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The competitors of Patreon

Patreon EC-1 Part 5: How Patreon is fending off social networks, vertical-software services, and other threats


Image Credits: Bryce Durbin /

In December, Patreon CEO Jack Conte shared a list on Twitter predicting what being an independent content creator will be like in 10 years. One of his predictions was that there will be fierce competition between distribution platforms to get creators paid.

That competition has already begun, which is good for creators, but is it good for Patreon?

Patreon holds a strategic position in the creator toolset, particularly around building membership businesses — the recurring income from superfans that allows for creator sustainability. Among its competitors are some of the richest tech companies in the world who own content distribution platforms, like Facebook and YouTube. A crop of vertical-specific subscription infrastructure companies could push back on Patreon’s early market share by offering creators better features for specific use cases. A range of B2B software companies, blockchain projects, or even Hollywood agencies could decide to target Patreon’s core creator customer.

This article is an analysis of each of those challenges to Patreon, and how the company can navigate them to come out ahead.

Reading time for this article is about 16 minutes. It is part of the Extra Crunch EC-1 on Patreon. Feature illustration by Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch.

Fending off the content platforms

Creators heavily use content distribution sites like Facebook, YouTube, Twitch and others to publish their work and engage with their fans. Given the amount of effort expended on these platforms, it seems inevitable that they would find value in running their membership businesses through them as well.

Indeed, these platforms — particularly Facebook and YouTube — are investing significant resources into building out full-featured tools for creators to generate revenue directly from their fans.

Facebook is the top threat to Patreon, although others are also certainly important to watch.

The top distribution platforms have three advantages against Patreon. First, they have enormous budgets, plain and simple. Second, they already count most of the world’s creators and fans as users. YouTube, for example, may not be a hub for podcasts or for poetry, but the vast majority of podcasters and poets already have YouTube accounts … as do most of their fans. These platforms don’t need to do customer acquisition in the traditional sense, they just need existing users to test out new features.

Third, they have a major advantage with user convenience. It’s easier to convert a fan who is wavering on the idea of becoming a patron when the button to do so is right there in front of them. That fan is probably already logged into their YouTube account so that one click could be all that’s needed — no new account creation on Patreon.com.

Facebook and YouTube want fan-creator revenue

Content platforms see new revenue streams in the fan-creator relationship now. More of them are testing ways for creators to directly monetize fans rather than solely operate off ad revenue. This is driven by 1) increasing saturation in the digital ad market, 2) greater awareness of best business practices from the gaming sector, such as enabling superfans to spend money on extra perks, and 3) deeper understanding of China’s dominant social platforms which have long had features like tipping as revenue streams.

Facebook has been building out dedicated functionality for creators. Its Creator App is a unified inbox of Facebook comments, Instagram comments, and Messenger chats, plus a unified analytics dashboard to help creators understand who their fans are. This app could quickly evolve into the type of business infrastructure that Patreon is building to help creators manage their superfan relationships and get them to spend more.

Ominously, Facebook has been aggressively testing a variety of monetization options for creators. Among them:

  • Creator Memberships: users who join a creator’s $4.99 per month membership tier get exclusive content and a supporter badge next to their name.
  • Subscription Groups: creators can set a price of $4.99 through $29.99 per month for fans to join a private Facebook Group, which already has a Group Insights tool to get analytics on the most active participants, the most engaged posts, and the demographics of group members.
  • Facebook Stars: a virtual currency for tipping creators on gaming live streams. Fans buy a pack of Stars, and Facebook takes a 5-30% cut depending on how much they spend, while creators get $0.01 for each Star fans send them.
  • A marketplace for matching creators with businesses for branded content campaigns and sponsorship deals, similar to the Niche marketplace that Twitter acquired.

Facebook isn’t alone in attempting to leverage its platform to help monetize creators. YouTube has been hard at work as well.

In June 2018, it rolled out “Channel Memberships.” Creators with at least 50,000 subscribers to their channel can offer a $4.99 per month membership to their fans that provides access to exclusive live streams, members-only posts in the creator’s Community tab, custom emojis to use in YouTube comments, and a badge that appears next to the user’s name to mark them as a member. YouTube keeps 30% ($1.50 each) of the revenue from Channel Memberships, which includes payment processing costs.

Other fan monetization features on YouTube now include:

  • Super Chat: when there is a live comments feed next to the video during Live Streams and Premieres, fans can pay to have their comments highlighted and temporarily pinned to the top so more people read them.
  • Merchandise: creators with at least 10,000 subscribers can create custom merchandise to offer their fans through an integration with Teespring. Featured merchandise then appears underneath the creator’s YouTube videos. Teespring pays YouTube a commission on all the sales this generates for them and YouTube shares a portion of that commission back with creators.
  • Ticketing: through integrations with Eventbrite and Ticketmaster, creators can promote and sell tickets to their live events directly from the YouTube pages where fans are watching their videos.

Beyond Facebook and YouTube, there are a bunch of other content platforms with fan-creator revenue models that could undermine Patreon’s ambitions. Amazon-owned Twitch has subscriptions similar to YouTube’s Channel Memberships, while Medium has a freemium model where creators can paywall their writing and then get a cut of the overall revenue based on the amount of “applause” their posts received. So far, Twitter and Snap seem to be non-players in this market.

Patreon faces two major risks from the rise of fan-creator monetization features on content platforms, beyond just company-to-company competition. Even if Facebook, YouTube, and other platforms release a fairly weak set of features, Patreon could face a “death by a thousand cuts” scenario. In aggregate, those features could reduce pressure on creators to find an independent platform to drive their superfans to. It also means that those platforms have the credit card info of a creator’s superfans as well, reducing the switching costs of leaving Patreon.

Second, Patreon envisions itself as the nucleus of a creator’s membership business, plugging into all the other platforms where they post content and engage fans using the Patreon API. But such integrations require collaborations with the distribution platforms. They now integrate with Reddit, but if other platforms are developing monetization tools of their own (even if not in direct competition), they may view a Patreon API integration as competitive with their own offering and refuse to collaborate. If Patreon doesn’t connect to the platforms creators use most often, it makes its service a much less compelling option.

Both companies could hit Patreon hard if they wanted to. Facebook in particular is such a powerful potential competitor because if it built its own robust version of a creator CRM it could provide creators unrivaled data on who their superfans are and how best to engage them. Plus, consumers actually read their Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp messages (unlike messages sent to subscribers to a YouTuber’s channel).

The corporate politics of subscription

Facebook and YouTube have clearly made membership functionality a priority recently, and it appears that both companies could launch comprehensive platforms directed straight at Patreon. Appearances, though, can be deceiving, as corporate politics may ultimately stop these companies from heading in this direction.

YouTube’s advantage here is that a large minority of Patreon’s creators are primarily video-based (27% based on Graphtreon data). An overwhelming majority of these creators and their fans are likely already on YouTube and looked elsewhere for monetization due to the platform’s lack of membership functionality. It is a category-specific threat more so than a competitor for all of Patreon’s creators.

Yet, seizing the membership opportunity is tricky. YouTube appears deeply unsure about committing to memberships. It currently only allows one membership tier and it sets the price itself, plus its team manually reviews each of the perks a creator wants to offer.

YouTube has also hesitated to build tools that could support creators in not making ad revenue their primary income stream. Notably, creators cannot make their (non-livestream) videos exclusive to members. YouTube eliminated creators’ ability to paywall videos at the end of 2017 and hopes its new membership option will be more lucrative for creators without hiding videos that could be monetized with ads.

Facebook has similar ambivalence. Last week, The Information reported on the past debates within Facebook over whether it should offer an ad-free subscription option. They reportedly decided against it since the highest value targets for advertisers were potentially the most likely to buy a subscription.

What should be obvious here is that Facebook and YouTube are both driven by ad revenues, and subscription can be antithetical to that business model. It seems obvious that they should launch Patreon-like features, but the KPIs and OKRs that drive these companies conflict with a revenue model that could result in fewer views.

Ultimately, both companies could adapt to a hybrid revenue model. Perhaps exclusive content and interactions with creators won’t cannibalize ad dollars but rather brings that content consumption and payment back from other sites where it would have happened anyway. Yet, the core incentives here are clear, and while Facebook is absolutely Patreon’s number one threat with YouTube a bit further behind, they have to overcome their own internal politics if they ever hope to succeed here.

Patreon’s four moats

Patreon has four moats that protect it against these platforms. The first is that its product decisions are driven by an exclusive focus on serving creators’ interests. Facebook, YouTube, and other social media distribution platforms are advertising businesses to their core, so they design their products to get as many people as possible to see as many videos, photos, or other posts as possible in order to serve up more advertisements. They specialize in breadth over depth. Conte argued that, for these platforms, the interests of creators will always be a secondary priority to serving the interests of advertisers, a point I agree with.

Patreon’s second moat is its independence. Creators have woken up to the risks of platform dependency, and Patreon appears to have more trust with mid-tier creators who use it. It is high risk for a creator to be dependent on a middleman platform that doesn’t consider them as their primary customer.

These platforms will not allow creators to own their fanbase. Creators will almost certainly never be allowed to export the contact information of their fans, unlike Patreon, which lets them download it as a CSV file anytime (although as a platform itself, it doesn’t share patrons’ credit card information). Given that membership income is often their livelihood, this control is critical and at least for now sets Patreon apart.

The company’s third moat is its diversity of creator types. It is a category-agnostic solution. They engage with fans and share content across numerous platforms, and many of them, especially bigger ones, are multi-format as well: they post videos but also host a podcast or release music or write a newsletter. With the potential exception of Facebook, each of the major distribution platforms is a particular fit for certain categories of creators and less so for others.

These distribution platforms view each other as fierce competitors for advertiser dollars and consumer attention, even if the type of content they focus on is different. It will be hard for any of them to become the hub for a creator’s database of fan interactions across numerous sites since they won’t allow an integration with a competitor. I believe they are more willing to consider integrating with an independent infrastructure platform like Patreon that doesn’t want to be a content distributor in any category (anymore).

The last, and perhaps strongest, moat for Patreon is that it is more than just a tech platform: it is increasingly a full-service solution for creators with Creator Success and Creator Care teams (i.e. real humans) providing guidance on building membership businesses. YouTube and Facebook are not interested in advising creators beyond the immediate use of their platforms, and none of them I believe are willing to go as far as Patreon in building out human-to-human business support that could end up including a lightweight version of talent management.

Its combined focus on creators, independence, multi-format flexibility, and creator support services provides Patreon considerable defenses against content platforms. Even so, Facebook remains a potentially lethal threat given its data advantage on patrons and high engagement with consumers. The social network’s success in countering Patreon will rely on mitigating its incentives around advertising, and that ultimately is out of Patreon’s control.

Infrastructure competitors

As independent infrastructure for creators to build their membership businesses, Patreon also faces competition. Patreon has two product offerings: its main Patreon platform (the full-service solution for creators who don’t want to spend much time dealing with tech and operations) and its recently acquired white-label offering Memberful (the DIY solution for those wanting to customize a suite of tools on their own domain).

Patreon’s core offering faces threats from category-specific solutions that may bite off parts of its userbase and tech solutions from traditional players in talent representation. Memberful faces competition from a range of subscription management platforms. And with both products, the company has to keep an eye out for potential new technologies that displace it.

Vertical solutions vs. horizontal platforms

Patreon is a general-purpose horizontal platform, a set of utilities that is useful regardless of whether the creator is a graphic novelist, a podcaster, a YouTuber, or a newsletter writer. However, there is a classic risk here that if you try to serve everyone, you may end up not serving anyone particularly well.

Category-specific solutions are the top threat to the growth of Patreon’s core platform in terms of other infrastructure providers. One can imagine products being built that address the specific needs of particular kinds of creators, and as more competitors develop, the more that each one will chisel away at one subset of Patreon’s market.

These competitors are already being formed. Take Substack, for instance. Founded in 2017, the startup has been gaining traction as simple-to-use infrastructure for creators who write subscription newsletters where most or all of the content is for paying members only. It takes a 10% cut of the revenue after Stripe processing fees. Just last week, it announced an expansion into podcasts. As Substack builds more features for managing relationships with superfans and offering benefits to members, it will form a strong alternative to Patreon (or Memberful) for creators who mainly create written and audio content.

Patreon has some immunity here though. As I noted above, it is increasingly common for creators to be multi-format. Category-specific infrastructure solutions could be too narrow in functionality for them, Plus, Patreon has a big advantage in terms of scale and resources, making up for category-specific weaknesses through its API integrations. Conte told me that building category-specific features in-house is not a priority right now but Patreon may address that in the future, possibly through acquisitions. The modular nature of Patreon, as I envision it developing with its API at the center, would make it easier to integrate an acquired company because the acquired product features could remain fairly standalone.

Subscription management software

Memberful is positioned closer to the more crowded markets for industry-agnostic CRM and subscription management software like Zuora for recurring payments tied to a subscriber CRM, Recurly for recurring payments, or Salesforce for CRM.

These companies don’t focus on small content creators, and their software isn’t designed with the specific use case of membership-based content companies in mind. That said, they do have media companies as customers. Zuora, for instance, is the backbone behind The Guardian’s membership layer, and also supports the subscriptions of the Financial Times, DAZN, CBS Interactive, and others.

While they represent alternative products for certain large creators, these ultimately aren’t competitive to Patreon’s vision of dominating market share among independent content creators. The same goes for Piano, the media revenue platform that runs Extra Crunch. Conte noted that in the future, Patreon may compete at the enterprise level via Memberful, but there is nothing in the current product roadmap to do so and there’s a large market still to go after of creators at the individual and small team level who fit into the Patreon ecosystem but want a customizable solution.

There aren’t many players in the creator-specific market of building white-label tools with membership in mind, and there is no company that is dominant. Patreon likely identified Memberful as the best horse to bet on in this race, acquired it, and will channel additional resources to ensure it wins. The most direct competitor to Memberful appears to be the startup Pico, which is also a layer built on top of WordPress for content creators to manage membership business models with a CRM, members-only gating of content, and marketing automation. It is also a relatively small team early in establishing itself among creators.

Technology displacement

There’s of course the possibility that a new technology could displace the role Patreon currently serves in the creator ecosystem by eliminating the need for its infrastructure. There are a number of blockchain projects targeting Patreon, and I’ve also seen several calls to integrate payments into web browsers as an alternative to Patreon (AngelList founder Naval Ravikant started an interesting Twitter thread on this one).

Among the blockchain projects framed as Patreon alternatives are Bitbacker, BitPatron, and Tallycoin. Let’s put aside for a moment the current lack of mainstream adoption of blockchain tools by creators and consumers. The argument that blockchain will replace Patreon is an oversimplified assessment that it’s mainly just a payment processor. The service is primarily a “lean-forward” CRM plus identity management for a CMS, and you can read my outline of Patreon’s product strategy to understand more. Rather than seeing blockchain as a competitor, both Conte and CTO Sam Yam view it as a technology they could one day leverage.

The same point is relevant to browser-based micropayment platforms, like Brave browser or Flattr. They are complements to Patreon, not competitors. These browsers are designed to help users pay for content out of a pre-filled wallet as they read on the web, reducing the influence of advertising. Patreon’s focus is helping creators build membership-based businesses and deeper relationships with their core fans. A browser-based approach is actually antithetical to that, since it encourages one-time payments based on content consumption metrics rather than a deeper, recurring relationship centered on engagement with the creator themself.

Next-generation talent representation

Theoretically, a company that already specializes in representing lots of creators (and that gets paid by commission) could develop tech infrastructure and compete with Patreon as a solution that’s slightly less scaled and more hands-on. Think CAA or WME developing a lightweight, tech-based version of their agency’s guidance with a lower commission and try to scale it.

In reality, I see no threat coming from this angle however. The culture of traditional talent management firms, talent agencies, and record labels is fundamentally at odds with that of a software company with recurring revenue. Plus, they operate in the mindset of a hits business: not unlike venture capital firms, their game is to find the next superstars who capture a disproportionate share of the economics. They are oriented toward high-touch services for the head of the tail, not the middle of the tail.

Affinity group-specific solutions

Like creating a niche social network just for cyclists or for board gamers, there can be alternatives to Patreon’s infrastructure vying to be a better fit for a specific affinity group of creators and their patrons. The only one of these of note is a Patreon-alternative based on political beliefs that hasn’t launched yet.

Specifically, several top Patreon creators who focus on political and cultural commentary (aligned with the so-called “intellectual dark web”) started a boycott in mid-December, eventually deleting their accounts. Two of them announced that they had been working on a Patreon competitor over the past year, differentiated by a no-censorship policy of never banning users for what they post, and that it would launch shortly. This has garnered a lot of coverage in the conservative press and cryptocurrency-focused news sites, and has also circulated on social media.

This specific situation has had no noteworthy impact on Patreon’s user metrics or financials, however. Having seen an internal Patreon dashboard tracking the volume of discontinued patron payments, the increased churn of patron money from mid-December to mid-January was a small fraction of the normal churn seen in each prior month for normal cancellations and expired credit cards. The independent data tracking site Graphtreon, which gets data from Patreon’s API, also showed no noticeable reduction in the number of creators on Patreon since mid-December.

The future for Patreon

There are a lot of theoretical competitors to Patreon, especially indirect competitors who might reduce its necessity by providing compelling fan-creator revenue streams that don’t involve membership. The core threat here really comes down to the actions of the largest distribution platforms, however.

The four competitive challenges Patreon should be most worried about, in ranked order, are:

  1. Facebook making a direct attack to become the hub for creators of all categories to manage their superfan relationships and provide benefits through a membership and other monetization tools.
  2. Every distribution platform creating some monetization features, none of which is a major threat individually but which in aggregate make creators more money from their superfans and reduce the pressure on them to join Patreon.
  3. YouTube giving more flexibility for creators to shape their membership offerings and/or expanding its content focus and enabling non-video creators to have channels with Channel Memberships and exclusive content.
  4. Category-specific infrastructure providers.

The likelihood that at least one of threats #1, #2, or #3 materializes is high. It’s too early to assess threat #4. There will still be room in the market for a strong independent player even if #1, #2, and #3 all happen. But it could be a very small amount of room compared to the growth potential Patreon currently envisions.

I see two scenarios here:

  • The distribution platforms launch more features for creators to get paid by their fans, including some lightweight, category-specific membership models like YouTube’s Channel Memberships. Patreon holds out as the market leader for membership infrastructure, but sees its market share for membership infrastructure get chipped away while its total addressable market shrinks.
  • The above scenario, but Facebook makes a direct play to build out a creator CRM and other infrastructural tools creators need to run membership businesses. If well executed, I think Facebook could capture substantial market share and become the largest player in providing creators with a simple-to-use platform for membership (none of these distribution platforms will pursue a Memberful-like software suite).

The best strategy for Patreon to differentiate from the distribution platforms will be by anchoring itself as the “non-platform” that gives creators more flexibility to customize their membership offerings (and the design of their patron-facing account) and by doubling down on human-to-human creator services. I expect this is exactly where it will go.

The definitive Patreon reading guide

Patreon EC-1 Table of Contents

Also check out other EC-1s on Extra Crunch.

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