Crowdfunding through platforms such as Patreon has always been one of several options open to online creators for making money. However, in the past year, with reports of sudden drops in AdSense revenue, more and more YouTubers seem to be turning to it. TenEighty chats to vloggers Sam Saffold-Geri, Jake Edwards, and Leena Normington about their experiences using Patreon, and to find out if the “adpocalypse” has affected their channels.
As the level of content on YouTube reaches saturation point, ad revenue has become less and less reliable for online creators. While YouTubers with huge followings may be able to make a living through adverts, smaller YouTubers make far less, if anything at all. “I’ve been on YouTube for three years now, and in that time I’ve never made enough from ad revenue on the platform to really consider it a viable revenue stream,” affirms Sam Saffold-Geri. “These past few years I’ve watched my numbers grow a little, but I still sit in the lower tiers of numbers, so it hasn’t made much of a difference.”
Recently, creators have been hit hard financially by many big-name brands withdrawing advertising from YouTube in what’s been called the “adpocalypse”. This took place after it emerged that adverts had appeared next to questionable content, including extremist videos. As a result, YouTube tightened regulations on what can and cannot be monetised. This, in turn, has caused confusion among many creators, who have seen content that should pass the updated guidelines be demonetised.
As creators struggle to generate income from their channels, some have taken on more sponsored content. However, as Gaby Dunn wrote in her article Get Rich or Die Vlogging, there is a “disconnect between internet fame and financial security” leaving audiences questioning why creators are creating more sponsored content when the size of their audience should indicate they’re financially stable.
“If anything, the ‘adpocalypse’ has affected my confidence in YouTube,” admits Jake Edwards. “It’s not as black-and-white anymore. Everything is subject to change or interpretation by some faceless being. I definitely feel like YouTube is no longer an option as a source of income.”
Sam agrees, and believes these changes have an impact on morale across the creator community. “What’s disheartening is seeing how it affects some of my favourite creators,” he says. “We need to have systems in place that make sure they’re benefitting from this as much as the site is, and seeing people I watch face demonetisation over content that isn’t harmful is a little concerning.”
This discontent has resulted in many more creators looking to crowdfunding options to make money, most noticeably Patreon. Patreon seems to be aware of YouTube’s problems, and has made a blog post encouraging creators to diversify their income streams.
Jordan Cope, Creator Relations Lead at Patreon, has noticed a recent increase in creators signing up. “Over the past couple of months, we’ve seen double the rate of new creator growth than we originally forecasted,” he says. “It’s hard to say whether that’s because of advertising changes at YouTube, or whether it reflects a natural increase in Patreon’s popularity among creators and their fans. Either way, we’re excited to have them!”
He goes on to add that video creators, from educational to musical, short films to blogging, do exceptionally well on Patreon.
So how does Patreon work? Creators can set up an account and set it so their patrons either pay per month or per creation. They can also create tiers whereby different donations unlock certain rewards. For example, the audience can choose a “$1 or more” tier for early access to content, or a “$10 or more” tier for behind-the-scenes content. The audience is able to give as much or as little as they wish, and they can cap the amount they give each month.
Patreon’s mission is “to fund the creative class”, which is why their number one goal is to make sure creators get paid. “We want to provide a membership platform for creators of all kinds to vibe with their audiences in new ways, for fans to feel a greater connection with their favourite artists, and to change the way that art is valued in the online space,” says Jordan.
“It all feels like a chance to give back a little”
Patreon’s pitch sounds enticing – the ability to have stable funding and a stronger connection with fans. Is this the reason why creators are drawn to the platform?
Sam launched his Patreon after getting home from working two part-time jobs, and realising he had a university assignment due. “Life gets busy, and I don’t want making videos to be something that gets caught under the wheels because it doesn’t help me eat,” he says. “I give a lot of time to this, and if I was in a position to do it carefree that’s where I’d be, but it’s not the world we live in.”
Engaging directly with people who enjoy his work is also a massive perk for Sam. “When I first started watching YouTube it was a huge source of influence on me creatively, and still is now,” he says. “Being able to give people a little more insight into how I do what I do, small things I’m working on, and ask them for their thoughts on projects – it all feels like a chance to give back a little.”
Leena Normington echoes this and – mentioning Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking – emphasises the vital role audiences can play in enabling art. “If I was happy to fund other creators, tip buskers in the street, buy merch from my favourite bands, and pay for poetry books in shops, why was this different? Why was I so ashamed to ask for what I was happy to give freely to others?
“It’s about recognising that your art has value – and there’s integrity in trusting your audience to support you, without demanding it from them,” she reflects. “Hopefully those who do support me on Patreon understand that they’re not just paying for their access to my content, but the chance for those who can’t afford it to access it for free. That’s huge!”
Having a close-knit community that enables your creativity also seems to appeal. “The community has been really understanding and no-one’s called me a sellout (yet), which is reassuring,” says Sam. “It just feels amazing to know that people are willing to help me do all this. It’s been really motivational.”
“Patreon works because audiences and creators naturally connect on a much deeper level”
While Jake no longer actively uses the platform, he credits his patrons for helping make equipment more affordable for him while he was still at college. “I was drawn to it because it felt like a genuine and fun website. It could be a mutually beneficial relationship for viewers and creators,” he says.
“It was based purely on other people’s faith in me, that I would deliver content to them in the future which would be engaging for them,” Jake continues. “It was mind-blowing.”
Jordan views Patreon as far more than a one-way transaction – with one side providing a service and the other consuming it – as it’s driven by the unique relationship between a creator and their audience. “Patreon works because audiences and creators naturally connect on a much deeper level, and want to develop that relationship.”
Creating that deeper connection is something Leena has taken seriously: she has a secret Facebook group with her patrons which she interacts with daily, sharing resources and thoughts. “I think creating a space for people to meet each other, and not just buy ‘my friendship’, has been invaluable,” she says.
Patreon has allowed Leena to create a higher volume of content and take on new projects, from live streams and book giveaways to agony aunt sessions and even a career clinic. “It’s really helped me be able to prioritise my poetry, podcasts, and videos over other behind-the-scenes freelance projects I might be offered. It’s helped me plan to pay other artists to help me with my work, paying musicians for their sampling, and generally being more ambitious with what I can do.”
However, it’s not all perfect. Jake reveals that running a Patreon page can be a huge commitment, one that can add a lot of time to your process as a creator. “If it’s your full-time job it’s almost like getting a promotion but no pay rise. And if it’s not what you do full-time, then it could put a massive strain on your life.”
“Looking at certain pages, there seem to be creators that put just as much time into their patrons as they do the content they make,” Sam observes. “It doesn’t have to be that way – [it’s] really impressive if it is, but this is more than just a virtual tip jar for most of the people I’ve seen on here.”
There are also some criticisms from within the YouTube community as to who should be “allowed” to use crowdfunding platforms. Most notably, Daniel Keem (a.k.a. Keemstar) recently called out Philip DeFranco for launching a Patreon to support his news network. During Episode 25 of his Baited! podcast, Daniel and his co-host claimed that Phil is a millionaire, and that by setting up a Patreon page he is exploiting his fans.
Should Patreon only be for smaller creators? How big a following is too big for creators? And is using crowdfunding platforms the equivalent of “begging”?
To counter these criticisms, Jake points out that you could accuse people raising money for medical bills or homelessness on other funding sites of the same thing. “People will support you financially when they believe in you, or when they get something out of what you do; whether that’s emotional support, entertainment, or education,” he says.
“If they can’t afford to run their channel without Patreon, or the benefits wouldn’t outweigh the sacrifice, then they should be entitled to at least ask,” Jake continues. “People aren’t obligated to give them money. And if a particular creator is using a manipulative method to try and get people to donate, then that should be addressed. But it isn’t inherently manipulative or bad.”
“Would you expect people in other forms of entertainment to just do it because they love it, and then have to find other ways of getting by on top of that?” adds Sam.“We all work hard to do this, so if others are in a position where they’re happy to help out, who’s to say that’s a bad thing? I think it’s brilliant.”
As for who should be utilising crowdfunding, Sam doesn’t feel he has the authority to say, but he thinks that creators can measure this themselves. “Just make sure that you’re asking for what you think you’re worth, and that you’re giving back enough in return.”
Leena agrees. “Amanda Palmer has a great analogy in [The Art of Asking]. There would always be guys driving by in their cars, winding down the window shouting, ‘Get a real job!’ – but this is our real job.”
She argues that while it’s not a full-time job for some, it’s still as important as any other profession. “How many times have you been at a party and asked someone what they do and haven’t really understood the response? Those driving by can never understand the exchange between audience member and creator – and that’s just fine,” Leena explains. “It’s kind of like commenting on someone else’s romantic relationship – we don’t have to explain it to you for it to work and be beautiful!”
Jordan feels that these complaints stem from a fear of change or because artists are already devalued. “Luckily, it’s a perception we see shift more and more every day, especially with creators like Kinda Funny, Philip DeFranco, or Hank and John Green building out entire media companies with the platform! We find that every creator has a subset of their biggest fans who are devoted and want to leave an indelible mark on their work: those are the fans who become patrons.”
“I became a patron because I wanted to send something in return”
Martin, who supports four creators on Patreon, made the decision to become a patron after following one of his favourite creators on Twitch. “I realised that this person gave me hours of entertainment and that he was putting in a lot of time and effort for his community. I became a patron because I wanted to send something in return for the hours of fun.” When asked about what he feels he gains by supporting a creator on Patreon, he says: “Besides the set rewards by the creator? Nothing really, just the feeling that I’m returning something to the creator for his/her time spent.” Xella, who supports four creators, and Jordi, who supports five, both agree. They show little interest in receiving rewards and are simply happy that Patreon allows them the opportunity to give back directly to the creators.
Has the adpocalypse caused the sudden rush to Patreon? Possibly, but nobody can say for certain. For smaller creators, who haven’t relied on AdSense previously, it’s not made much difference, but for others, it’s been a wake-up call about the sources of income they rely on.
Being a YouTuber has never offered financial stability, and creators have always needed to seek out multiple ways of making money. Not everyone is able to get brand deals, however, and with concerns regarding AdSense on YouTube, platforms such as Patreon are becoming more and more essential.
And, despite what the naysayers think, it’s a rewarding avenue for everyone involved. It enables creators to keep doing what they love, while giving audiences a chance to support creators they value and to feel part of a community. And hey, isn’t that what YouTube creators have always strived to build?
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