Spooked by plummeting advertising revenue, content creators are hoping that loyal fans will pay up to watch their videos.

The creators of Sorted Food, a YouTube cooking channel with 2.4 million subscribers, recognised they were falling into the trap so many digital content makers do. Their channel was hugely popular, but they weren’t doing things the way they wanted, instead posting videos designed to please YouTube’s algorithm.

“We realised if we weren’t careful, we could find ourselves playing to create content by the rules of the platform, rather than what our community and audience wanted,” explains Ben Ebbrell, one of the co-founders of Sorted, which has five on-screen members and 18 behind the scenes. They had seen the popularity of their videos wax and wane on YouTube, and didn’t want to be beholden to its whims. It’s a feeling almost every YouTuber has, but few do anything about it.

Sorted did, coming up with a solution that would support their business whether YouTube promoted them or not. Alongside their free channel, they set up a paid membership club, which gave people access to exclusive apps, a weekly podcast and original content. They advertised the club in their videos and across their existing social media platforms.

Launched in 2019 after a year of development, The Sorted Club was one of the first of its kind. It was a gamble for the YouTubers, who bet that their audience would follow them off the platform. So far, they’ve been right: they have thousands of members, and between March and May 2020, the number of club members paying £4.99 a month grew 37%.

Could membership clubs be the route to a sustainable business for influencers whose income has long depended on yo-yoing policies of bigger platforms?

Now, Sorted are hardly alone with their membership club model. In the past year, other big YouTubers, including NELK, a collection of prank-focused YouTubers based in Canada, and Logan Paul, whose 22.3 million fans make him one of YouTube’s most recognised names, have set up their own membership schemes. For Paul’s Maverick Club and NELK’s Send Club, members pay $20 for access to exclusive content and the opportunity, in both cases, to win potentially huge prizes.

Could membership clubs be the route to a sustainable business for influencers whose income has long depended on yo-yoing policies of bigger platforms? Done right, they could chart a new future for social media superstars, and a way for them to more directly make connections with their audiences. Done wrong, they’re the latest way to cash in on online fame.

Seeking the security of steady income

Creators often rely on platforms to provide them with a baseline of revenue from advertising income, or direct funding from the sites themselves – such as TikTok, which recently launched a $1bn fund to support its users financially.

However, the promises and the reality of programmes like these can be quite far apart.

For TikTok, many creators on the site report they are receiving between two and five cents for every 1,000 views they receive – hardly enough to support their lifestyle, even at scale. And on YouTube, a drop in advertising revenue over the last six months has meant creators have taken a hit; in April, YouTubers received around 50% of what they would have done in February from adverts.

“Content creators, or influencers, have long been searching for ways to stabilise their incomes in a feast-or-famine industry rife with uncertainty,” says Zoe Glatt, a researcher of online culture at the London School of Economics.

Many influencers have diversified into selling merchandise to bolster their income

Many influencers have diversified into selling merchandise to bolster their income

They’ve toyed with fan support, direct sponsorship and brand deals in which they mention products in exchange for money. Many have set up their own merchandise lines, selling apparel to fans. Following 2017’s YouTube “adpocalypse”, in which a number of large advertisers decided to pull their money in response to their products being promoted against extremist recruitment videos, several creators joined Patreon, a website that allows fans to support their favourite creators with a regular stipend, of which Patreon takes a cut.

Unlike some of these alternatives, however, memberships give creators recurring, dependable and direct revenue, says Aaron McClendon of Detroit Venture Partners, a technology-centric venture capital fund, who has been monitoring the trend of such clubs. “If you can build a subscription business without doing that much more work, that’s great,” he explains. “It also gives the creator a way to directly access their super-fans.”

But of course, developing your own independent membership club is costly. True independence is only available to the largest digital creators who can afford to make such an investment – and they’re often the ones who already have diverse income streams beyond simply advertising revenue. This may leave some creators out in the cold, widening the gap between those able to make a living from content versus those who are still grinding to break even.

Who benefits most?

The ability to more closely track users – a key element of understanding what kind of content they like, and how to present it to audiences – is also possible from membership clubs.

“They’re able to have complete ownership of their audience and the data that comes with it,” says independent YouTube audience development consultant Leslie Datsis, based in Arlington in the US state of Virginia. “Not just revenue growth and audience growth, but things like where on their website people are clicking, or what merch or perks they spend a lot of time looking at.”

Sorted Food say their membership club gives them more freedom to make the kind of content their fans want

Sorted Food say their membership club gives them more freedom to make the kind of content their fans want

This can help drive future success for creators, but also be beneficial for audiences, giving them more content that they like, rather than what sites like YouTube demand. Sorted’s Club made more formal what they had long been doing on YouTube, and continue to do: creating videos based on audience feedback and often, direct suggestions.

But although loyal followers can benefit from potentially better content in membership clubs, there can also a notable downside for fans, who end up having to shell out for highly mediated “personal” contact with their favourite influencers. Glatt says that Logan Paul is an example of a creator “packaging his membership with the same community spirit of authenticity and intimacy that is ubiquitous amongst influencers”, but who is ultimately doing so in a transactional way to profit. After all, no matter how close to a creator a fan feels, proprietors have set up their clubs to generate as much revenue as possible.

Those who spend hours consuming videos may quickly find themselves supporting their favourite online creators via membership fees. As the amount of time and effort that goes into producing YouTube videos increases to levels akin to a traditional television show, so do the expectations of many creators to get a meaningful financial return from their hard work. And, in a world where we pay for multiple subscriptions to streaming services anyway, creators may be able to tap into the habits so many have already built.

As such, fans may have to get used to paying for premium content on social media – and with every membership club that crops up, the initial ideal of social media fades a little more into the background.

“For me, what these membership schemes signal is yet another step towards the influencer industry looking increasingly like the traditional media that it originally bucked against,” says Glatt. “There’s a slickness and commercialism that jars against the homemade quality that most content creators still strive towards, no matter how big their operation has become.”