The Patreon-ification of Membership

For years, the language of membership has often felt unique to the world of associations. But with the success of the tech startup Patreon, which will hand out $150 million to creators this year, we may be on the brink of a moment where membership concepts grow more mainstream. That could be a good thing for associations.

What does it mean for membership when anyone with an idea can create a membership program for that idea fairly easily?

It certainly changes the dynamic of what’s possible, that’s for sure.

In recent years, the startup Patreon—cofounded by Jack Conte, a man already famous enough for his band Pomplamoose that you’ve probably seen him and his wife in a car commercial—has helped to reshape the way that the public interacts with people who create things.

(For point of fair disclosure: I use Patreon myself, both as a consumer of media and as someone who creates it. I think a lot of folks do these days.)

Since its launch in 2013, the recurring-payments model of Patreon, which can be reshaped based on individual needs, is said to be bringing in more than $150 million in money for creators in 2017 alone. The company, which takes 5 percent off the top of these transactions for YouTubers, podcasters, and bloggers, has raised more than $107 million in venture capital funding, $60 million of that getting added to their coffers back in September.

I do wonder if a push toward consumer-focused membership platforms might end up being a good thing for associations in the long run.

And its value as a platform for creatives is likely to become more important in the next 12 months. Among the reasons:

Stricter ad policies on platforms creatives use. Earlier this year, the advertising industry had a collective moment of shock after it was revealed by media reports that some of their ads were appearing next to hateful or violent content, particularly on YouTube. This issue, in effect, has forced YouTube to make changes to its advertising program that have led many videos to face issues with “demonetization.” The backlash to this issue—with off-base algorithms catching legitimate creators in the middle—became serious enough that the Google-owned company had to announce it was taking steps to fix the problem late last week. While Patreon has rules of its own (it had to put out its own fire recently), creators generally have more control than they might on YouTube.

Growing effectiveness of the tools. In recent years, Patreon has been a useful platform, but it’s never been one that interacted terribly well with outside platforms, meaning that running a Patreon program required a high degree of manual work. Earlier this year, however, Conte announced the firm would be adding more customer relationship management (CRM) functionality. (Which means, technically, that Patreon works like an association management system, or AMS.) And last week it created an app directory for third-party apps like WordPress, Discourse, and Slack. It also supports the IFTTT-like automation service Zapier, making it possible to, say, automatically add someone to a special email list in MailChimp.

And Patreon isn’t the only offering like this. Fellow startup Memberful has seen success helping bloggers like Stratechery’s Ben Thompson build membership sites around their content, and publishing platform Medium has drawn attention for its membership program, which promises to directly pay publishers for what they write.

What This Means For Associations

In some ways, I have to ponder whether this rise of membership in even individual creative endeavors could eventually mean a degree of “member fatigue”—if you’re a member of 12 different things, big and small, something’s eventually going to fall off.

It’s a problem not unlike the one the streaming video industry has: It’s ultimately better for consumers to get one Netflix or Hulu subscription that allows them to support a lot of things, versus 50 memberships of various shapes and sizes. The former model puts much less control in the hands of the content creators, hence why we’ve seen Disney and others try to create Netflix competitors. (It’s to be seen whether this rethinking of streaming services will be effective.)

On the other hand, I do wonder if a push toward consumer-focused membership platforms might end up being a good thing for associations in the long run, which haven’t really seen a lot of examples of membership technologies outside the association space. This could potentially open the floodgates to lots of new ideas and technologies by simply offering new kinds of examples to borrow from.

For one thing, native AMS provider integration with integration-focused tools like Zapier and IFTTT isn’t very common at this stage, though there are some examples. (Aptify, for one, supports IFTTT via an extension, and if you know what you’re doing with an API, building a nonofficial integration is likely possible.) If Patreon’s integration is successful, it could lead to a push for such integrations to be supported by default.

In some ways, Patreon and its competitors work on a different scale than an association or even a news outlet, the latter becoming a common target of membership programs in recent years. DIY membership programs create complexities for individuals that organizations may not struggle with—imagine trying to send hundreds of T-shirts to patrons as a single individual working on a large project—but, on the other hand, it also opens up new ways of thinking about a huge, messy, complex thing that doesn’t really get talked about a lot outside of the world of associations.

These days, your job has a lot more in common with that of the podcaster you listen to, the YouTuber you watch, or the blog you read. And that means that, soon enough, you’ll be able to share notes with someone in the trenches, but outside of the association space.

It might just make the concept of membership better as a whole.

(CatLane/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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