What I learned from the second year of running my SPECIAL PROJECTS membership program
The Creative Value of a Membership Program
“A membership program should be seen as an accelerant for work you must do. That is, it should be born from the desire for creative autonomy and for an untethered opportunity to explore with great curiosity and rigor, topics that may or may not be explicitly “commercially” friendly.”
A membership program seems like a better fit for a whole body of work than a product launch as Kickstarter is positioned for. Membership, whether via Patreon or self-run, sustains the ongoing work and creativity that could yield future crowdfunded productions, though it may not. Crowdfunding as it’s come to exist seems to be brought “to market” at a much later stage of development, whereas membership allows for exploration and a more loosely defined concept of the work that may be refined and explored through different mediums and projects.
“This is where membership programs soar — they are implicit and durable permission machines…
In praxis it has lead to bigger, more audacious and ambitious projects than I would have attempted on my own.
There is, however, a bargain to be struck. Namely: You must work. Perhaps harder than you’ve worked at any other job. A promise is made. You are granted permission by your members and in return you must work with an energy such that no question remains that your promise of rigor and curiosity are present in your output.”
(Emphasis his.) I am a little of both self-driven and exterior-driven — or rather, I’m an externally-driven person who’s compelled to be self-driven to make progress on my projects since they’re so big and time-consuming. (They’re also probably more time-consuming because I don’t have an external deadline set for me.)
Per Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies, I’m an Obliger, and it’s much easier for me to complete projects at work, when I feel like I need to deliver on my pay, than in my personal life, when the only person I’m letting down is myself. I found this to be true for public speaking as well — I struggle to speak up in public settings unless I feel “authorized” — so when I worked as an interpreter for the National Park Service I had no trouble presenting talks and leading walks.
So, I see how a membership program could be hugely beneficial for a creator like me, to give me the boost I need to finish more things and push myself to create innovative work.
“Members are super fans (see Mr. Kelly’s classic: 1,000 true fans), and their subscriptions carry three huge benefits:
1. Many of your members are certain to be more successful, accomplished, and wiser than you. By some dint of dumb luck, you’re now one degree away from these incredible people.
2. Recurring membership revenue is akin to “seed capital” for horizon-goal work to be done.
3. Members form thoughtful communities; they become an invaluable crew to bounce ideas off of, run “tests”, get feedback on half-baked ideas.”
Attracting and Serving Members
“Membership programs thrive on “conversion events” …casual conversions for “cultural” goods are exceedingly difficult to pull off. Folks need a “reason” to flip from unpaid to paid, and one of the most effective ways to do this is to offer a semi-unique object or token…
I highly recommend not making things just for members. Instead, make something (a book, a print, a poster, a documentary, a whatever) that you would have made no matter what, and offer it up to members at a significant discount.”
You aren’t done after launch: “You can self-generate new “launch events”.” Every product launch can also become a membership relaunch.
Getting What You Want Out of It
“Perhaps the most unintuitively dangerous pitfall of running a successful membership program is that of trapping yourself in a lambent cage of your own design… A cage of such unparalleled seduction that you convince yourself that the cage was the thing you were desiring all along!”
“My main horizon goal is embarrassingly simple: A continuous and rigorous production of book-shaped projects until I’m dead. It’s a “horizon goal” because you never arrive. You learn to wrest fulfillment from the endless pain of moving towards the goal.”
I like that concept: horizon goals. And, mine are also mostly books.
“My secondary horizon-goal beyond producing books is to be a valuable creative / entrepreneurial archetype.”
I don’t think Craig is much older than I am, yet am continuously inspired by what he makes possible, as well as the work itself. Sometimes it makes me feel behind even though I’m in my thirties, so I should have time ahead of me, and I’ve chosen the stability of a day job so I have less time to devote to my personal work. But more often I am inspired.
Working Towards a Fan-Supported Future
“Start writing / making videos / producing what it is you intend to produce for members today, build up that muscle, and do it, ideally, for years (yes, years) before launching the program.”
I’m not sure whether I would ever want to do member-supported work, but it’s one model for doing the weird variety of work I’m interested in doing. But to some extent I’ve been dreaming about pushing my work to the next level while holding myself back for fear of making more work for myself. But I’m a proponent of doing what I can to try out my goals to the extent possible to make sure I actually like working that way / doing that kind of project, so it makes sense to start pushing myself a little bit more.
“Goals are different than deliverables, though they may be connected.”
With a consultant background, I tend to be deliverable focused 😉