What is a membership business, and how does it work?

By Julie Schneider

Photo featuring Ross Tran of RossDraws

Curious about how to translate passionate fans into a thriving business? We provide answers to your most pressing questions.

In our series, All About Membership, we cover the essentials of how membership works for creators to help you decide whether it’s right for you.

Imagine a world where you’re able to make what you most want to make, alongside the people who truly love what you do, while generating reliable income. Whether you're an artist, video creator, podcaster, gamer, musician, writer, or maker of another sort, adding membership to your slate of offerings has the potential to make this vision a reality.

Keep reading to learn more about how membership works and what you should know if you’re thinking of offering it.

How is membership different from other business models and income streams?

Unlike a retail business model where customers make one-off purchases or variable income streams — like brand partnerships, ad revenue, or short-term freelance gigs — membership allows for recurring, dependable income. Fans typically pay a monthly or annual membership fee in exchange for access to exclusive content, community experiences, and behind-the-scenes looks at your creative practice. These predictable payments can, in turn, help you sustainably pursue your passions, form stronger and more direct connections with your fans, and grow your business, while fueling your creative vision in a way that’s not beholden to an algorithm.

You can also think of membership as a space where the inner circle of your fanbase — that subset of people who truly champion what you create — can come together to connect with each other, with you, and with your work in a personal and meaningful way that both fans and creators value.

What elements does every membership need?

Since every creative business has something special to offer, there’s not a one-size-fits-all approach to designing a membership. But there are a few essential ingredients you’ll want to focus on: your fanbase, the benefits you’ll offer fans who join your membership, and how you’ll structure and price those benefits. Let’s break it down.

Fostering your fanbase

A membership works best when you already have an active community of fans, whether small or large, with whom you’ve built trust and rapport. Regardless of whether your fans regularly watch your videos, listen to your podcasts, participate in your group chat or community forum, or attend your live events or workshops, it’s their engagement and enthusiasm for what you do that matters.

“You need to establish yourself first and show yourself to be authentic, reliable, and consistent,” explains Nikki Gordon-Bloomfield, creator and founder of media company Transport Evolved. Before offering membership on Patreon, she established her YouTube channel and built an engaged audience, following some guiding wisdom from her upbringing: “There’s an old phrase in the U.K., ‘Let the dog see your rabbit.’ It’s a euphemism for showing people what you can do before you then ask them to support you.”

"A membership works best when you already have an active community of fans, whether small or large, with whom you’ve built trust and rapport."

Deciding what to offer

With membership, in return for a monthly or annual payment, you offer members access to benefits — a value-for-value exchange. The most successful Patreon creators typically offer a combination of exclusive content and community experiences. Exclusive content could include things like behind-the-scenes peeks of your process (think: day-in-the-life updates, process videos, or studio tours), early access, ad-free content, or bonus materials, like additional episodes, special segments, or funny outtakes. Community benefits could include members-only Discord servers or chat spaces, collaborative projects, monthly livestream hangouts, exclusive polls where members can give you input, and member shout-outs in social media posts, video credits, or liner notes. Regardless of what you choose, selecting benefits that feel special and meaningful to you and your members is key.

For inspiration, here are real-life examples of benefits that creators offer:

  • Hoax debunker Captain Disillusion shares exclusive video content, including “featurettes” about the making of select episodes, complete with bloopers and deleted scenes.
  • With a single $7.99 membership level, the podcaster duo behind The Toast give members access to bonus episodes each month, as well as exclusive music videos, photo albums, and early access to new merch and ticket sales.
  • Illustrator RossDraws offers behind-the-scenes videos, access to a private Discord channel, and Photoshop layer files and brush packs, just for members.
  • Actor, writer, and producer Issa Rae offers members behind-the-scenes glimpses and on-demand access to various series produced by her media company Hoorae.

To home in on what benefits make sense for your business, consider the overlap of what your audience loves about your work (and what they’d love to see more of) and what you find easy and energizing to make — this is the sweet spot! For more inspiration and tested tactics, hop on over to How to combine exclusive content and community to delight your fans.

Structuring and pricing your benefits

When you’re getting started with membership, we recommend you offer a single set of benefits at an approachable price point, typically in the $5-10 dollar range. That single membership level can also serve as a sort of testing ground, allowing you to see what your audience engages with, what you enjoy offering, and what feels manageable, before you add the complexity of additional levels.

As you grow your membership base or get new ideas for rewards to offer, you can always add additional levels, or tiers, to your membership to give your fans more choices at different price points.

These membership building blocks work well for a variety of businesses because fans get the excitement of options and access, and creators, in turn, can tap into an enriching and efficient way to engage with fans.

Is membership right for my creative business?

Regardless of your chosen creative format, if you’re a creator with an engaged audience of any size, membership could be a smart and adaptable addition to your business’ offerings — one that can become your mainstay or supplement existing revenue streams you may have. Membership has the potential to open a world of possibilities and help you create and grow your business, on your own terms.

Keep reading to learn more about what creators love about membership and common doubts creators face when considering this income stream, including real-life examples of how membership works for creators like you.

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