Patreon and Content Creators: Is Patronage Back?

Bunny costume with sign asking for money; courtesy of gratisography.comYouTube is different. Or, the videos on YouTube are different. At least, the videos I watch on YouTube are starting to change.

A few weeks ago, I noticed a new addition in several of the YouTube channels I watch. A mention of something called Patreon.

What is Patreon?

From what I have seen, Patreon is a new platform that connects consumers and producers. It allows independent creators to find funders for their work. Most of the YouTubers I’ve seen describe it as, “It’s like Kickstarter, but it’s not about projects.” Essentially, supporters (patrons) make donations (tips) to fund the ongoing creation of content from their favorite producers.

Here’s the official promotional video.

And here are a few questions I found myself asking about this new trend. Note: it is entirely possible that this isn’t actually all that new, that I just happened to notice it and it’s been happening for a while now. The company was founded in 2013, but I don’t know when it started to become more prevalent. And, as NBC taught me, “If it’s new to you….”

Doesn’t Kickstarter already have this covered?

The comparison is appropriate. Patreon is clearly borrowing some of what makes Kickstarter work, like goodies for supporting at a certain level. And they share the basic ideal of crowdfunding: people supporting the work they love.

The move away from the project model is an important distinction, though. For creators who are just producing quality content on a regular basis, they don’t have to construct some sort of faux project in order to get support. And it minimizes some of the risk of the “all or nothing” aspect to Kickstarter. There are some benefits to motivating creators and patrons to make sure a project gets funded, but there is also something nice about the idea that people can say, “I like what you’re doing. Enough that I will give a little money to make sure it keeps happening.” It’s not a binary proposition where the project works or it doesn’t. It allows for creators to continue doing what they do, and it allows consumers to have a little voice, a little more engagement, which should ultimately result in better content.

One interesting twist is that one of the options is to have patrons pay per unit (podcast, video, etc.) produced. If you don’t publish anything that month, they won’t be charged. That feels like a great motivator for getting consistent content out for your audience. Could it mean that you produce less than ideal work for the sake of numbers? Sure, but that will end up costing you when people unsubscribe. Also, patrons can set monthly limits so they aren’t surprised when you launch your 30 podcasts in 30 days challenge.

Aren’t these YouTubers and bloggers already making millions?

You can find plenty of these stories. Kids making themselves (their parents?) rich just by opening toys; the highest paid YouTuber is a mystery woman who opens eggs with surprises inside; All the Mr. Biebers out there.

Side note: I was going to link to articles about these stories, but they are, for the most part, the kind of site/story I don’t care to endorse/promote. Google will oblige if you’re interested.

Double side note: if you Google “box opening Youtube” instead of “unboxing Youtube” you might find yourself looking at baby reborn videos. Feel free to tell me what that is all about. I accidentally spent too much time being mystified by the whole thing when I was supposed to be writing this. Maybe I’ll come back to it at some point.

Some of these folks are making obscene (to me) amounts of money from their seemingly unreal numbers (millions of subscribers, billions of video views), but what about the people you actually want to watch? Most of them are having a tough run. Not because they aren’t producing quality, and not because they aren’t building an engaged audience. They are just finding it difficult to consistently deliver the kinds of numbers that YouTube rewards. They are being drown out by a cacophony of click bait, gimmicks, and lowest denominator content. (My opinion, of course.)

Not that long ago, I saw some creators combating this by adding sponsors to their videos, along the lines of “This video brought to you by….” It’s also a common path for podcasts. When this is done right, when the sponsor is well matched with the content, it’s really more of an added value than an intrusion. For example, a podcast targeted to entrepreneurs that has FreshBooks as a sponsor. When it isn’t well matched, then it’s just a commercial. Even then, I find these to less grating than a typical TV or radio ad.

Can’t I just continue to get quality content for free, without being bombarded with ads? Isn’t that the promise of the Internet?


Let me explain. For one, the Internet didn’t really come with a promise. It is what it is, and it’s our responsibility to craft it into the place we want it to be. One way to do that is by sharing the content we enjoy. Another is by financially supporting work that provides value to you. That’s where the “valuable” part comes in.

As we move away from traditional media, it’s going to be a struggle for passionate, motivated, talented, hard working artists to be heard above all the noise. One way to help them keep it up until they can reach some sort of critical mass is through money. Sometimes we give money by clicking on the ads supporting a creator. Other times, we listen through the messages of their sponsors without totally abandoning their content.

But I really like the idea that we can give the creators money directly. (Ok, almost directly if you’re going through Patreon, but I’m sure most people would be happy to take your donation in the form of a check, PayPal, or bitcoin.) It takes us to the public radio and PBS model, but it is even more targeted. You can support a specific show instead of an entire network. And it isn’t in the non-profit space.

The idea is comparable, though, especially for the artists who aren’t trying to make it rich with their work. They are just trying to keep doing something they love for a living. I can absolutely get behind that idea. And when we are watching/reading/listening to that something, why shouldn’t we be willing to contribute a little to the cause. It’s a wonderful form of generosity.

And we shouldn’t forget the old adage, “You get what you pay for.” While we have become accustomed to all you can consume free content on the Internet, it is good to remember that most of it isn’t free. There is some cost involved, whether the ubiquitous presence of ads, or the pressure of offers, or the annoyance of pop ups demanding something from us (an email, a survey, etc.). If we continue to devalue content, to expect everything to be free (or cheap), we are ultimately going lose the quality that we really want for a quantity that isn’t actually satisfying. Here’s an article/editorial I read recently that expresses this idea pretty well–Final Word: Garbage.

So all the ads and sponsors are going away?

I don’t think so. Not for a while. For something like video, YouTube is still the platform to be on. And to continue spreading content as widely as possible, creators are going to have to play by YouTube’s rules, which will probably mean having an ad in front of the video. It will be interesting to see how that changes. Personally, I don’t think the folks buying that ad space are getting much for their money, certainly not the way I watch/skip through YouTube ads. But I feel the same about television commercials, and those things have been around forever. I think there will always be a place for sponsors too.

This is different than ads. They can provide value for the sponsor, for the creators, and for the audience, especially when the content creators make an effort to match their audience with potential sponsors.

What we will see in the short term is creators able to keep at it, producing the content their audiences enjoy. And if they can do that without worrying about how to pay the rent or feed their families, my guess is they will produce even better content. I certainly feel like that would be the case for me.

What do you think? Do you like the Patreon model? Would you contribute directly to the podcasters/bloggers/vloggers/writers you follow? Why or why not?


  1. Melanie says

    I think it’s really interesting. I would definitely contribute to folks whose spaces I consistently come back to for entertainment/education/inspiration.

    • says

      I like to think that I would as well. But I don’t currently. I can say that is because I’m not flush with cash at the moment, but it is probably just that I haven’t made this kind of generosity a priority. Maybe I will do some adjusting there.

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