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Paid Subscription Models in the Influencer Space: A Look At An Evolving Industry

Updated: Dec 11, 2023

This post contains *affiliate links, which means I receive commissions for purchases made through these links at no additional cost to you. I only provide links to products that I use and wholeheartedly recommend.

 

First, how did I get involved in the subscription space?

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.


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.


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. As part of that process of refinement, I migrated my subscription off of Patreon, but that's a story for another day. My community has become the best part of my work, the most fulfilling space for me to create, and a significant portion of my income.


How do subscriptions fit into the creator ecosystem more broadly?

When I first founded Magic at the Margins, most of my peers had never engaged with a paid subscription model. At the time, and to a large extent to this day, most content creators and influencers relied on brand partnerships and/or ad revenue for income. The majority of their content was crafted for social media or their websites.


Initially, subscriptions were primarily utilized in other sectors. Paid newsletters have received attention in recent years as power in the media space appears to be shifting towards individuals rather than large organizations. Many notable writers have begun working independently and monetizing via Substack -- a platform similar to Patreon but geared toward newsletters.


Numerous podcasters as well have monetized through subscription platforms, drawing in their audiences to provide support for the continuation of their work. Among the artists, musicians, novelists, and more, I found very few other influencers with paid subscription models.


This lack of engagement in the subscription space by influencers and content creators made sense, to an extent. Influencer marketing is a growing industry that's still relatively new. Brand partnerships make up the majority of influencer incomes and budgets. With decent income opportunities there why invest elsewhere?


In addition, bloggers, content creators, and influencers have long given away their content for free. The level of free information available online from independent creators is astonishing, from recipes to professionally filmed and edited instructional videos. There's certainly doubt among some content creators that subscribers would be willing to pay for access after being able to get their work for free for so long.


A clickable graphic that says: Get influencer insurance! Insure your social media platforms and protect against lost income due to hacks.

But there's a shift in the creator space and subscriptions are becoming more prominent.


In late 2021 many of the influencers I follow and respect began launching their own paid subscription communities. Within just a few months, dozens of creators and influencers with platforms ranging from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of followers announced their launches on Patreon.


Some moved the majority of their sharing to that subscription space, severely limiting what remains available to the public on social media. Others have taken a more limited approach and made niche or specialized content available only to paid communities while the rest of their work remains public.


Especially with the launch of Instagram subscriptions and subscription features being tested on multiple social platforms, paid subscription models are becoming a major feature of the influencer landscape. Influencers have begun socializing the idea with their followers on Instagram Stories and increasingly launching their subscription communities.


I've started getting questions from creators regularly about how I manage my subscription community, which is a reflection of the growing interest in the creator space. In January 2022, Influencer Coach Lissette Calveiro (who I've taken courses from and worked with) named subscription-based income one of their top influencer marketing predictions, further cementing that subscription platforms for influencers are here to stay.


As an influencer and practitioner, I wanted to dig into why this change was embraced so widely and seemingly suddenly by creators and influencers. So I asked friends and creators who all launched subscription platforms in 2021 about their decision-making. Here's what I learned from those conversations.


As influencers realize social media longevity is not promised, subscription models offer a safer alternative.


Carina Wolff eating what appears to be a really incredible bowl of pasta
Carina Wolff of Kale Me Maybe

Carina Wolff, writer, recipe developer, and cookbook author behind the platform Kale Me Maybe, launched her Good Mood Food newsletter on Substack in 2020. Paid subscribers get access to bonus content, from recipes to articles, in addition to the weekly newsletter that goes out to unpaid subscribers.


Wolff echoed sentiments I've heard from a slew of other influencers in the last year as Instagram reach has declined and the social media landscape has shifted. Ultimately, many influencers are embracing the need to build income streams and means to reach people outside of social media.


Carina said, "I don't think Instagram is going to shut down overnight. But the landscape could shift, social media is always shifting. I wanted another space that I owned, an email list outside of Instagram which I didn't have anywhere else, a way to make money off of Instagram... Maybe not in the immediate future but at least a place I could reach my audience. Even if it's not fully formed, even if I'm not making enough money to fall back on."


Subscriptions offer a way for creators to pursue work they are passionate about while also nurturing connections with their audiences.


KJ Kearney of Black Food Fridays holds a beer smiling
KJ Kearney of Black Food Fridays

KJ Kearney is the founder of Black Food Fridays, a platform that encourages people to support a Black-owned food business every Friday.


KJ launched his subscription on Patreon in 2020 to support his work at Black Food Fridays. He's since migrated to host his subscription on Instagram, citing ease of use for the move as the platform is also where he shares the majority of his creative work. Subscribers get access to behind-the-scenes content and have the ability to give input on KJ's projects.


During our conversation, Kearney emphasized how in the fast-growing creator economy, influencers are increasingly moving towards subscription platforms as they are becoming more cognizant of the value of their work.


He said, "I think creators are looking at the value proposition for creating content, knowing how much work it takes to create the content, putting it out there, and receiving nothing but shadowbans and remixed algorithms for their work. For people who are dedicated to their work, it can be demoralizing." In contrast, he noted "even if you only have one or two or ten subscribers on Substack, you know those are people who are very interested and want to interact with you. That, knowing those people exist, makes the difference. It can be life-changing in that it gives you something or someone to do the work for."


Subscription-based income offers influencers an avenue to pursue creation outside of sponsored content.


Mila Clarke of Hangry Woman smiles at the camera
Mila Clarke of Hangry Woman

Mila Clarke, the influencer behind Hangry Woman, educates, develops recipes, and advocates for communities with diabetes.


Mila initially launched a Patreon subscription that she also migrated to host on Instagram. Clarke describes her subscription as not only a way to sustain her business, but more importantly a place to connect with the core audience that has supported her from the beginning. Members get access to behind-the-scenes and exclusive content that takes them beyond her typical posts and into more intimate day-to-day conversations.


She said, "Because I do a lot of education I get so many people in my inbox and DMs seeking answers to their questions and I had to figure out how to handle that and still sustain my work. At times it can be really exhausting. As I was looking at what other creators were doing and building their community in a way that brought them closer to their audience and still had that ability to connect with people that really support their work, I noticed they were using Patreon. I went back and forth about it for a while and then just said, let me try."


Clarke also emphasized how sponsored content takes a toll on creators. She said, "It can be exhausting to work for other people, to essentially put your own content and your own business aside to advance someone else's. Granted you are getting paid for it so there is a benefit, but it also gets really tiring. You have to strike that balance between making income and producing content that you love and that other people will love. I feel like consumers and creators are sick of that. I think subscription-based platforms help you move to a place where you can create the content you want to create and there aren't strings attached. They [subscribers] get what they want and you get to do something that you love. I know a lot of creators are burnt out by sponsored work."


A clickable graphic that says: Up your creator game! Get the tools and apps I use every week as a full-time creator!

How will the subscription space evolve for influencers?

I can't predict the future. But, as someone who operates a subscription community as an essential part of her influencer business and who has been studying and watching the subscription space for years, I can hazard a guess at a few of the changes we should expect to see.


First and foremost, creators will have to evolve to compete in an increasingly competitive subscription space.


The subscription space is getting more competitive every day. There are more platform options for influencers to host subscriptions. More creators have launched subscriptions. Add to that the fact that everything from toothpaste to your favorite tv show has a subscription and there's a LOT of competition for audience attention and dollars.


In this cacophony of noise and alternative offerings, it's likely many creators will launch their subscriptions and find it much harder to grow than they expected. To make significant subscription revenue influencers will have to get creative. I expect to see innovative pricing models, member offers that go far beyond a peek behind the scenes, and creative marketing campaigns behind the truly successful influencer subscriptions. That's what it'll take to compete in this environment.


After an initial rush of influencer subscriptions, many will quietly be rolled back.


That competitive field I mentioned? It's here to stay. It's likely many influencers will be encouraged by (in my view exaggerated) stories of "easy money" and the FOMO of watching other creators launch. However, after taking on the often long and slow climb toward building a subscription into a viable income stream, many creators will likely roll back or cease offering subscriptions.


Subscriptions will take the online offline.

People want to feel connected. That's why most people are on social media and it's something vital to remember in the subscription space as well. And while the success of Youtube megastars like Mr. Beast can't be replicated by every influencer, some of their tactics can.


Namely, as we've seen in other aspects of the creator industry, I expect to see the most successful creators take their online subscription communities offline. This could manifest in a variety of ways. Creators could host subscriber-only meetups. Influencers could facilitate group trips or special events just for subscribers. There are also really creative ways that creators could integrate their subscription communities into branded campaigns as well.


For example, in my subscription community Magic at the Margins, in-person events are by far the most popular member offerings. The feedback I receive from them is always overwhelmingly positive and I plan to incorporate them as much as possible in the future. They make members feel like they're truly a part of something larger and even better, they offer a way for me to step back from engaging from behind a screen and get back to a more human connection.


Those are my predictions for how the influencer subscription space will evolve. I'd love to hear your takes! Drop them in the comments below.


And if you want to up your subscription game as an influencer, get my Ultimate Guide To Building A Subscription As A Content Creator. In it, I take you through every stage of the process from defining your subscription offer to figuring out what kind of special sauce you can add on to truly stand out.


Other Resources:

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