A CONVERSATION WITH THE FOLKS AT PATREON
 

EDIT 12/13/17 11:51 AM: I wrote this post last night, planning to give it a proofread this morning, and in the meantime, Patreon announced that they are putting this payment change on pause. In that blog post, Jack Conte uses some business jargon that (like I said in the comments of my last post) I personally can find a little off-putting, but the actual message behind that jargon is exactly what I hoped they would say: that they goofed, that they are putting this change on pause, that they understand the problems we have with the change, and that they are now going to work with creators directly to come up with a solution that will be good for everyone, especially our Patrons. You can check out that new post here.

In the meantime, just for completeness, here's what I wrote last night: 

Howdy everyone,

This post is very TL;DR. I'm mainly putting this out there for those of you who are curious. Once I get more clear answers, I'll try to come up with a shorter, more to-the-point post. But for those who care, I wanted to share with you what I've learned so far.

I mentioned in the comments of this post that I'd be having a direct conversation with the folks at Patreon over the phone this week. I had some serious questions about the upcoming changes to the fee structure (which has been tremendously unpopular), but just as important, I also just wanted to talk to some actual human beings over there. I live in the same city at the Patreon office, so I've had several chances to meet those who work at Patreon directly. My experience with them up to this point has been that they truly believe their core mission is to help creators succeed—that that goal comes before everything else. I wanted to get a direct feel if that was still the case.

I spoke with Patreon Tuesday morning for a little over a half hour on the phone. While I didn't get all the answers I wanted, I got some answers—and I left the conversation at least feeling reassured that as a company, they were still very committed to putting the creators' needs first. But they've also handled the roll out of this Service Fee change poorly so far, and I wanted to make sure they heard from me (and you) what our real concerns were.

I'm going to keep the lines of communication open with them as things unfold, but I wanted to fill you in on some of the things I learned in Tuesday's phone call.

"We know we let you down."

Talking to them, they again made it clear that their intention behind this change really was to try to fix problems that creators had been bringing to them about the fee structure for years. They told me that their goal with this was to make things better for creators and that, after months of internal testing, that they felt sure this was the right way forward. In our conversation, they reiterated these intentions several times, with real earnestness.

But they were also clear that they had done a terrible job communicating what the actual benefits of these changes were—both in terms of how they announced this and in what they've said so far.

I asked them: "Why did you give creators like me only 24 hours notice before you announced this to the world? Why did you not try to get our feedback first? Why such short notice?"

They responded: "Look, there's no way to sugarcoat this. This announcement wasn't planned well. We messed up." 

Earlier, I had shared with them the posts of other webcomic creators, like Jeph Jacques, who were livid over the change and the way it was announced. And I had shared my original post with them and asked them to read the comments underneath it from my readers. In this conversation, it was clear they had read everything I had sent them. And they could see how upset y'all were. I told them that readers (and many creators) had a difficult time not seeing this as a "cash grab," that more than one reader had asked me "When are you switching to a different platform?"

As we talked about that, they stated very strongly that the goal of this change was not to make money for Patreon. It was to solve specific "pain points" for creators. But they acknowledged that the way they announced this did the opposite of what they intended. It didn't help creators, it actually caused problems for us. And then they apologized to me. "We know we let you down. [In announcing this the way we did], we failed your Patrons, you didn't." 

For what it's worth, the anxiety they expressed didn't seem to be for how all this bad PR was going to affect their business going forward. That never came up. What seemed to really trouble them was that they had caused problems for creators like me. That because they had communicated this so badly, they knew that some Patrons were leaving, and that as a result creators' support was being reduced. Support that creators need to survive. They also knew that we, as creators, were having to face anger and frustration from our Patrons for something Patreon did and did badly. And it seemed to really bug them.

Why did you make the decision to switch the processing fees from creators to Patrons?

There were two main areas of confusion I had which I wanted to address. One was about why they felt it was necessary to add the fixed transaction fee of $0.35 to every single pledge, instead of bundling all the pledges together, like they had been, and just charging it once. (I'll get to their response to that in a minute.) But the other one was why they had now decided to shift the burden of paying the transaction fees from creators (who had always paid those fees) to our Patrons.

Their answer was that they had spent the last several months reviewing the entire "legacy" payment processing system, looking for ways to try to fix all the problems for creators they could, and that the choice to move the fees from creators to Patrons just felt like it was most in line with "putting creators first." That it would make it clear and simple exactly what fees would be withdrawn from pledges before creators received the money (that is, now it would just be the 5% for Patreon and no more.) And that it would mean more of the pledge support would go directly to creators.

I responded that I can certainly appreciate their desire is to "put creators first," but that as a creator, my desire is always going to be to "put my Patrons first." I shared with them that some readers felt that this was like forcing an automatic pledge increase—that it was essentially forcing them to "tip" me more—and I told them that I felt that reaction was completely reasonable. That even if it's just pennies, it's still putting a burden on my Patrons—one I never asked for and wouldn't have approved if I had been asked. And that, in that regard, this attempt to be "creator first" was actually being the opposite, because it was directly counter to something I would want as a creator.

For what it's worth, they really seemed to hear me on that. 

Why do you feel it's necessary to charge a fixed fee on every single pledge?

The other big area of confusion for me was why they felt that charging a fixed fee of $0.35 to every single pledge was necessary. By my lights, other than shifting the burden of the fees from creators to Patrons, this decision is the source of most of what seems outrageous about this change. It adds 35% to all $1 pledges. It adds a load of additional fees to "per-creation" pledges. And it just seems counter-intuitive on its face, and because of that, it gives real fuel to this idea that Patreon is making this change to line their own pockets. 

Their answer to this was clear: it was to create the possibility of "anniversary charges." That is, instead of charging all pledges on the first of the month, each pledge would be charged monthly on the day that pledge for that creator had first been made. Did you just pledge $5 to David Willis on the 13th? Well, then, from that point forward, you'll be charged $5 on the 13th of each month for David's Patreon.

Why is this important? Well, to answer that, you need to understand:

Charge Up-Front

Back when I started with Patreon, all Patrons were charged on the 1st of the month after they pledged to an individual creator. That meant that if you pledged to a creator on the 2nd of February, you got to enjoy all the Patreon-only rewards for that creator for free, and were only charged when the 1st of March rolled around.

But it was actually worse than that. Since Patreon didn't actually charge a Patron's credit card when someone created their pledge, bad folks could enter bad credit card information, and never get charged at all. Ever.

How bad did it get? In my case, I was sometimes seeing over $1000/month in false pledges. It made it seem like I was receiving a lot more support than I actually was and, even worse, it meant it was very difficult to predict how much support I'd actually get from Patreon each month. I couldn't budget in any reliable way. I couldn't plan. One of the huge promises of Patreon is a "reliable stream of income to support creative work"—and that wasn't happening at all. It sucked.

So, I (and other creators) lobbied hard to allow the option for "charge up-front"—meaning that new Patrons would be charged immediately upon pledging, and then they'd be shifted over to the 1st of the month along with all the other pledgers after that. Patreon listened to us, and I was one of the first folks to join that option when it was introduced in "beta."

What I didn't know until this phone call was that this option has actually never left beta! And thus, the vast majority of creators don't yet have access to it. That means the vast majority of creators are having to deal with all these false pledges, all the time, with no solution. Which, like I said, really sucks.

Why hasn't Patreon rolled this out to all creators yet? Because apparently, it's quite common for someone to first pledge to a creator towards the end of the month, and then when they get charged again on the first day of the next month, they feel like they've been "double-charged." So they email Patreon support and complain. And apparently this happens so much, that Patreon has felt if they opened up "charge up-front" to all creators, they'd be overwhelmed with support requests.

But they know that creators really need this option. So, setting up a system with "anniversary pledges" was the solution they came up with. And if they are going to charge every pledge separately, throughout the month, then each pledge would need to be hit with that fixed fee.

Alex suggests another way

Obviously, I think all creators should have access to "charge up-front" if they want it. And, even with my limited experience in handling email for my own comic, I can certainly believe that this "double-charge" issue could indeed overwhelm Patreon's support team, if there wasn't some way to mitigate it.

But I wasn't convinced that the solution they came up with really was the best one.

For one thing, as reader Vik-Thor pointed out to me in the comments: "it could end up with the Patrons getting dinged multiple times a month. Possibly even every day in a month, if they support enough creators." That sounds both bad in terms of budgeting and, frankly, just plain annoying.

So, I shared Vik-Thor's concern with the folks at Patreon, and suggested something different: what if you still charged all the pledges for a Patron at once, on one day, but let each Patron choose for themselves what day that would be. (i.e. "Charge me for all my pledges on the 14th of the month.") Other subscription services offer that option, and for good reason.

I told them I thought that could solve both the confusion and the bad feelings about being "double-charged" for folks who pledge late in the month, and it would also be an actual benefit to Patrons (if they pay rent on the 1st, maybe it'd be easier to be charged by Patreon after their 2nd paycheck on the 15th.)

Also, with that method, all the pledges could still happen at one time, which would hopefully mean that $0.35 fixed transaction charge that is so unfair to $1 pledgers if they are hit with it for every $1 pledge, would only need to be charged one time, once per month, for all pledges in a single large transaction, instead of several times a month for every individual pledge. 

Is that idea perfect? No. I suppose someone could still pledge to a new creator on the 12th, and then get charged again on the 15th. But, by my lights, a simple warning that pops up when they first make that pledge on the 12th could head off many potential support requests. (i.e. "Howdy! You're pledging $5 for Alex Woolfson today, and you've set up your monthly pledges on Patreon to be charged on the 15th. That means you'll be charged $5 now and then $5 again for Alex Woolfson's Patreon in just 3 days. Are you sure you want to do that, or would you rather become a Patron for Alex Woolfson (and get access to their Patreon-only rewards) starting on the 15th instead?")

Maybe that warning would trigger if their pledge was within 14 days of the date they chose for all their pledges to go through. Maybe it would always show whenever anyone created a new pledge. It does add a layer of complication. Like I said, my suggestion isn't perfect. But I know of lots of Patrons who pledge to a dozen or more creators—and if this method could avoid lots of little pledges triggering throughout the month and, even more importantly, if it could avoid Patrons getting hit multiple times with a $0.35 fixed fee, I think it's at least a better way than what has been proposed. 

Is Patreon at least considering putting this change on pause?

One of the last questions I asked them is if they were considering putting this whole thing on hold. I told them that everything I read online was strongly negative about this change. That creators with huge audiences were telling their Patrons that they thought this was all part of an evil, self-serving plot. That even if Patreon could explain this change perfectly now, even if there was some way to explain all the benefits and why these new fees really were the best way to fix serious problems, that there was so much momentum against the change, that it would be nearly impossible to change people's minds and build real trust back without a good chunk of time and a lot of constructive back-and-forth. And the truth is, they don't have a lot of time -- the 18th is less than a week away.

I told them that as a creator, I needed to be sure this was really the best and only way before I could get behind it. And that I wasn't sure of that. That I still had serious questions. And I told them that many of my Patrons had serious doubts, not only about whether this change was really a good idea, but also whether Patreon's motivations in making this change were to be trusted.

They had said up front, when we were setting up the call, that they wouldn't "be able to make any promises or guarantees on the phone call" -- that this was really just about answering my questions and hearing what I had to say. So, I knew they weren't going to be able to answer this question directly.

But they did let me know that they are "actively listening to feedback." They said they really wanted to hear from creators like me, but also from Patrons directly. They said you could contact them at support.patreon.com with the subject line "Patreon Service Fee" and that every single message would be read by a real person. And when they said this, this didn't feel like "hand-waving" or "happy talk" to me -- I really did feel like they were taking my feedback very seriously. I could tell my words were having a real emotional impact. I don't know what they will decide, but at the very least, I felt heard.

And if you reach out to them, I fully believe they will listen to what you have to say.

What's next?

I'm not sure. I'm reminded of that PR disaster that United went though earlier this year. Obviously, this is a different situation, but one of things that United did that compounded the problem is that they were slow to accept responsibility and slow to respond with concrete action to all the negative feedback they were getting. 

I do feel a strong sense of gratitude for what Patreon has made possible to me. It's not hyperbole to say that I wouldn't be making comics today if it weren't for Patreon. So, I want them to succeed. I want them to get past this. And so, I want them to react quickly and clearly—for them to say "We goofed. We're sorry. And we're going to put this on pause and work with y'all to make sure we come up with a change that everyone can understand and that is to everyone's benefit."

But in the meantime, I know they are listening. The did listen to me. I believe they'll listen to you. 

If you have some thoughts, reach out to support.patreon.com with the subject line "Patreon Service Fee" and being the thoughtful, respectful readers I know you all are, politely let them know how this change makes you feel and what you think they should do. 

And I'll let you know if I find out anything more.

(EDIT 12/13/17 11:57 AM: And, as I said above, they have done just what I hoped they would. Which is good. I do think they want to do the right thing here. Let's keep giving them good feedback. :) )

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