to pay for as well," Rene says. "Patreon handles everybody's contact details, and so for a very small creator that has no business experience it's really helpful to be able to have those tools, but the downside is it's not free."
Don't be afraid to take time off
The drawback of being your own boss is it aggravates your risk of burning out. When you manage a Patreon page, it can very quickly feel like every single patron is actually your boss.
"Don't be afraid to take time away from the computer, let someone else handle your social media for a little bit"
"Dealing with a fast growing community can certainly be overwhelming," Dale says. "My main advice to people is don't be afraid to take time away from the computer, let someone else handle your social media for a little bit, and ground yourself with real life friends, family, and activities away from work. It never stops being surreal that people care about the things you make."
Bratt adds: "Patreon fundamentally changes the relationship we have with our audience and that goes both ways. It took me a long time to feel okay even working normal hours, without feeling incredibly guilty about taking advantage of our community's support. A lot of YouTubers struggle with burnout because they find it so difficult to step away from their job, even for a little while. If you're not careful, Patreon can exacerbate this."
While that can sound disheartening, keep in mind that the whole thing is also incredibly rewarding.
"RKG's audience is way smaller than other big sites that I've been lucky enough to work at, but I feel more connected to our audience than I ever have," Murphy says. "I think they appreciate what we make more now because we've done it all for ourselves."
Rene adds: "We were so nervous the day before we were going to hit publish that nobody would support us. It's hard to build a community but we were mentally prepared for just our moms to be our patrons and the overwhelming support we got from our community was fantastic.
"I think it's important to keep your expectation in line and go: Hey, you know what? Even if most of my patrons are supporting me at a very small dollar amount level, the fact that anybody wants to sign up every month to support the content I make is a win. And it's important to recognise those victories, and to recognise that there are people out there that want to support the content you make."
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