Designing a better memberships platform

Supporting creators with Patreon-like memberships makes us think too much and doesn't scale

In Five Buck Fatigue, Lars Wikman writes about his frustrations with the increasing amount of content producers he is supporting through memberships:

I want to support, I want to engage. But I also want to be mindful in how I spend my money. And $5/month adds up pretty quickly. There is a lot of consideration in committing that recurring payment for .. indefinite duration. And I think I'm getting sick of deciding.

I'm 100% on board with this assessment. Subscriptions and memberships are great at aligning incentives between creators and patrons, but after supporting my fifth or sixth Patreon, each subsequent one feels like more work than the last.

The Problem

Right now, the fixed dollar amount + rewards design effectively makes every membership a custom membership that requires patrons spend extra time considering their support and dollar amount. Custom memberships simply do not scale in an age where millions of creators are making awesome things, because patrons want to support more creators than this allows for.

To break this problem down, lets look at three things each Patreon-like membership requires a patron to consider:

  1. The choice to support someone's work
  2. The amount to support it for
  3. The reward for supporting it

It's the bundling of these parts that leads to fatigue, because it quickly becomes both an analysis of value and a comparison task among all memberships the patron can remember they have. Unless a patron has a very high budget, this becomes patronage by a thousand paper cuts. Each membership forces patrons to answer questions like:

Rewards are not actually very interesting

In a model where patrons decide among different monthly amounts to pay, rewards (primarily bonus content) exist as an enticement to get people to pay higher tiers. They're a sort of culture that has sprung up where every creator thinks they need to offer rewards because every other creator offers them. But I'd posit they're mostly unnecessary overhead, and if we change the model, far fewer creators will need to go through the rigamarole to offer them. Rewards are still useful, but not to the same degree they are present today.

Solution: Fractional Memberships

What if we made a solution that simplified the patron's choice to just "do I want to support this creator", ignoring both the amount of support and rewards they may get?

This could work by letting patrons set a fixed monthly budget for memberships (e.g. $40/mo), and the system would divide that equally among all the creators they want to support. This means that whenever a patron come across a creator they like, they can simply click 'support' and that's it.

I think this fractional membership design offers a solid foundation to build off of that would really expand the market. With some design considerations for optional rewards, it can cover the whole gamut of creators, from celebrities with millions of patrons down to the currently underserved long tail creators that may not even  have a membership set up.

Rewards and Thresholds

Even with a fixed monthly budget design, rewards could still be supported by letting creators add a reward threshold that if a patron's amount goes below, they lose access. E.g. Creator Bob wants to give rewards to anyone paying over $2/mo. Patron Alice has $10/mo budgeted for creators, and has just decided to support a sixth creator, bringing Bob's portion down to $1.67. At this point, Alice could be notified that she won't get Bob's reward anymore unless she takes an action.

There's four possible options that Alice could be offered:

  1. Up her budget to $12/mo, giving all creators $2/mo
  2. Lock Bob in at $2/mo, upping her budget to $10.33/mo
  3. Lock Bob in at $2/mo, reducing everyone else's fraction to keep $10/mo rate
  4. Stop supporting one of her existing creators

This could be simplified a bit further to Keep reward from Bob? YES/NO and if yes, then lock Bob in (option #3) and perhaps ask if she wants to up her monthly budget.

The good part about this design is it shifts the decision complexity to only appear in situations where the patron's input is needed. The idea of a fixed monthly budget and a 'lock in' button are additionally both very easy concepts to understand. The downside is if many/most creators offered rewards, it could get to a point where every time a patron clicked 'support', they were punished with one of these choices, or a cascade of decisions would get triggered if several creators went below the reward threshold.

Solution #1: Limit Who Can Offer Rewards

Reducing the patron's cognitive effort is a key part of the design, and a reward threshold notification is a high cognitive overhead task for patrons, so there must be some feedback loop to limit any creator from offering rewards.

Thus, to prevent reward-fatigue, this design should limit the above notification to creators who have already built audiences of a certain size. I think it's fair that if a creator can't get 1000 or more people to click the super low effort 'support' button, then they shouldn't be able to ask for extra cognitive effort on the part of patrons.

Solution #2: Rewards Usage Model

If the memberships platform was also a content management system for creators like how Patreon is, another solution to the above reward threshold notification issue is to track whether patrons are even consuming the creator's rewards. For instance, if Alice has never actually looked at Bob's reward content, then Alice shouldn't even be bothered with the above choice. If she later wants to view Bob's reward content, then she can be presented with a choice of locking Bob into the $2/mo amount to get the reward, or upping her budget.

Why This Scales

This model is not too dissimilar to usage-based models in streaming services like Spotify, but with the explict control more in the hands of the patron. As such, I think it scales a lot better than the custom memberships world we have today for three reasons:

Dynamics

By de-emphasizing reward tiers and specific contribution amounts, and emphasizing and simplifying the 'support' action, this design is likely to alter which creators wind up getting support. It may also wind up increasing overall money going to creators by unlocking more potential patrons.

Long tail creators, many of whom may not even currently ask for money, are likely to come out better. With a much lower friction decision to support creators, patrons can send money to dozens of creators without a second thought, so its likely to increase this groups revenue. It also has some psychological benefits for long tail creators who do not make much. All things equal (e.g. getting $25 a month), it'd be more motivating to see 100 people supporting you fractionally ($0.25/ea) than 5 people ($5/ea). That tells you you're onto something, that it's not just a few of your friends throwing you money.

But the design does have the limitation of no rewards below a certain threshold, which may specifically undercut high priced, super niche plays. More consideration required here - perhaps long tail creators can add rewards but only if those rewards are above a certain amount (e.g. $20/mo). That might work for to capture true fans and niche expensive plays like business analysis.

Middle tail creators (>1000 patrons) may or may not see much change, except they might feel less pressure to put up rewards. So someone like science video creator Scott Manley whose youtube videos get hundreds of thousands of views may just decide not to offer a reward at all, relying on the breadth of his audience clicking the lower friction 'support' action without much thought, instead of the higher friction $4/mo reward tier he offers today.

Finally, celebrity creators (>50k patrons) would probably want to invest in building out a slew of rewards, given they have an audience size large enough for extra effort to pay off.

A Note About Predictable Income

Currently on Patreon and other membership services, a creator can expect each patron of theirs to pay a predictable amount per month, which lets creators budget their lives. In the fractional membership model, if patrons over time support more and more creators, every month each creator gets a lower fraction of that patron's dollar amount (unless they upped their budget). But the easier it is to support people, the more likely creators are to get new supporters. There's a question whether this audience growth would offset the volatility introduced with per-patron revenue.

Support and Creator-Patron Relationship

There is a concern about a mismatch between how patrons feel and how creators feel when money exchanged gets very small. Patrons who click 'support' on a creator may feel they are doing them a favor, but if that patron has also supported 99 other people and has a budget of $10/mo, does their tiny 10 cent fraction really constitute supporting the creator, or is it a glorified like button?

To some extent, the model changes the nature of the relationship between patron and creator. Trading 10 or 100 true fans for 1000 or 10k 'support' fans may wind up losing some of the intimacy of creator-patron relationship in the current model. Something to contemplate.

Conclusion

I'm by no means an expert in creator payments platforms, but in the things I've read I'm surprised I haven't seen any discussions of this type of fractional membership model as a way to help scale patronage and lower patron decision fatigue. I have a strong hunch that right now there's a lot more possible income that creators could have if the membership models were improved. It's just too clunky to have to go to Patreon and sort out all the different membership tiers just to support creators, and I think far too few people are even setting up accounts and engaging in this as a result. It feels like we're still in the early stages of a big trend around how people support people, and we need to move on from designs that just focus on the UX of the first few memberships to something that contemplates patronage at a much larger scale.

One place I think the fractional membership model could succeed at is Youtube. Creators there tend to put a lot of effort into their work, Youtube's scale is enormous, and because Youtube knows what users are watching, they could implement the rewards usage model (above) to further improve the UX. Were Youtube to offer a monthly creator support budget that every user could spread over all the channels they like, I think that would open the market up a lot and as a result see more art flourish.


Art: The Age of Francois 1st by Anicet-Gabriel Lemonnier