Our Patreon Growth Experiment

Reframing the value of pledges

Sean Howard
Sep 3, 2018 · 12 min read

It was January, 2018 and after a bit of a push, our Patreon wasn’t going anywhere. A search online brought me to quite a few threads suggesting this was an inherent limitation with Patreon. Only it wasn’t. It was us.

Caveat: we are early in our journey and we plan to share and revise our key learnings as we go.

Getting started? Begin with part zero below:

Growth is possible.

There are a lot of people lamenting that they can’t make money to support their work on Patreon. And we get it. It has taken an insane amount of work to even initiate a positive trajectory, let alone to fathom what is required to maintain this growth over the coming twelve or more months.

So yes, it is challenging and difficult, but that does not mean it isn’t possible. I continue to find and bookmark healthy Patreon accounts with strong and growing communities where the creators are able to fully fund their work and then some.

Successful Patreon Creators Use High Value Perks their Supporters Want

This was the big breakthrough that got our Patreon moving and has likely driven most, if not all, of the growth we have seen over the past six or so months.

As creators with jobs, family and other obligations, it can be really challenging to get our shows out on time, let alone have the energy and time to manage a community of supporters. We are a case in point for this. But finding the time was not the issue.

The real problem is in how we valued supporter contributions.

With most patrons pledging between $1 and $5 a month, we couldn’t help but view their contributions against the immense pressures on our time and the climbing expenses to produce our shows. Even when taken collectively, these contributions amounted to less than $100 a month. So it was hard to justify adding new perks that would eat into our already limited time and resources.

And then we started to lose more patrons than we were gaining. We didn’t know what to do. So we asked them why they were leaving. The answer was a tough pill to swallow. In our own words, they felt disengaged and that their money would be put to better use elsewhere.

In other words, we had taken them for granted.

By placing the wrong valuation on the individual contributions, we were also undervaluing the people behind those pledges. This realization hurt. But it also gave us the basis from which to turn things around.

Value is defined by the supporter.

Even a $1 pledge is a sign of a patron’s love and support for a show and a creator they adore.

A $5 pledge is pretty much half of what most people pay for their Netflix subscription. That’s insane. They are paying us half of what they pay for a service that grants them access to thousands of shows. I realize that their pledge to us comes from a different place in their budget, but the value of their pledge is significant!

I expect that none of us want to take our supporters for granted, and yet coming up with Patreon perks is too often about what would be easy to deliver to supporters and not about the expectations of the patrons at that level. More on this later.

Expectations are set by other creators.

Beyond a shadow of a doubt, other creators are also interacting with your supporters and audience. These creators, collectively, are defining the expectations for donation tiers. If $2 goes significantly further with other creators, this can begin to eat away at the relationship you have with your patrons.

Patrons are super special people. After all, they want to support podcast creators for something that is available to download for free.

But even with the most awesome of the awesome, undervaluing your perks can slowly translate into undervaluing your supporters. And that never ends well.

I know someone is going to get upset here. The idea that it’s all about the perks. Why can’t Patreon be pure and free from commercial interests? I hate to be the one to rip the rose coloured glasses from anyone’s face, but if you are on Patreon, it’s about the perks. If you don’t want to build a community around perks or pay for access, then perhaps Patreon isn’t the best fit for you.

To be a $2,000 a month Patreon creator you have to act like a $2,000 a month Patreon creator

Sounds pedantic, I know. But let’s be honest. Most perks suck. Our perks were certainly no exception.

This is partly because as creators we are already struggling to produce our show, comic book or what-have-you. We don’t have enough time for the primary thing we are creating, let alone doubling our workload for a channel like Patreon that has yet to bring in serious dollars.

But that’s exactly what we have to do.

I am super impressed with the perks of The Amelia Project, a brilliant comedy Audio Fiction show. Check them out at: https://ameliapodcast.com/

Each episode of their show is about helping a new and quirky individual to disappear. The idea of providing the Case Files from the Amelia Project vault for each subject is just brilliant.

Visit some Patreon accounts you admire that you think might attract a similar audience to your work. Pay particular attention to the patreon pages that are generating significant income for their creators. What are they doing? How are their perks organized? How engaged are their fans?

I like to find creator accounts by clicking on new supporter notifications. Patreon will take you to their profile page and show you some of the other shows they are supporting. I learn a lot about our listeners this way and also find some pretty amazing creators I can learn from.

Credit: Patreon blog announcement for patron profile pages

Pay close attention to how much effort and value these creators are putting into their perks. Now look at your perks. If a supporter is getting a custom, super awesome video every two weeks from another creator for their $5 pledge, what does that say about what you are offering for the same amount?

This is not to say we have to match what other creators are offering. But only that we should use these insights to help re-calibrate the value we are providing to our fans.

We are a great case in point. Our perks were originally written to minimize our workload. Our quest was to find a cool perk that we could easily deliver with minimal costs. I believe that most perks are written this way, at least at first.

But before we go re-writing our perks, we need to figure out which tiers are already working. If you are launching a new Patreon, this next section will show you how to later go back and assess the perks you will be creating from scratch.

Stop and Assess the Health of your Patreon

If you are seeing strong growth in pledges, month to month, then this is a good sign that you have valued at least some of your tiers and the associated perks correctly. I like to see between 15% and 20% growth (or higher) a month.

If you go into Dashboard and click on Pledge Growth, you should see a steady net positive Total Change every month.

Still early days, but this is SO much better than what it was!

Next, take a look at the distribution of contributors. If all of your supporters are coming in at the bottom two tiers, it is likely a sign that you have undervalued the perks for your higher-level tiers.

Finally, you should also be getting notifications of people upgrading their pledges.

Many people start tentatively on Patreon. People new to the platform want to get a sense of how it works and that this is a safe way to support the creators they love. Whereas the more experienced users may want to make sure you are delivering on your promises.

If your higher level tiers are working properly, you should see people upgrading their pledges when you announce the delivery of one of these higher level perks.

If you aren’t seeing month to month growth or if you aren’t seeing people upgrading their pledges, it’s not the end of the world. It just means you have some work to do. Hopefully some of the things I outline in this series will help. But don’t be afraid to leave a question in the comments. I’m happy to share what I am finding on this journey with each and every one of you.

Overhauling our First-level tier

Access and inclusivity are important to us. So we wanted to make sure our lowest tier was firing on all cylinders. When we started, our $1 perk included “our heartfelt thanks” and a shout out on social media. That’s it.

We knew we needed to up our game and so we set about creating something for our $1 (and up) patrons. We chose to go with #farlorianfriday where we release something special for all of our supporters every single Friday.

Some people would argue that we should have done this at the $2 or higher tier. And that’s cool. To each their own.

I want to point out that #farlorianfriday creates an insane amount of new work for us. We have to write new scripts, record special giveaway sketches and much more.

So we gave ourselves some time to figure out how to manage a pipeline of new content and to ensure we could consistently deliver on #farlorianfriday before we moved on.

Doubling down on our $5 tier.

Once we were confident that we could maintain the workload of #farlorlianfriday, we sat down to identify the next tier to work on. Our $2 tier offered early access to new episodes; and it was performing well with strong signups at the $2 level and people upgrading their $1 pledges. So we turned our attention to our $5 tier.

We had very few $5 or higher supporters. And rightfully so. The strongest perk was “deleted scenes” of which we had only ever produced one. The rest of the perks were about shout-outs and being listed on our website. To say the value was lacking is an understatement.

So we launched a new show. This show was designed to be exclusive, easier to produce and in a different medium from our main shows. In our case, it was a video series about how I prepare for each episode of our Live Play audio drama. In addition, we started producing and delivering deleted scenes.

The response was immediate. People upped their pledges in the first week of announcing the new show and in the following month we’ve seen over 50% of new supporters joining at the $5 level or higher.

Here are Some Other Perks We Love

We recommend you look at creators you admire for some of the best perk ideas, but we are happy to share some of the higher value perks we are intrigued by at this time.

These are specific to an audio fiction show and have been organized from lower value to higher value.

  • Bloopers and Behind the Scenes special episodes
  • Character named after you
  • Commentary recordings
  • Monthly video conference chat with the creators / cast
  • Access to a patron-only show
  • Special physical artifacts that tie back into the show
  • Virtual seat at the table for a live-play one-shot
  • Fly on the wall at a recording session
  • Walk on (or remote recorded) roll in an Audio Fiction piece

I want to point out that getting your perks right is just the beginning. There’s so much to cover on this topic and I expect to talk about other aspects of community building in future articles.

Let’s assume you’ve got some new perks prepared. Now, it’s critically important that you get the word out about them!

Getting the Word Out!

It’s always a good idea to make a post across your social accounts for every pledge of support you receive. The Bright Sessions has always done this amazingly well.

Make these fun and be sure to include a link to your Patreon page. This is a nudge to anyone who has been thinking of supporting you and also provides a social proof cue that others find you worthy of support.

Don’t forget to do the same thing when you deliver a perk to your supporters. We want the world to know that we are actively producing content that is just one click of support away. For example, here is one of our #farlorlianfriday tweets.

Twitter is just one place to do this. Use every channel you have available to announce and remind your fans that you are releasing new content for your Patreon supporters. This includes your existing supporters. Don’t be annoying, but definitely get the word out!

Time and again, us announcing a piece of content is now available to our $5 supporters has led to one or more pledge upgrades.

Remember to push your Patreon page in whatever it is you are creating. We produce three different audio fiction shows and it is pretty simple for us to take a moment in each episode to remind listeners that we have a Patreon and some of the perks available. This does not need to be a hard sell. It’s simply reminding the people that love your show how they can support you and get access to more.

One last thing. Check all of your profiles across all the social platforms you participate on. I’ve lost count of the number of times I couldn’t find a creator’s website or Patreon page as neither were provided in their Twitter profile. At least one of them should be there.

Churn is an Active Force

There are always people deleting their pledges, moving their pledge to another show or just unable to provide financial support any longer.

We know that life happens and people’s priorities and financial situations change. But it still hurts to get a notification of a deleted pledge. As creators, we can’t help but ask what we could have done better. But please remember that this may not be anything you did and, more importantly, these notifications will never stop happening. They are a fact of life with any community that is supporting us financially.

So it’s important to build a community that brings in new or increased subscribers every month. We do this by creating experiences that exceed the expectations of our supporters. Never stop looking for ways to show supporters that they are valued.

Growth has to be higher than churn. It’s a simple equation, but a lot of work to make happen.

Navigating Muddy Waters

These are difficult waters to navigate. Beyond the work involved, we have to come to terms with our views around commercialization, capitalism and “selling out.”

For example, pay for access is a thing on Patreon. It’s a very effective tool from a fundraising point-of-view. Spend any time looking at the most successful Patreon accounts and you will see some form of pay-for-access being offered.

It’s something we are exploring, but we feel a strong need to not exclude those who love us just because they are not in a position to give more financially. So we are approaching this concept a little slower than we might otherwise.

In a nutshell, I believe that all of us can build a Patreon that funds our ability to create. It’s really easy to get jaded and think it’s all about money and rewards. I don’t think this is the case. We all have the opportunity to connect with a community of people that want to support what we are creating and who truly enjoy being a part of bringing this work to life.

Enjoy this article? Check out part two:

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Sean Howard is the co-creator with Eli McIlveen of Alba Salix, Royal Physician and the GM behind The End of Time and Other Bothers. He can be reached via Twitter or email.

Sean Howard

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Sean writes and produces 3 audio dramas in the world of Alba Salix at http://www.albasalix.com including The End of Time and Other Bothers at otherbothers.com