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Medium just made several product announcements. Here’s what they mean
Of all the content publishing platforms out there, Substack has received a disproportionate amount of attention these last few months, mostly because high profile writers keep leaving their legacy media jobs to launch paid newsletters on it. Andrew Sullivan’s recent departure from New York magazine, for instance, sparked the same level of discussion on Media Twitter as Lebron James’s 2010 announcement that he intended to take his talents to South Beach.
With all eyes on Substack, it’s been easy to forget the other major platform that’s set its sights on helping creators generate revenue from their writing: Medium. The company made a series of announcements over the past month about upcoming changes to layout, publishing tools, and discovery. It’s a good time to check in and analyze what these changes mean for the direction of the platform and how it’s affecting writers’ careers.
User and subscriber growth
First, let’s take a look at Medium’s adoption. It didn’t reveal any exact figures, but CEO Ev Williams dropped several hints in a series of posts. He wrote that there “are millions of people logged into and reading Medium on the web and in our apps.” More importantly, he revealed that Medium has “several hundred thousand [paying] members.” Assuming somewhere in the neighborhood of 400,000 subscribers paying $5 a month, then it could be generating at least $24 million in revenue.
What does it mean for the writers who publish content behind Medium’s metered paywall and therefore get a cut of that money? Williams wrote that “we pay out over two million dollars per month to writers, editors, and publication owners.” The site also publishes monthly stats on its partnership program, and its top writer made $33,000 in the month of June.
So with $24 million a year in writer payouts, some creators are making some decent money on Medium. That’s larger than the editorial budgets of all but a few major national publications. It’s still far south than the $1 billion a year in creator payouts just announced by Patreon (more on that further down in the newsletter), but presumably there’s a lot of expected growth ahead of it.
This part I won’t dwell on too long, but last month Medium announced it would begin introducing different background templates so writers can switch up the color and presentation of their articles. There are some writers out there who don’t like the sameness and uniformity of most platforms and want more control over aesthetics. I’m not one of those people -- I just want my writing presented in a way that makes it easy to read and share -- but to get an understanding of that design mindset, check out this great piece from writer Ernie Smith on why he prefers designing his layout from scratch rather than adopting the cookie cutter layouts embraced by platforms like Substack and Medium.
This is the one I really want to sink my teeth into, as it’ll have the biggest impact on audience growth for individual Medium writers.
To understand the changes, it might be helpful to look back at how discovery has evolved at Medium over the years. In its earliest days, it resembled a traditional social network. When you landed on a piece of content that you liked, you could share the content with your network and then follow the writer. It was basically Twitter, but for longform writing.
As a writer who back then didn’t publish content as consistently as I do today, I loved it. I had my own website blog, but it was just so hard to drive traffic to my articles. With Medium, I could publish an article there and then all of my followers would see it when they visited the homepage. I had several successful pieces there and over time I built my following up into the thousands.
Things began to change sometime around the time Medium started forming partnerships with established media outlets like The Awl, ThinkProgress, and Pacific Standard. It rolled out an algorithmic feed which, not coincidentally, seemed to feature a lot of the content from these partner publishers. The homepage started to resemble the YouTube homepage, in that it focused less on showing you headlines from users you followed and instead tried to predict what content you actually wanted to read.
This disconnect between your followers and content exposure grew even more pronounced when Medium debuted its paid partnership program. It hired lots of curators whose job it was to find good content and promote on the homepage, and it explicitly stated that you articles wouldn’t be considered by the curators unless you opted into the partnership program.
As a creator who’d built up a following on Medium, I quickly grew disillusioned with the site. I felt like they were taking away my audience and giving it to someone else, and I gradually began shifting all my publishing to Substack.
Apparently I wasn’t the only person who felt this way, because Williams announced that Medium was shifting back toward its social media roots:
Instead of starting with an algorithmic feed of stories, the new app is “reoriented around following — so that readers can be sure they’re not missing anything from writers they love, and those writers and publications can more actively engage and grow their audience.”
He hinted at the reason behind this change a little further down:
While you can build followers on Medium, our algorithms have played a bigger role in what gets distributed. As a result, readers have been less likely to follow writers because it doesn’t have a huge effect.
It doesn’t stop there. Medium is trying to reorient engagement away from the headline. Now, when one of the people you follow uploads a new article, you’re simply shown their profile photo on the homepage. You need to click on the photo to then scroll through their recent content. My guess is this is similar to the experience you get when you’re exposed to your friends’ Instagram Stories; you actually need to click on the icon to see them.
As a person who’s never really liked Instagram stories, I can’t say I’m too psyched about this development. If I like an article on Medium and follow the author, I’m not going to necessarily remember who that author was a few days later when I see their profile photo. Just show me the headline so I can make a quick judgement call as to whether I want to read it. I don’t have all day!
And then finally there’s the new newsletter feature. The company actually announced it a few weeks ago, portraying it as a way for Medium authors to more reliably reach their audience. But people scoffed when they found out that someone signing up for your newsletter on Medium wouldn’t actually get you access to their email addressing, meaning you couldn’t take your list with you if you decided to leave Medium.
Williams’s post recognized this as a problem, but didn’t offer up a solution. “We are working on the details and will have a solution to import and export for your newsletter list soon.”
If Medium builds true list portability into its newsletter product, it might be a game changer. It'll essentially allow you to leverage its network effects to build a list that you own while also providing a pretty easy way to monetize your content.
There were a few other product updates sprinkled into these announcements, but I think the ones I listed above are the most consequential.
So what to make of these changes? I think Medium recognizes that Substack has emerged as its chief rival, and the reason high profile writers keep choosing Substack over Medium is that it gives them more direct access to their audience. Sure, one of the downsides to Substack is that there are fewer network effects, but when you already have a large fan base (as Andrew Sullivan or Matt Taibbi does), those network effects are less important. Every modern day journalist watched as Facebook delivered huge audiences and then took them away. The fact that Medium introduced its own Facebook-like algorithmic feed is probably giving a lot of writers pause.
What it takes to operate a physical podcast studio
If you want to launch a new high quality podcast, the learning curve can be steep. First there’s the equipment and software for actually recording it. You have to learn how to edit the audio, purchase music rights, and find a web host. And those are just the technical aspects; most non-podcasters don’t realize how difficult it can be to find an entertaining show format, book interesting guests, or ask engaging questions.
If you’re a full-time content creator, you’ll probably have the patience to figure all this out on your own, but many executives who want to dabble in podcasts as a form of content marketing want someone to guide them through the process. That’s the gamble Angela Connor made when she opened a physical recording studio in Raleigh, North Carolina. Angela’s career spans across journalism, marketing, and public relations, and recently she noticed that many of her local business clients were starting to get interested in podcasts.
A serial entrepreneur, Angela made the decision to rent coworking space and build a studio from scratch. I interviewed her about how she designed her podcast consulting offerings and what it takes to launch a high quality show.
To access this case study and others like it, you need to become a paying subscriber to this newsletter. By doing so, you’ll not only receive these case studies in your inbox, but you’ll also be supporting the production of the free newsletter and podcast. You get awesome content that’ll help you in your career and you’ll be supporting an independent creator. For the next few weeks I’m running a special discount that will get you 20% off for the first year.
Patreon is finally getting serious about discovery
Medium isn’t the only content subscription platform to make some big announcements this week. Patreon also got in on the action. Its CEO Jack Conte published a YouTube video this week revealing several new developments.
First, let’s tackle the headline news. Patreon just took on another $90 million investment in which it was valued at $1.2 billion. More important, he revealed that Patreon creators have generated $2 billion since the platform’s creation, and they’re now on track to generate $1 billion (!) per year.
Let’s put that in context: Patreon is generating more for its creators than The New York Times is through digital subscriptions. That seems like a pretty amazing fact to me.
The biggest thing that jumped out at me in Conte’s video was what he said about creator discovery. A few weeks ago I penned an article about “why Patreon’s business model is under threat.” I pointed out that every major content platform -- from YouTube to Facebook to Twitter -- was copying its core offerings, and they all had a distinct advantage because they controlled massive content distribution.
Patreon used to pride itself on being content agnostic. I remember reading an interview with one of its executives who boasted that the platform didn’t play favorites because creators were wary of the algorithmic feeds they already had to deal with on YouTube and elsewhere. But now the company seems to be changing its tune. In his video, Conte said:
Creators say, “You make me go to Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube and bring my audiences to Patreon. Why don’t you send me patrons? When I go on to YouTube, YouTube sends me audience. Why don’t you send me audience?”
That’s a problem we can fix. Imagine being able to search by topics or content. Imagine being able to explore by creators and genres. And by just being a creator, the ecosystem of Patreon is sending you patrons that know you and love your work. We’re building out that functionality right now.
It’ll be interesting to see how Patreon tackles this problem. A lot of the content uploaded to Patreon by creators is paywalled, and so it might need to start encouraging its users to publish more free content to it so it can then expose that free content to potential fans. Either way, it’s clear that Patreon recognizes the major content platforms as threats to its longterm business, and it’s not going to stand by and allow its creators to be lured away.
Want to ask me a question I can answer in this newsletter?
I have a secret Facebook group that’s only promoted to subscribers of this newsletter. I try to post exclusive commentary to it sometimes and have regular discussions with its members about the tech/media space. Go here to join. [link]
These Facebook Watch numbers are impressive, but I'm always left wondering what they mean. Are 1.2 billion people clicking on the Facebook Watch tab? Or are they just encountering videos shared in their Newsfeeds? The latter would be less impressive. [link]
Publishers can integrate their metered paywalls into Facebook Instant Articles. The Atlantic did so and drove 8,000 paid subscriptions through it. And it owns those relationships. [link]
YouTubers can make good money by posting Amazon affiliate links in their video descriptions. Here's a breakdown of what one beauty influencer makes. [link]
A cute story about an 84-year-old gamer grandma who has 900,000 followers on YouTube. [link]
Some really fascinating discussion here of what the author calls "content density." Why do people love TikTok? Because it delivers on content density in a way that few other platforms do. [link]
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