Q&A: “When should I start my Patreon?”

A couple weeks ago I had a friend approach me and ask me if I had any thoughts about him creating a Patreon. He told me I should consider making a blog out of my answer to him, so here goes.

Patreon is a complex platform because on the surface it seems like a no-brainer. Set up a campaign, engage your audience, and roll in money monthly or per-piece that’s independent of video views, ad-blockers, and all those other variables that cause huge swings you may not understand.

However, after two failed campaigns of my own and a lot of thinking, I’ve come to think of it as a tempting option that — if not done right — can actually harm your brand.

Patreon means more work

To start a Patreon means that you will essentially be committing yourself to creating more content than you currently do, and it will need to be valuable enough to incentivize people to contribute. This is important, because I think there are three types of patrons:

  1. Friends, family, and implicit supporters who want to see you survive and do well as a person, so they don’t mind kicking you money without rewards or incentives. This is strongly a moral compulsion.
  2. Supporters who don’t want your content to stop; they like you for you and support you, but they also want to make sure that something that they like doesn’t go away. This can be a little guilt-based (even if you don’t implicitly sell it that way).
  3. Supporters who want more of what you’re making, and want it faster than your current release schedule. They believe that money = faster production, or view your Patron-only content as essential to the whole experience of what you offer. They do not necessarily care about you as a person.

If you’re considering starting a Patreon, you likely have one or more people that you believe love your stuff. They comment immediately when you release new things, or share things to their friends. They create fanart, memes, moderate your channel, or do things just because they like you. They are your top-shelf fans; you know them by name and love that they’re here.

Before you start your Patreon, imagine them challenging you, saying “why should I reward you with my money?”

Like, really imagine them driving a hard bargain, regardless of how much they support you now.

Treating your most supportive fans are hard-to-please customers ensures that you know your identity and what you bring to the table. This is essential for knowing what you can offer as rewards, higher tiers, or incentives to donate more.

Rewards are hard to get right because it’s hard to attach that value to them to the consumer; they need to see what you’re offering as desirable and it needs to be achievable. As such, your Patreon content cannot just be what you make. It needs to be done earlier for timed exclusives. You need to be able to provide exclusive content like sketches, process work, notes, postcards, videos or anything else your fans might want in order to incentivize them.

Your Patreon is another pillar to your content strategy, and need to know whether you have the bandwidth to maintain it before you start.

Consistency is everything

Can you stick to a weekly content schedule? Not even new completed work, but just something for your fans to chew on?

If you can’t, you shouldn’t be opening a Patreon.

I say this mostly because I’m becoming increasingly convinced that starting a Patreon should be held as late as possible into your content creator life, and at that point your fanbase should be begging you to. This isn’t to say you should live in poverty and struggle, but that brewing time allows a couple things:

  1. A long period of consistent work proves to your audience that their money is going somewhere valuable.
  2. You’re not going to get lazy after getting a bunch of money, producing less or lower-quality work and stretching out the donations as long as you can.
  3. You have a community built up to onboard new Patrons by being enthusiastic about your Patron-only content.

Recently Dota 2 has seen two new campaigns start for both SirActionSlacks and PurgeGamers; both of these guys have been creating for years and living off of Twitch sub money and YouTube ads, and Patreon seemed like a logical step. However, if they started their campaign too early without establishing a product, they would have a hard time answering that “why should I reward you with my patronage?” question.

Essentially, their answer would be “because I’m a guy who makes Dota 2 content online. You should pay me for that.”

While ideally that’s enough, in today’s market that’s not a hugely unique thing. Starting a Patreon at that stage also risks turning off your audience, as seeking too much compensation without a proven product can give the impression you’re greedy or entitled (which, again, shouldn’t be the case, but that’s a perception that can happen).

If you make things without establishing why you’re better than other products people can get for free, your pool of available Patrons shrinks to #1 (who want you to be healthy), but cuts off #2 (who wants your product to be healthy) or #3 (who wants your product faster). Putting a Patreon on pause means you have time to build up a bank of goodwill and authenticity; people know you’re there, they know you make good stuff, and they want to see you continue.

The wheel of community

Building a successful relationship with your community relies on three steps:

  1. Onboarding. You make content that people want to see, share it where people can see it and network to find new avenues of exposure. Essentially this is the act of getting fans.
  2. Building. You continue to make content, but this is about satisfying your audience through good production, “extras” on social media, interaction/accessibility, and generally going beyond just making things and publishing. Consider everything you do here as building equity with your fanbase.
  3. Leveraging. This is where you cash in that equity to acquire things like money, negotiating power (more fans = more leverage), Twitch subscribers, Patreon patrons, etc. This is not a negative process; you are not “using” your fanbase in a manipulative or negative sense.
  4. Repeat as needed.

Please notice that leveraging comes after all other work you do. It does not move up at any point.

It comes after building a lot of equity and infrastructure in order to make sure your customers (your community) feel valued, positive and healthy. They want to feel like they’re a part of something genuine, authentic, and fun. Exploiting that relationship further than you’ve built up kills that relationship.

A Patreon too early, too greedy or too unnecessary throws up a giant perceived (emphasis) signal that you are looking to leverage more than you are looking to build. It can sour a community, burn out the creator, and ultimately cause way more trouble than the couple hundred bucks you might earn.

Essentially, you should treat cashing in that community equity at a ratio that heavily favors the building, rather than the leverage. This ensures you never spend more than your means, and you always have a savings of goodwill in case you make mistakes.

Wrapping up

If this sounds like a lot of work, it’s because it is.

Patreons can be a great source of income and stability for you as a creator, but setting it up should be something undertaken after a lot of thought. This is different than an Instagram account that you start and leave to rot, because at best, a neglected page here never gets off the ground.

The moment you start pulling money, your commitment is sealed — you are bound to creating for other people, and you should be sure you can do that. Managing expectation, entitlement and value all take practice, time, and nuance. Failing means burning equity and fans that might not be recoverable.

Ultimately, it’s scary shit, but making your dreams come true usually is.

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