A tale of content creation, crowdfunding and corporate communication
The current Patreon PR gaffe fascinates me. Not only because I’m on there, but also because Patreon could have chosen to communicate these changes differently. Whether you agree with these changes or not, the fact remains that they were communicated in a way that makes very little sense to ordinary users, and which undermines both the company’s credibility and the message they wanted to send.
In short, the gaffe is afoot, and it is interesting to watch it unfold in real time.
Moreover, it is interesting to see which messaging strategy they went with. The strategy they actually went with was not set in stone until it went live, and they could have acted differently, framing the issue in a different light. Communication is not a stimulus-response thing, where actors unthinkingly do the thing the circumstances dictate for them. It is always possible to choose one strategy instead of another. The fact that Patreon went with the messaging they went with instead of literally anything else — this tells us something. It is important to understand the role it has in the current situation.
Let’s take a closer look at the messaging. The opening line of the official announcement sets the tone they want to convey: “In order to continue our mission of funding the creative class, we’re always looking for ways we can help creators continue to grow their creative careers.” Here, we can clearly see who is centered as the main beneficiary of these changes: the creators. The use of the adjective “creative” only further underscores who is considered to be at the heart of things. The upcoming changes are unequivocally framed as being made for the benefit of creators. (This is also reiterated in the FAQ.) Later on, the changes are further framed as being done at the behest of creators, and that the changes have in fact been explicitly requested by a large number of creators.
Needless to say, this is a case of clear communication. There is no mistaking what is being done and in whose name.
There is a subtle second component of this messaging, and that is the framing of the upcoming changes as a proactive step by Patreon to make things better in the longer term. Which is to say that there is no immediate circumstance that forced this change to happen with the quickness, and that the initiative for the changes comes entirely from within the house. There is a lot of effort being made to communicate that Patreon has gone to great lengths in considering these changes, and that what we see now is the result of a long process of thinking, pondering, measuring and deliberating.
In short: these changes are 100% portrayed as the preferred strategy of Patreon. They have gathered all the facts, and after careful consideration voted yes.
Understanding these two components — the claim that the upcoming changes are done in the name of creators, and the steadfastness of being in control of the process — is key to understanding the negative reactions that have so resounded over the interwebs. The first component alienates creators who do not see these changes as good (or even in their interest), while the second component underscores that there is no external reason for these changes. Or, rephrased: these changes are perceived as bad, the reasons given are seen as disingenuous, and there are no convincing external factors contributing to a sense of these changes being unfortunate but necessary.
In the shortest terms possible: the changes are seen as bad and unnecessary.
All this stems from the messaging in and of itself. Even if the only thing you read about the upcoming changes was this blog post, you would have sufficient raw material to fuel a non-significant anger. Especially considering the choice of visuals in the update, where the old system had three red dots, and the new system has eight. Those who already think the upcoming changes are bad, are not likely to change their mind by this clear demonstration of the extent of the changes.
To make matters worse, this is 2017. The production of fan fiction vastly outpaces that of non-fan fiction. Which is to say: people will not just read the corporate blog post. They will read — and write — more about the proposed changes, and they will bring their anger with them. This being 2017, things will get worse.
There is, for instance, this blog post about how the changes could be motivated by US financial regulations regarding the handling and storage of money. By making the changes outlined in the announcement, Patreon would avoid red tape that could potentially make life more difficult — or at least more bureaucratic — for everyone involved. It would be counterintuitive, but it would be understandable — much like the current situation with VAT. It wouldn’t be pretty, but there would be a tangible reason to fall back on.
Unfortunately for Patreon, this is not what they communicated in their messaging. They made it absolutely crystal clear that they were motivated by what they perceived to be the interests of the creators, without reference to external constraints that forced them to act in this particular way. The messaging was Patreon doing Patreon, out of its own free will. If it turns out these changes are made as a legalese maneuver, then the messaging was a lie. Which, in PR speak, is bad news bears.
There is also this twitter thread about how Patreon need to increase revenue in order to satisfy their venture capital investors. Given that the announced changes fit the bill in terms of more money going to parties that are not the creators (remember those eight red dots), this line of thinking makes sense. It has also made the rounds, with thousands of retweets and an untold number of quote-tweets. Whether it is true or not, it is part of the discussion, and there is precious little effort made to counter these lines of thinking.
Public relations is not about the truth. It is about perceptions. Having customers — in this case patrons and creators — thinking that what you are doing is a naked money grab is not a good thing. It is in fact a bad thing. Even if it is not true. Especially if it is not true.
Another trending topic is this June essay about various things Patreon has done to make things better. Some of the points discussed are interesting in and of themselves, and could use further elaboration elsewhere. The thing that caught everyone’s attention, though, was the notion of “life-changing” earnings, and the context in which it was introduced. It was explicitly discussed that Patreon made more money and got more attention from big users with big audiences than small users with small audiences, and thus that it would make more sense to focus on big rather than small. Or, to quote:
This posed a conundrum for the growth team. For example, an 80% drop-off at a given onboarding step would typically be alarming to any other growth team working on user activation. But at Patreon, a big drop-off could actually mean something good is happening — unqualified leads are getting weeded out.
If you are in a mind to read this as an explicit statement that small time creators on Patreon mainly receiving small (non-life-changing) donations are generally not worth the company’s time, and that it would make more monetary sense to boot them out in favor of the bigger creators — then this is a smoking gun. And in this particular case, at this particular time, the audience is very much of a mind to read it as just precisely that.
If we return to Patreon’s messaging, this is particularly damaging given the framing of the changes as something done with the best of intentions towards creators. Here, the very definition of “creator” comes into question, and it becomes reasonable to think that when Patreon says “creator”, they actually mean the big creators who bring in the big bucks, and not us small-timers who funnel 100% of our donations into paying our comparatively small bills. The stated intention to support creators is undermined by this blurring of the definition of who is and is not a creator.
At this point, it might be prudent with a reminder that the announced changes include a $0.35 fee on every single pledge made, including one-dollar pledges. Given that one-dollar donations are the bread, butter, meat and potatoes for small creators, making these 35% more expensive is a way of saying that these donations (and by extension creators) do not matter.
Whether Patreon intended to send this message or not is beside the point. It is the message that has been received, and it is the message that the audience is acting on.
There are countless more examples out there, each painting an ever bleaker picture of Patreon and its credibility. I chose these three examples in particular because they have a wide circulation; they are by no means the only ones making the rounds. I suspect new ones might have surfaced while I was busy writing these words.
I began this post by saying that it is fascinating and interesting to see this PR gaffe unfold in real time. It still is, in a morbid kind of way. It is also terrifying — I am not alone in having taken an immense comfort in knowing that there will be a steady stream of donation dollars to cover bills (present and future). While the donations do not cover all bills by any means, they do cover a couple of the big ones, and that is life-changing enough for me.
I can only hope these words will contribute to a change for the better, and not just serve as a contemporary document bearing witness to an unfortunate fait accompli.
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