Understanding Digital Patronage: Why Do People Subscribe to Streamers on Twitch?

Donghee Yvette Wohn, Peter Jough, Peter Eskander, John Scott Siri Jr., Masaho Shimobayashi, Pradnya Desai,
New Jersey Institute of Technology

Gustavo Tondello
Oct 1, 2019 · 8 min read
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Photo by Emmanuel on Unsplash

Twitch.tv is a streaming platform where content creators showcase their talents in real-time. The content is available for free, yet there are people who pay streamers by subscribing to their channels. At first, it may seem weird that these people are paying for content that is free. But are they really receiving nothing? This is what our paper Understanding Digital Patronage: Why Do People Subscribe to Streamers on Twitch? explores.

In this study, we define “digital patronage” as the act of giving continuous support via the internet to creators of content. Twitch users engage in this type of patronage by subscribing to their favorite streamers — this involves a monthly payment. However, the motivations behind giving such monetary support have not been thoroughly studied. In this paper, we aimed to further understand their patronage motivations by seeking answers to the following questions:

1. What are the motivational factors that contribute to the variation in the subscription level?

Twitch has four monthly subscription levels — Prime, Tier 1, Tier 2, and Tier 3. Twitch was bought by Amazon in 2014, and the creation of the Prime subscription tier was announced in 2016. This is available only to viewers who have Amazon Prime memberships, and allows them to subscribe to one channel free of cost. The other tiers — 1,2,3 — require users to pay $4.99, $9.99, and $24.99 respectively.

One viewer chooses Tier 1. Another chooses Tier 3. What causes the difference?

We analyzed this phenomenon of variation in subscription levels by studying data from a survey conducted at TwitchCon, an annual conference for Twitch enthusiasts. The survey included questions about subscription motivation and patterns, demographic information, and an option to provide email addresses. We analyzed the survey data and discovered that the following factors are what patrons consider while deciding how much money they give the streamer.

2. How are different subscription motivations associated with other types of supportive behavior?

This question built upon the previous one, and served to deepen the understanding of patronage. In addition to subscribing, viewers can also buy the streamer’s merchandize, give “bits” (the currency used on Twitch, which viewers purchase using real money), gifts, and money. They also gift subscriptions to other people, so that others can subscribe to a streamer. We wanted to know whether there was any correlation between the reasons why people subscribe and these other forms of support they give streamers. Each of the motivations discussed in the first question showcased different associations with other supportive behavior. We found that:

3. What made the viewers subscribe to their favorite streamers in the first place?

This question was aimed at understanding what viewers were looking for when they decided whom to subscribe to. When you open up Twitch, the first thing you see is a window full of different channels with different streamers with different types of content. Even if a viewer is interested in a particular topic, there are a lot of streams offering that type of content. How does a viewer choose whose stream to click on; moreover, how does a viewer decide whom to subscribe to?

We wanted to know what attracted viewers to a particular streamer when they were faced with deciding whom to put money towards. Our research showed that the following factors played a role in their decision-making process.

4. What makes the viewers continue to subscribe to their favorite streamers?

Through this question, we wanted to study a similar phenomenon — the difference between factors that cause viewers to subscribe and those which result in them remaining subscribed. Twitch users may subscribe to a streamer once, but what makes them stick around for longer, especially when there are so many more streamers on the platform? Although viewers were initially attracted to the genuine personalities of streamers and the entertainment value of the stream, they remained subscribed because of their relationships with the streamers, perpetuity in the content, and the feeling of making an impact. The following points discuss these factors in detail.

5. What is the difference between a single time donation and a subscription

When viewers are watching a stream, there will be times when the chat goes crazy due to a huge donation made by one of the viewers. This kind of impromptu action generally creates a lot of noise in the stream, even though there is no guarantee that the viewer will show up again. On the other hand, subscribers consistently support the streamers in the background; their subscription might have a lower monetary value than the one-time donation, but it may add up over time.

When questioned on what mode of support they preferred, viewers reported that they valued time over everything else. They would look more favorably at someone who supports the streamer with a long-time subscription than someone who gives a donation and disappears. The reasons for this attitude have been evaluated using the factors discussed below.

Subscriptions provided more return on investment, symbolized loyalty, and offered a greater chance of recognition, which is why they were considered more meaningful than one-time donations.

This paper presents research on the psychology of patrons; it helps inform content creators of what patrons expect. On analyzing the results obtained, it seems that people aren’t paying money for nothing after all. Even if the rewards are not obvious to others, viewers who subscribe do seem to get some sort of satisfaction from being a part of the streamer’s growth and success. These patrons value time and loyalty over monetary support, and the returns they receive are emotional and tangible in the form of virtual items (emotes).

Contact author: Donghee Yvette Wohn

CHI PLAY session:
Streaming and the Crowd
Wednesday, 23 October 2019, 14:00–15:30

Please feel free to also write comments or questions for the authors in the space below!

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Gustavo Tondello

Written by

Instructor and Instructional support coordinator, University of Waterloo. Researcher, HCI Games Group. Logosophy student.

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CHI PLAY Blog Articles

Gustavo Tondello

Written by

Instructor and Instructional support coordinator, University of Waterloo. Researcher, HCI Games Group. Logosophy student.

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