4 common membership doubts dispelled

By Julie Schneider

Photo by Maggie Shannon, featuring Blair Imani

Feeling excited — and a little nervous — about starting a membership business? Hear what these creators have to say about your most common concerns.

Once you have a grasp on what membership is all about and what it can do for your creative business, you might still have some lingering worries or doubts. But if the thought of starting a new venture brings up feelings of trepidation, don’t worry — you’re not alone. To those wrestling with a case of nerves, content creator Alayna Joy offers a pep talk: "Don't let a fear of failure stop you from even trying. Launching anything new is scary, but you're guaranteed to fail if you don't even try. Give it a shot. It could change your life."

Here, creators with first-hand knowledge address common concerns about the realities of operating a membership-based business — and tips for taking the leap.

Doubt #1: People will think I’m “begging for money.”

Maybe you’ve worried that by offering membership people will look down on you and perceive you as “begging for money.” But let’s step away from that framing and zoom out: Membership is not about asking people for money out of sheer goodwill; it’s a smart part of growing your creative business in a sustainable way. Offering exclusive content and community in exchange for a monthly payment is a two-sided equation — a harmonious value-for-value exchange. Your members get stuff they’re happy to pay for (hello, bonus episodes!), and dependable, recurring income means you can meaningfully invest in your creative business for the long-term. Thanks to membership, creators have hired people onto their creative team, leased office space, produced new projects, built media companies, and otherwise been able to bring bold ideas to fruition.

"Patreon has been the most integral part of the financial piece of podcasting for Bad Magic Productions,” explains podcaster Dan Cummins, host of Timesuck. “Our patrons have allowed us to do so many amazing things, like launch a third show, rent a studio, hire a staff, and make a great living doing exactly what we love."

Possibilities like these have drawn hundreds of thousands of creators to offer membership, with thousands more launching each month. Plus, membership is hardly a new concept. Cultural institutions have tapped into this model for a long time. Think season tickets to the theater or subscriptions to magazines, newspapers, and streaming services, like Netflix and Hulu.

“Saying that a membership site isn't professional is like saying buying a ticket to a concert isn't professional,” Alayna says. She adds, “As people who are creating non-traditional products or services, we can struggle with understanding our own value and invalidate what we're doing as worthy. Creating this sort of business model, you're saying, ‘The thing that I'm making is worthwhile.’”

"Our patrons have allowed us to do so many amazing things, like launch a third show, rent a studio, hire a staff, and make a great living doing exactly what we love."

Doubt #2: I don’t know what I’d offer.

You may worry that you’ll need to contort your creative work into a rigid mold to succeed when trying a new-to-you business model. But when it comes to membership, there’s not just one single, universal solution. Not sure what to offer? Ask your fans what they’d like to see. Getting their buy-in early can shape your plan and boost future participation.

Before launching his Patreon, musician Andy Hull of Manchester Orchestra posed this to his fans on Twitter: “I’m strongly considering doing a tiered monthly subscription that would include new songs, covers, archived material, rarities, live performances, song breakdowns, exclusive merch, and other unique goodies. Anybody out there interested?” The response was a resounding chorus of yeses. Now, Manchester Orchestra offers a slate of benefits including a monthly unreleased demo, acoustic performance videos, early access to records and merch, and exclusive annual gifts, like a signed lyric sheet and a T-shirt. By rallying your fans and calling on your creative superpowers, you can cook up something truly special.

And consider the tools and artifacts of your creative work that you may take for granted, but that can have real value to your fans — things like the concert setlist you take on stage with you, the digital brushes or templates you use in your designs, outtakes of your podcast episodes. Things like this give a taste of the magic that happens behind the scenes in your creative world and don’t take extra time and effort for you to produce, yet getting access to these things can be meaningful for your community members.

Membership can also add new dimensions to your creative business, by enabling you to tap into your fan community for inspiration and collaboration. For example, Alie Ward’s members can submit questions for her podcast Ologies and vote on future topics — a chance to help shape a podcast they love. For more inspiration and ideas from other creators, check out How to combine exclusive content and community to delight your fans.

Doubt #3: Once I set up my membership model, I can’t change it.

If you’re worried that you’ll be stuck with the first iteration of your membership model, rest easy. A membership business is like a laboratory: dynamic and flexible, and you can experiment and switch things up as you go. If you keep an open mind and an open line of communication with your members, odds are, regardless of your current comfort with managing the needs and nuances of this type of business, you’ll learn and gain expertise as you go.

"“As my Patreon has grown, my content online has grown, and I've been able to hire more people. And because I've expanded my team, I now have more time to create more content for Patreon."

Justine Kay and Natasha Scott, co-hosts of the podcast 2 Black Girls, 1 Rose, for example, reimagined their brand after they started offering membership on Patreon and revamped their membership levels and benefits while they were at it. They found the support and motivation they needed to take this step by drawing on a community of other creators through Patreon-powered programs, like A. Club (accountability groups hosted by creators, for creators) and Pull Up (an incubator and creative community built to connect and amplify the work of creators of color).

With membership, when you’re ready to evolve your creative business, you can also draw on inspiration and input directly from your fans. After surveying her audience, both on and off Patreon, for example, educator, author, and historian Blair Imani, who makes the video series “Smarter in Seconds,” redesigned her original Patreon as “Smartieopolis,” a fully branded and immersive community hub for learners. She’s also added voting on all her membership levels, dubbing patrons “voting citizens” or “Smartizens” who can help shape the future of the content she creates. Calling on direct input from her community, Blair continues to create a dynamic membership business that truly suits her style.

Doubt #4: I’m worried about having enough time.

Time is a precious resource for any creator, so if you’re concerned about how many hours you’ll need to invest, that’s totally understandable. Like all entrepreneurial endeavors, fitting membership into your overall creative business in a sustainable way requires thoughtful planning. Creating new content, regular updates, and interacting with your fans? It all takes time and energy.

But running a membership business doesn’t need to be an overwhelming time sap. You can design it to fit the needs and rhythms of your creative work and business. Influencers and podcasters Zane Hijazi and Heath Hussar, known as Zane & Heath, learned this through trial and error. They originally launched their Patreon with three different membership tiers, offering a host of different benefits. They soon found it hard to keep up with all they promised their fans and made the decision to simplify things and offer just one set of benefits at a single $5 price point — and it worked for them and their fans! After this change, fans reported having a greater sense of community because everyone was on an equal playing field. The streamlined model took less time to manage and increased their membership revenue as well.

By starting small with a single membership level, offering benefits and rewards that you can realistically achieve (and that you enjoy producing), and setting healthy boundaries around your time, you can build a strong foundation for your business for the long term. And if you need to pause billing and reassess at any point, that’s fine, too.

“Time can inhibit you, but it can also be a motivation,” Alayna says. “As my Patreon has grown, my content online has grown, and I've been able to hire more people. And because I've expanded my team, I now have more time to create more content for Patreon. So it's this positive cycle.”

If you’re looking to connect and learn from fellow creators, check out Patreon’s creator community offerings – including programs, events, and a dedicated creator community Discord server. If you’re ready to get started imagining your membership, keep reading How to combine exclusive content and community to delight your fans.

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