Updated: 5 days ago
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Thinking about starting a subscription community on Patreon to support your business, craft, podcast, or other projects? Keep reading for an honest assessment of some of the platform's strengths and weaknesses.
I had an active Patreon presence from August 2020 through January 2022. In a little over a year, between the end of 2020 and January 2022, I made over $70,000 on the platform. During that period, Patreon was a huge source of revenue for my business and the space I invested in most heavily as a content creator.
So why did I leave the platform when it was generating relatively stable income?
Ultimately, though Patreon offered many benefits and was a great place to start my community, I opted to take the risk and transition off the platform for the sake of a better user experience and to control my content and community spaces.
What is Patreon And Why Did I Join In The First Place?
I started my paid subscription community, Magic at the Margins, in late 2020 out of necessity. At that time, my platform Feed The Malik was just a hobby, one that was growing rapidly and demanding more of my time and attention every day. Simultaneously, longstanding issues at my job bubbled over as the pandemic disrupted our lives.
Suddenly I needed to leave that career position behind and figure out how to make my work in the digital space more sustainable. Without another job prospect lined up, that need was immediate. At the time I had also just begun taking on paid brand partnerships. I knew that partnership income could likely be lucrative but hard to predict, so I was seeking another model that could provide some financial stability.
Patreon - a site where creators can monetize their work by connecting with subscribers who pay monthly or yearly, typically in exchange for access to exclusive content or benefits - was becoming more widely known in the digital creator space and growing rapidly. There, you can share videos, writing, photos, and even host live events exclusively for paying subscribers. It seemed like a good option and most importantly, a simple option.
Patreon was attractive to me as a purpose-built solution that I could launch on rapidly without fussing with payment systems or web redesigns. Patreon was also repeatedly suggested to me by my social media audience who knew I was seeking ways to monetize, suggesting they had some familiarity with the platform. Though paid subscription models are more prominent now in the influencer space, very few creators I knew of at the time had subscription models. I assumed that Patreon would be easier to convert subscribers over to as a known entity.
As someone who tends to move decisively when faced with a problem, I quickly launched on Patreon and got to work figuring out how to run a paid subscriber community as a content creator and influencer.
I'll be honest, at first I treated my Patreon as an afterthought. Social media, particularly Instagram, was my primary priority as I viewed it as a way to make more substantial income faster via brand partnerships. That mindset shifted pretty quickly as racist and sexist trolling on social media took its toll.
I vividly remember a period when I was inundated with racist trolls and completely unprotected by Instagram. I reported a user who kept making explicit anti-Black commentary on my posts that I won't share here and eventually got a notification that their actions didn't violate community guidelines. The only thing I could do was block them and then wait for them to inevitably create another account to harass me. Not long after that incident, my Instagram account was taken down multiple times in repeated succession for supposed community guidelines violations, which I assume was the result of those same trolls repeatedly reporting my account.
Though I eventually got my Instagram account back, it was a harrowing experience for a new entrepreneur who relied on the platform as her primary source of income. I knew then I needed to find alternatives for income and creative expression. I kept my social media accounts active (at the time just Twitter and Instagram), invested in TikTok to cushion the blow if my Instagram got taken down again, worked on building out my email newsletter, and began to focus on Patreon as the true home for my expression rather than just something I did on the side.
It took about a year of trial and error before I developed a good workflow, crafted a mission statement and goals to guide the community, figured out what kind of content I wanted and was able to create for Magic at the Margins, and really started to feel like I knew what the f*ck I was doing at all. The community I've built has evolved multiple times in that short span as I worked to figure it out. Ultimately, I'd characterize those efforts as successful, demonstrated by the financial success of the space I built there and the fact that it became a safe haven for me to create and explore free from the negative experiences I associate with social media.
How Much I Made & Why I'm Sharing That Here
After investing time, energy, and financial resources in growing my community, I made $71,070.95 from Patreon over 14 months, from November 2020 and January 2022. I don't share that to brag. I don't even share it out of some vague concept that I'm somehow contributing to true pay transparency. That income is not really comparable to other influencer incomes as we all have slightly different business models.
Rather I share it because I think the lessons I've learned on my Patreon journey could be useful to other creators, and in our society people often don't take you seriously unless they see stats, dollars, or degrees. So here are my stats. With a social following that was still relatively small in the influencer space (I believe I was at about 20,000 followers on Instagram when I launched on Patreon and wasn't very active on TikTok then), I built a subscription community that earned enough to sustain my business. See a screenshot of my earnings report below.
Now, income doesn't equal profit, especially as a business owner who has to set aside for taxes and expenses, but $70,000 isn't anything to sneeze at. Patreon earnings during those 14 months grew to enough that I could pay rent, pay for food, and pay necessary business expenses even without brand partnerships, something I celebrated and continue to be thankful for.
The disconnect between income and profit was one that I shared openly in Patreon for a while through budget breakdowns there. I no longer share those now as the community generally indicated that they weren't important to them.
However, I received feedback from multiple members that they appreciated seeing at least one or two of them as they taught them just how much content creation can cost and helped cement that influencing was indeed a real business. So for full transparency and keeping those comments in mind, I'm also sharing a budget breakdown here from October 2021 in my Patreon community.
Why I Left Patreon
Patreon by all accounts was going well for me. Why, then, did I choose to leave the platform?
In late 2021 I received a note from a Patreon member that they were canceling their subscription after having been a member there for months. They said explicitly that they loved my work, would support me elsewhere, but become fed up after months of poor customer service from Patreon. It hit me then that I had made a mistake (in my calculation) in my desire to diversify off of social media -- I had tied myself to yet another platform I did not own, a rented space that I couldn't control.
That story prompted me to broach the idea of transferring off of Patreon with my subscriber community and that seemed to open the floodgates. My suggestion prompted multiple messages, DMs, and more about how much people disliked the platform but stayed as they liked what I offered there. Ultimately, I knew I had to shift where I was hosting my subscriber community. As I began to do research into alternatives, I ultimately decided to move my community to my website for two reasons: to reduce processing fees and to have as much control over my content as possible.
Patreon charges anywhere from 5% to 12% in fees, PLUS payment processing fees. Those funds are taken out of your earnings as a creator on the platform. When I dug into my earnings reports I noted that while I made $71,070.95 from Patreon, I actually earned $83,252.07 before fees during the same period. That's $12,181.12 -- and that could go so far as a small business owner! That is money I could use to invest in events and content for the community and pay myself more. Switching to my website would allow me to reduce payment processing fees dramatically, savings I opted to pass onto members by reducing the cost of membership in the new space.
I also decided that though hosting the community on my website has some minor drawbacks (which I'm happy to explain if there's interest), I should invest more in spaces that I have maximum control over in the long term. My website is mine. I can tweak it as I wish, redesign it, refund people, and ultimately customer service there is my responsibility. That control over my own work is long overdue.
After months of debating and testing the new subscriber space with the help of some amazing volunteers, my subscription community has officially migrated off of Patreon and to my website! So far the feedback on the new space has been phenomenal and I'm enjoying having more control.
Shameless plug, if you're into food and beverage join us! Magic at the Margins is a 100% ad-free community space and members get access to exclusive content, free members-only events, work by incredible guest creators, and more.
Should You Use Patreon?
Patreon was a great place for me to start my subscription community and I do think it offers a lot of benefits. Should you use it? I can't answer that definitively. The platform isn't perfect, but below I've tried to give a fair and honest assessment of the benefits and drawbacks of using Patreon to build a subscriber community based on my own experience there.
It's purpose-built, meaning you don't have to do much setup besides entering in some information to make your page. You can fill it out, upload a photo, and go.
Patreon, like Substack and Fanbase, is known to consumers so when you mention it people will generally have a base understanding of what you're talking about. You won't have to do that initial piece of education around what it is, though to grow a subscription community you'll have to market it relentlessly.
Patreon has great case studies and training tools on their site aimed at helping creators be successful on the platform. I've learned a lot from those resources.
Patreon also seems to be investing in creator education generally. I've seen multiple events, trainings, and conversations hosted by Patreon in recent months towards that aim.
Patreon offers the ability to share various types of content for members, including polls, imagery, videos, audio, live streams, and more.
It's rented space. You don't own Patreon as a creator and thus you don't control certain aspects of customer service, your page could be removed if Patreon chose to do so, etc...
Insights are limited. Though some engagement insights are available to see what Patreon posts people respond to best, some vital insights are lacking. For example, you cannot see how many people receive and open the Patreon notification emails that are sent out automatically when you post.
Another key missing feature is the ability as a creator to see how many subscribers have turned off email notifications for your posts. That insight would help creators understand how many people are signed up simply because they want to support a creator and how many are there because they want the exclusive content being shared there.
You also cannot edit the email notifications that go out to subscribers, not even the subject line. They are what they are and that's it.
The user interface for both creators and subscribers is minimalistic to the point of being detrimental. In general, it's not necessary to make posts "pretty" for them to be impactful. However, Patreon has limited formatting functionality, which can make it hard to include photos and video together for example. The result is an experience that feels very stripped down. It was very frustrating for me when I was creating posts. As someone who likes to combine various types of media, I often felt as if Patreon didn't have quite the functionality I needed.
Though for some, app integrations would be considered a benefit, for me app integrations are a detriment on Patreon. Patreon offers many integrations. You can connect it with email management systems and even to Discourse to host Patron-only chat forums. However, the fact that scheduling a members-only event or hosting a live stream requires going to a third-party site when Patreon charges a significant percentage of income was frustrating.
For folks with their own websites, it will take some creative finagling to direct your web traffic to yet another site to support you. I found that due to the very nature of Patreon being housed separately, I struggled to build awareness and support of my Patreon community via my web traffic. Once I switched to my website as the host for my subscription community, that community began growing even when I didn't promote it elsewhere. After some digging, I determined that this was the result of people on my website being able to clearly see what I was offering in the community, explore it, and opt-in. I did not experience similar kinds of organic growth while on Patreon. Though in all fairness to Patreon I do know of some creators who have found ways to integrate Patreon with their work on web and make it work for them.
Should you use Patreon? It's up to you, your goals, and how much you're able or willing to invest in developing the infrastructure for your community. I wouldn't change anything about my Patreon journey, but the platform may not be for everyone.