The with growing dominance of adblock (which has decimated digital ad revenues), it is worth speculating how publishers can adapt by creating models that enable website traffic and monetization without alienating readers. Medium’s recent model changes put into play an interesting structure: a membership model that, for 5 dollars a month, enablers readers to access “the best” of Medium’s content. Before deliberating on how publishing can apply such a model, I want to first look at what is and is not working with the system.
The first thing point here is that Medium began as an entirely different beast. Medium pitched itself as a platform that could partner with our publishers. Under Medium, publishers could build a following, run ads, and earn a monthly rate based on reader subscriptions. When Medium switched models, the 21 partners who were dependant on the platform were given a week’s notice to adapt to the changes. While the initial pitch was that Medium was a platform for all publishers – that Medium would fix the internet– these new changes position Medium as a publisher instead, one that is prioritizing building and monetizing its own brand. In explaining the ambiguity behind Medium’s current mission, IMPACT’s Liz Murphy claims that
“Medium is still going through an identity crisis driven by the need to be a profitable business — are they a publisher or a platform… or both? — and they have been doing so for some time.”
Visibility and monetization are made possible on the website through something called “claps,” which function like most social media’s “likes.” Each post requires 50 individual claps within the first 24 hours in order to receive basic visibility (source). Anyone publishing on the platform is expected to market their own work affectively to get their posts the exposure it needs for monetization. And like Youtubers, writers of Medium benefit from doing research into which topics are being searched for so that they can optimize their traffic according to the algorithms. Medium’s algorithms for monetization are somewhat ambiguous.
Medium critic Katie Fustich outlined user frustrations with the beta-testing of the program by highlighting discrepancies in payment practices. For one paywalled article, she received 180 views, 44 reads (a ratio of 24%), and two claps. She was paid 100 USD. For her second article she received 4,500 views, 1,800 reads (a 41% ration) and 172 claps for a payment of 134 USD. Figuring out how differently views, reads, and claps are monetized has been a confusing process for users.
Writer Jay Owens received 44.63 USD for a piece she wrote that received over 20,000 views. This was despite the fact Medium adopted the essay, made an audio version, and added an illustration . Medium commissioned author Malcolm Harris to write a member feature story, paying him a rate of 4,000 USD for 4,000 words. That piece garnered less than three-fifths of the claps of Owen’s. The contrast illustrates how differently Medium treats commissions, despite advertising their platform as one where writers can be properly rewarded for the value they bring to the website. I agree with critics that Medium needs to be more decisive and transparent as they move forward – ideally by solving its existential crisis of platform versus publisher.
But there are promising aspects as well. In 2017, Medium released a series filter that is akin to the stories displayed on Instagram and snapchat. Combining long-form writing with features like video storytelling makes the platform more interactive and fun. It is smart move, although one that will likely require some finessing. It grants more value to the subscription model. Again, though, this speaks to Medium’s indecision about who they are. Medium’s current audience is tech-savvy readers, but this suggests a move towards trying to expand the audience. Like makes sense in theory, but it could dilute the brand.
Medium’s audio content option is also an impressive concept. The website offers popular videos in audio format, enabling listeners to listen on the go. With audio formats like audiobooks and podcasts on the rise, I think this is a clever, on-brand move. The membership’s “read-it-later” feature where readers can save an article to read it offline larger is another addition that I like. It reminds me of the download feature on Spotify, which grants a lot of added value to the publisher/platform.
My remaining concerns are the following:
- How is Medium going to properly distinguish between their premium and open content? They cannot claim all paywalled content is of higher quality if any writer can choose to put their work behind it.
- If Medium is able to achieve its original goal of acting as a long-form twitter, how will going mainstream affect the brand and loyal following?
- Will Medium continue to spurn its partners? If so, how can Medium hope to properly serve as a platform that is, in fact, “saving the internet.”
The medium subscription model is an interesting one for sure, but it is one that can still be improved upon.