3 proven ways to promote your membership

By Brian Keller

In this episode, Tom McNeill shares data-backed insights for marketing your membership.

Patreon’s Senior Partner Manager Tom McNeill works with high-earning Patreon creators to help them grow their membership businesses. Previously, he also specialized in supporting creators at the beginning of their Patreon journey, helping them launch their pages. Drawing on years of experience at Patreon, as well as working for music production and management companies, Tom has deep expertise on effective, data-backed ways that creators can promote their work.

In this episode of Backstage with Patreon, Tom shares best practices for marketing your membership with teasers and previews — methods he’s helped some of the largest creators on Patreon put into practice, which all creators can adapt as well.

Subscribe to Backstage with Patreon on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or directly via RSS. Join the discussion about the episode in the Patreon Creator Community Discord server.

Episode transcript

Brian Keller:
Hello, creators. You are Backstage with Patreon where we open the curtain on how to build a thriving business on Patreon. I'm Brian Keller from the Creator Success Team, and today, we're talking with Tom McNeill who's a senior partner manager at Patreon, working with hiring creators on the platform to grow their membership. Before that, he actually supported creators at the beginning of their Patreon journey, helping them to decide to start membership and launch their pages successfully. He's also been involved with arts and creativity really his whole career across the UK and New York, including the Academy of Ancient Music and live music production companies, music management companies, and in particular, we wanted to have Tom on the show because he's been pioneering some tactics for Patreon creators on how to promote membership to their audience and talk about the benefits especially around the exclusive content they get access to.

So, he's got a range of techniques on how do you preview and tease aspects of your creative work? With the data to back up, what kind of impact can it have on your audience and on your business there? So, it's a great chance to share some of these best practices that we've developed with the largest creators on Patreon and to bring into all the creators out there who could be leveraging these kind of tactics as well. So, let's get started with Tom McNeill on Backstage with Patreon, and let's be a little bit more specific. What does it mean that you work with some of the largest creators? What do you actually do and talk about with them?

Tom McNeill:
Yeah, that's a great question, Brian. So, yeah, as one of the dedicated partner managers on our team, I get to work with creators like Crime Junkie, The Friend Zone, Tim Dillon, Ladies & Tangents, Channel 5 just to name a few. It's really stimulating and brilliant for me, for our team because there's a great variety in there. There's some of the top performing podcasters in the world, some of the top performing YouTubers in the world, and so we get to support them in their work and also learn from them so that we can feed the soil of the expansion, growth, retention work that we do with the top creators on the platform and also with scalable programs that anybody, any creator listening to this podcast can get access to as well. So, I find that very invigorating.

Then, in terms of the actual structure that we try to bring to those interactions and those kind of coaching roles that we have with top creators, we try to do three main things. Thing number one is that we work with a creator to really understand them, understand their business, and how membership fits into that. Then, once we've understood that, our second goal is to give them the tools to really optimize their membership. Typically, these creators really know their business really well, and really what we're doing is nurturing top 1% of their decision making because they're already doing a lot of things incredibly well, but it's really just making sure that they're totally set up for success and achieving the full potential of their membership.

Then, the third thing that we do is amplify their good news stories. We do that externally so that other creators can learn, hey, look at what this creator has done. They've experienced this wonderful moment. What else can I as a creator learn from this other creator who's having a great moment? Then, also, we amplify those stories internally so that we can make Patreon the best possible membership experience and product that it can be, so we get to have conversations with during product and design colleagues and say, "Hey, look, this is how Channel 5 and Andrew Callaghan are using Patreon video. What can we learn from that so that we can keep building and improving the product so that we build for the future of our creators ourselves and then patrons who use it?"

Brian Keller:
Yeah. You mentioned some big name shows and creators that I think a lot of people have heard of. Should we just assume they've got it all figured out? They're excellent operating on every dimension. It's hard to appreciate. what are they also struggling looking how to get better or in some of the ways that are similar to smaller emerging growing creators as well?

Tom McNeill:
Yeah, absolutely. So, I think that in most of these partnerships between Patreon, all of our creator facing roles and the creator themselves, I typically find that the creator is the world expert in what they do and their audience. Nobody knows more about their work, their dreams and their audience than they do. Anybody who says that they do is probably overestimating their abilities. So, the creator is the world expert in their practice and in their audience.

We are the world experts in membership and in running a Patreon. I think that that is the common thread that runs through creators of all sizes that we work with, is how to bring those expertise together to improve the overall membership picture. Broadly speaking, I would say that the things that everybody's working on are, first of all, how can they acquire more members and really bring the full potential of that membership to bear? Also, how can they improve retention? How can they make sure that they're retaining the most number of those members within their membership? Then, the bit that's fun in the middle is how are they keeping the membership exciting and engaging for them as a creator.

Whether you're on day one, day 101, day 1,001, the thing that I love seeing and hearing from a creator is that Patreon is their favorite part of the internet. It's their favorite online experience because there aren't algorithms getting in the way, and there aren't gatekeepers telling them what they can and can't say based on the current trend or hot topic or whatever TikTok says is cool right now. I think keeping that fresh and that engaging and making the most of that is a challenge and an opportunity that creators of all sizes and counting when they're building their Patreon, building their membership.

Brian Keller:
You've got a lot of energy, it sounds like, for working with creators here. What makes you most passionate about working with creators in general as you've done for a while in your career and even more specifically with Patreon creators?

Tom McNeill:
Definitely. Well, this morning's energy is partially to do with the cupcake that our office manager in New York put in the way this morning, but so yeah. Passion for creators fits into two main categories, professional and personal. So, in terms of the professional side of things, as you alluded to it, the start of the pod, I used to work with creators. I used to be an artist manager and represented projects for people like Quincy Jones and Stewart Copeland and Becca Stevens. That involved working from the outside with a lot of platforms.

I remember the singular joy of encountering what I would've described then as a competent human on the inside of a digital platform to be my strategic partner, to be a thought partner in the way that we were using the services best, and to really help me solve problems that I was encountering whilst working as an artist manager with my creators using things like Spotify, Spotify for artists, SoundCloud, other services that really help you scale your work to a larger audience and build a robust business. I really, I get a thrill out of the fact that I get to be that person now on the inside that gets to help artist managers, creator managers, creators, build that business with the empathy of what it feels like to be out there doing that thing.

To give you an example, I used to be on Becca Stevens' management team. She's a remarkable singer-songwriter, composer based in New York. We were sitting there, looking at Jacob Collier's Patreon going, "Ah, that's great for Jacob, but what are our benefits? What are our tiers? What are our price points?" It's clear that membership is not a one-size-fits-all experience. You really need to tailor it to the artist, to the creator and the audience. We just scratched our heads basically.

Then, I joined Patreon back in 2019 and 2020. I got to work with Becca from the inside and give her these data-backed principles that were going to help to shape price points and were going to help to tailor benefits and were going to build a membership that was hers, that her fans were going to love, that she was going to love, that was going to really contribute something very meaningful to her business structure. So, that's the professional side of things.

Then, on the personal side of things, I read Angela Duckworth's Grit last year. Great book for anybody looking for something on their reading list, and she encourages folks to articulate a mission statement or a North Star by which they can kind of judge their personal, professional decision making. She said that that was a very influential thing to do if you are really looking to make progress on your personal goals, is really writing them down, articulating what does this look like.

For me, I worked out that my North Star was bringing art to life. To me, what that means is bringing a creator's ideas to life, bringing art to life in that way, bringing those creators 'ideas into the lives of other people or bringing their music into the lives of other people or their podcasts into the lives of other people. That's bringing art to life at scale, and then bringing art to life in the way that we bring creativity to our own personal lives, bringing art to life in the way that we interact, in the way that we express our ideas, in the way that we ... I think the phrase that we used at Patreon yesterday was like we take the work seriously, but we don't take ourselves too seriously. So, yeah. For me, bringing art to life is a personal mission statement, and so that lines up really intuitively for me with my passion for working with creators and supporting them and bringing their art to life.

Brian Keller:
All right. Well, let's cover some tactics that'll help creators bring art to life. I love that.

Tom McNeill:

Brian Keller:
I want to start with, why should all creators really be looking at growth and acquisition? Some creators might say, "Oh, I'm already a pretty good size, or I'm doing well on that," but I think you feel like a lot of creators should be paying more attention to that.

Tom McNeill:
Yeah, absolutely. So, I've been at Patreon for three years or so now, and the thing that I get really excited about is when I see a creator discover a growth lever for themselves because when you discover that lever through experimentation with different tactics and you know how and when to pull it, it means that you can experience repeatable, consistent growth. That's what a lot of creators are looking to do, that they can grow their membership in line with the way that they're growing the rest of their career.

To take a step back, I think that there's a broader framework that we see just working not just on Patreon but for business as a whole and for a lot of creators, they're running small, medium-sized businesses, and yeah. I was in a wonderful office hours with our head of finance, Carlos, and he was just distilling things down to a management consulting framework that you've probably got your own spin on, Brian, but he said as a consultant, as a coach, which is what our partner management team really are in my view, you walk into a business and you ask two questions. How is this business making money, and how is this business losing money? You try to optimize for making more money, and you try to reduce the loss.

When you look at membership, the way that you make money is by acquiring members or upgrading them within a multiple tier structure. The way that you lose it is when they leave or downgrade. So, that's why I'm really focused on acquisition and retention because it is consistently fitting that overall business model that businesses of all shapes and sizes use when they're thriving, which is, how are we making money and how are we losing it?

To give an example there, Amanda Seales is one of the creators that we've worked with in Pull Up, which is our byproduct program, Creator Accelerator, as well as within partner management. I was able to work with Hewan and Amanda in our Creator Initiatives team to bring them in through a conversation with Amanda Seales' team about how can we help them acquire more patrons. We identified that Amanda was going on a live tour, and that this was a great opportunity to engage with members, potential members in real life. We span up an idea whereby if you became an annual member at a live show, you were going to get access to an exclusive piece of merch that you could only get if you were taking part in that process.

Amanda was able to wear the exclusive piece of merch on stage as well, so a really great show rather than tell, "I'm going to get you this shirt, this shirt that I'm wearing that looks really cool," and that's one of the ways that we are able to activate that sort of acquisition question, which is, what is going to work for each individual creator that we're working with, applying the data-backed principles that we see working for creators as a whole?

Brian Keller:
Awesome. So, that's a good one to start. We've got the [inaudible 00:13:04] of how do you connect, merch and events and that feeling and belonging around membership. Let's also talk about some that are related to teasing and previewing content. You've really had some great breakthroughs on that front.

Tom McNeill:
Yeah. I cannot nerd out enough about the principles of what we'll say is really kind of easing, showing rather than telling, and to take a step into a conceptual space, I often like to think about the principle of the pie shop, the bakery. Many's a time that I have walked past a pie shop that has a sign that says, "Great pies inside. Pies for $10. Get your pies here." I mean, I very rarely read that sign and go in to get a pie.
However, if somebody is standing outside the pie shop with a free sample tray and says, "Hey, we've got some great pies in here, but I'm not going to tell you about it. I'm just going to let you taste it. Would you like a free sample of the delicious pies that we make?" I can't think of a single time that I've walked past that tray and not tried some of the pie because it costs me nothing. That is their acquisition funnel that leads me to buy pies I wasn't intending to buy because I've had a free taste, and I get the FOMO of the full pie. They're like, "Well, if you like the free sample, the pie shop's right here, and you just walk through that door, and it's going to be like $5, $10, whatever it is."

I think most people will be able to relate to that, the idea that as a consumer, as somebody who is in a potential audience or walking down the street, not intending to take part in a moment of purchase, being given a free sample of the thing that somebody is really building their business around is an excellent way of driving interest. Not just that but some portion of the people walking down the street will take a free sample and move on. That doesn't mean that they're never going to buy a pie. That means it was their first taste. Some people will be very enthusiastic and buy the pie straight away. Some people might come back the next day, try a different free sample, find the flavor that they like.

What does that mean for membership? Well, the thing that we found from a data perspective is that using this principle specifically in podcast and video environments is incredibly successful for building and growing memberships, really driving new pledge acquisition. To give some specific examples of what we're talking about here, anybody listening to this could check out for themselves, Channel 5 and Andrew Callaghan are a really remarkable video journalism channel on YouTube. If you search for Channel 5 clips, what you're going to see there are free samples of the exclusive content on the Channel 5 Patreon.

What Andrew does is basically sets up the story over the course of three to five minutes so that you get a real sense of what is going on with his membership. Then, at the end of five minutes of amazing storytelling, there's a call to action at the end, which is Andrew saying something along the lines of, "You've just watched the first five minutes of our story about this particular topic, whatever it may be. If you want to see the rest of it, you can do that right now by going to patreon.com/channel5."
He might also add in something along the lines of, "And by joining the membership, you're supporting independent journalism in the internet age," something that really gives somebody a sense of the overall cultural and community that they're contributing to, but that is an archetypal demonstration of what I would describe as being the teaser tactic. You've given maybe five to 10% of a full episode. We see that driving acquisition really strongly.

The second example that I'll give is what we call like the two-part tactic. This is something that True Crime Obsessed do really well. What they'll do is tell a story in two acts effectively on their podcast, both full episodes so like 40 minutes, an hour, something like that. At the end of part one, they'll say, "Tune in next week to hear part two of this story unless you want to hear it right now, in which case, you can go to patreon.com/truecrimeobsessed and listen to part two of this episode along with a ton of other great benefits. That's a really good way of doing that pie shop analogy. You get half the pie. Do you want half of the pie, the rest of the other half right now? Yeah, I do. Great. Okay. It's through here.

“And then one of them will like nudge the other one and go, ‘hey, didn't something crazy happen to you this week… ‘yeah, but it's embarrassing. I'm not gonna tell it here. I'll tell you what I'll tell it on the Patreon.’ “

The third example that I'll give is what we see as being the extended episode tactic. This is something that The Yards do really well. The Yard, again, if you want to look them up, they're on YouTube, and they will make a full 60 minutes episode available for their YouTube viewers. At the end, they'll do something really kind of cheeky, which I really like, I've got a lot of time for, but they'll have done this really generous episode, so nobody's complaining that they aren't getting full episodes. They've got this wonderful thing, and then one of them will nudge the other one and go, "Hey, didn't something crazy happen to you this week involving your mom and a family party and a plate of spaghetti?" The person will be like, "Yeah, but it's embarrassing. I'm not going to tell it here. I'll tell you what, I'll tell it on the Patreon. So, if you want to hear the story and you want to hear us chat for another 30 minutes, then you can join the Patreon right now, and you're going to be able to see that at the $5 level," whatever it might be.

In each one of those examples, the teaser tactic, the two-part and the extended episode, what you're doing is putting free content in these channels, in the spaces that your audiences are used to encountering your work. Everybody feels really great because they're getting something for free, and then whatever proportion of your audience are really ready for membership are also given the opportunity to have a deeper participation with you through exclusive content. Then, strategically, you'll have built community and other benefits around that, but that initial lever that we were talking about like pulling a growth lever, for all kind of video and podcasters, I would say if you're going to experiment with a tactic, experiment with this one because we've got the data to show that it's hugely impactful.

Brian Keller:
All right, so we've got teaser, two-part, extended content. If a creator's listening to this and saying, "That sounds awesome. I want to do that, but how do I pick a particular tactic? How do I find in my content, in my art, what is the piece that's going to fit this idea of giving them that flavor and taste of the pie?"

Tom McNeill:
Yeah. I love it. Great. Yeah. How do we pick the pie filling? That's perfect. So, the first thing I'd say is that a really good thing to embrace when you're trying any new growth lever is an experimentation mindset. So, be open to the idea that you are going to have maybe ... If you've got multiple flavors of episode that you do, plan to try this tactic out with three different flavors across three different weeks or three different months, whatever you want to try out with. See which one performs best. You may learn something. You will learn something about your audience and your creativity that is personal to you, that goes back to the principle we were talking about before. You are the world expert in your art and your audience, and we're the world expert in membership. So, by using this expertise that we have, a growth lever, you're going to learn something about what performs best for you.

To be granular about it, I'd say that if you've got a particularly spicy topic coming up and you're willing to put it behind a paywall, that does do really well. The other thing that I've noticed from our data that I think is a really interesting principle is also the idea of immediacy of current events, current affairs, what we might call inciting events. So, to give a recent example, when the Queen died, I noticed that a couple of our podcasters did monarchy specific episodes and put it behind their paywall, and we saw huge pledge acquisitions for those episodes. We actually saw the same thing for the January 6th riots.

The thing that I'd share there is that if you are a topical video creator or a podcaster, it's good to be aware of the fact that your audience are typically really hungry for information if somebody else is pushing a media cycle. So, if you can't get the January 6th riots out of your head and your favorite creator is going to do a breakdown of their take on it or if you're fascinated about the British Royal Family and your favorite comedian is going to do an hour on what they think about the monarchy, that's a really timely thing to put behind a paywall where your most committed fans can tune in for it. Even if you want to release it later as a public bit of content, that's something you can do too because you're making the rules. It's your Patreon. You can do what you like. So, yeah. Experimentation mindset, and if you do have something spicy and relevant to current affairs, that performs really well too.

Brian Keller:
Got it. Well, I think one final challenge or reluctance we might see with some creators is, well, it feels a little too salesy, too promotional. I don't like having content that not everyone can access. What can we do to reassure some creators that are almost ready to go but have a little bit of that doubt?

Tom McNeill:
Yeah, absolutely. So, I'd say that actually, again, if we take a step back and we look at what fans are really up for doing, we see monetization and value for value exchange everywhere that we look. If Radiohead are going on tour, if you want to see them in a stadium or if you want to see them in a theater, fans will queue up before you've even put them on sale in an online waiting room in order to buy a ticket for the thing that they love, for the thing that they want.

When people are doing merch drops, again, things sell out because people have been refreshing a webpage to get into a store in order to have this value for value exchange for something that's going to bring joy to their life. If we look at it in terms of even bands that might bring out multiple different types of vinyl, I don't know a single music fan who's been in a situation where their favorite bands brought out four different vinyl variants and is like, "God damn in. God damn that favorite band for giving me more opportunity to bring their art into my life."

So, I think all of these monetization actions can provoke anxiety within an artist, but the thing I'd say is, number one, you can look around you and see that actually, this is something that fans are very happy with. Actually, number two, think about what you feel like when your favorite creator makes something available for you because that's what a Patreon or membership is. It's an invitation to have a deeper participation with the art that you love.

To give an example of this, I was working with a manager that was, they were talking with their creator about whether to launch a Patreon or not, and they were kind of in two minds like you're describing, Brian, unsure about whether to launch. I said, "Okay, let's just press pause. Do you use Patreon?" They went, "Oh, yeah." I was like, "Oh, what do you use it for?" They said, "Oh, well, I'm a member of my favorite Harry Potter podcast." Said it like a little bit sheepishly.

I said, "Oh, how does it make you feel?" They're like, "Oh, it's amazing. I love it. Yeah, because I love the podcast anyway, but then I get these bonus episodes, and I've got this community that I get to chat to. I got this cool opportunity to get some exclusive merch the other week. I love it." I was like, "Great. That's what we're going to do for your fans. That same feeling that you have about this podcast that you love, that's how your fans are going to feel about your membership as well."

I think that that's sort of just kind of taking a step back from your anxiety and instead thinking about the happiness that you're going to be able to give to people who love your work anyway and who get another opportunity to engage with you is a great way of framing your confidence going into a launch.

Brian Keller:
Awesome. Well, Tom, that's a great place to wrap things up. We've got teaser, two-part, extended tactics. We've got our pie shop metaphor here and this encouragement to really invite your audience into your membership with these kind of tactics. So, thanks so much for joining us on Backstage with Patreon.

Tom McNeill:
Thank you, Brian. It's been a pleasure.

Brian Keller:
Tune in next week to Backstage with Patreon when we have an interview with singer-songwriter Rebecca Loebe. She's released five studio albums, been a contestant on The Voice and has been running her Team Loebe membership on Patreon for over five years. We get into how to immerse yourself in a community of other creators online and around the world.

To catch every episode of Backstage With Patreon, follow or subscribe in your podcast app and leave us a review. We also have transcripts available at patreon.com/backstage. You're growing as a creator by listening to the show, so why not share the insights from this episode with another creator on Patreon or who is running a creative business? We'd love to have you as an active collaborator with Backstage with Patreon. Come join the discussion in the Patreon Creator Discord. Follow the link in the episode notes, and you can get answers to your follow-up questions directly from the guests, and weigh in on what topics we'll be covering. Next, editing by Tyler Morisette. I'm Brian Keller. See you next time Backstage.

Related articles