Why Medium failed
Ev Williams didn't fully realize how the Creator Economy would evolve.
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Why Medium failed
I should start by acknowledging that Medium isn’t actually dead. Even though its founder Ev Williams announced last week that he was stepping down from his role as CEO, nothing else has changed about the company in the short term, other than the fact that it’s now helmed by Tony Stubblebine, a longtime collaborator of Wiliams’s.
But it’s hard to interpret Williams’s move as anything other than an admission of defeat. In the 10 years since Medium’s founding, it went from the go-to place for publishing longform independent web writing to mostly an afterthought, one that’s been superseded by other Creator Economy startups. After multiple rounds of layoffs, pivots, and business models, Medium is now often mocked by the very journalists it was supposed to attract onto its platform. As a longtime user and watcher of the company, I have a hard time seeing how it gains back its luster without some kind of radical change.
Did it really have to be that way? It’s not that hard to look back on the last decade and see an alternate path in which Medium became the YouTube for longform writing — a place where the world’s best writers went to burnish their independent careers.
So how did it deviate from that path?
It wavered from its initial vision
What made Medium so appealing in its early days was that it applied social media network effects to longform writing. This was badly needed; part of the reason the blogosphere had faded in importance was that it was so incredibly difficult for writers to drive traffic to a standalone blog, especially if you only posted occasionally to that blog. It became just so much more enticing to instead post your thoughts to Twitter or Facebook where it was easier to find an audience.
With Medium, your readers had the ability to follow and amplify your writing to their followers, so that even if you only published to the platform occasionally, your articles could still gain traction. As Medium attracted more and more writers, those network effects would only get stronger, to the point that users would feel more incentivized to expand their writing beyond Twitter’s character limits and build a following within Medium’s ecosystem.
Instead, Medium abandoned this early vision and started signing deals with traditional publishers to migrate their content onto Medium’s platform. Outlets like Pacific Standard, Fusion, The Awl, The Ringer, and Think Progress began publishing their content exclusively through Medium. Around the same time, the platform introduced a new homepage algorithm that just so happened to heavily favor these new publishing partners. Suddenly, you couldn’t visit the Medium homepage without being bombarded by content from traditional media outlets.
Individual creators could still publish to the platform, but many saw their article traffic crater as their content got buried by the algorithm. The move alienated its early adopters and favored traditional media over the burgeoning Creator Economy that Medium should have been courting.
It had a bad homepage algorithm
As I mentioned, Medium launched a homepage algorithm that was personalized to each individual user. If you interviewed their engineers at the time, they’d probably point to YouTube’s homepage algorithm — which was adept at surfacing both new and evergreen videos tailored to your viewing habits — as the gold standard that they were trying to emulate.
But the Medium algorithm was notoriously bad at its job. It often surfaced old, outdated articles that were no longer relevant. It grouped content together into broad categories, which meant that its recommendations lacked nuance.
And that’s just not my opinion. I remember reading anonymous quotes a few years back from Medium employees who admitted that Medium’s homepage did very little to drive traffic to its own content; instead, the most successful articles generated most of their views from outside sources like Facebook and Google.
What’s worse, the algorithm made it so your followers didn’t matter. I amassed over 12,000 followers on the platform, but my articles never got more views as a result. What was the incentive to publish to Medium if it didn’t even help me find an audience?
It burned the editorial community several times
To succeed, Medium needed to attract the web’s best writers, including those who already achieved some success at mainstream media companies but wanted to transition into more independent careers. But the company kept pissing off the writing community, creating bad will within the very cohort it was trying to attract.
Here’s a brief sampling of its missteps:
To attract early users, it recruited professional journalists and gave them editorial budgets to curate their own niche publications. But it pulled the plug on many of those publications once it began signing deals with traditional media outlets to host their content on its platform.
Most of the traditional publishers signed guaranteed revenue agreements, but those agreements went out the window when Ev announced that Medium was pivoting away from advertising and toward a membership based model. One by one, those outlets abandoned Medium, all with negative things to say about their former publishing partner.
After Medium announced its new membership model, it hired an editorial team and once again began launching niche publications that paid top freelance rates. But Medium’s internal metrics showed these publications were doing little to convert paying members, and so the company started offering buyouts for editorial employees and closed down those publications (it’s likely not a coincidence that these buyouts occurred after a failed union drive).
Now imagine that you’re a writer at The New York Times and you’re thinking of striking off on your own. Are you really going to bet your entire independent career on a platform that’s known for pivoting every few months and burning writers in the process? I don’t think so!
Its author payout method was flawed
Once Medium pivoted to a bundled membership model, it structured it so that writers were paid based on how much engagement their articles received. Theoretically, this created incentives that would reward high quality writing and steer Medium away from the clickbait environment that plagued other platishers like Forbes.
But remember that bad homepage algorithm I talked about above? It made it extremely difficult for high quality writing to consistently find an audience. Because the site failed to create real network effects, the writers who succeeded within Medium’s partnership program were the ones who could churn out a high volume of content that was specifically designed to win the viral lottery.
So what kind of content met this criteria? Check out some of the recent headlines from Tim Denning, who’s considered one of the most successful authors on the platform:
“Here’s How to Outperform 99% of People at Work”
“Eleven Ways to (Unknowingly) Light Your Money on Fire”
“The Unfair Truth About How Contrarians (Really) Succeed”
This is clickbaity life/business advice, and Denning is publishing up to two of these pieces a day. Take a look at the opening paragraphs of that first article:
The modern workplace is a circus.
People stabbing each other in the back. Regular firings. Employees angrily walking out after having enough. Layers of gossip. Bad bosses. Departments that do work no one understands the value of.
It’s easy to drown your consciousness out with all the noise.
A leader I once worked with gave me this handbook. It’s how he outperformed 99% of people in the office by working 50% less hours than them.
I’m sure there are people out there who find value from this kind of writing, but it’s obvious that it required very little research and was dashed off under a tight deadline. I can’t help but wonder if that kind of content was what Williams envisioned when he launched Medium’s membership program.
I don’t have any access to the Medium’s internal metrics, but I doubt that it’s yet surpassed 1 million paying subscribers; otherwise it would have announced it, just as Substack did when it crossed that threshold. The company never figured out a way to reward deeply-researched, original writing, and its subscriber growth likely stalled out as a result.
It should have never abandoned advertising
For its first several years, Medium was developing a native advertising program that would have connected its top writers to brand content marketers, but in 2017 Williams abruptly jettisoned these plans. Here was his reasoning:
In building out this model, we realized we didn’t yet have the right solution to the big question of driving payment for quality content. We had started scaling up the teams to sell and support products that were, at best, incremental improvements on the ad-driven publishing model, not the transformative model we were aiming for.
To continue on this trajectory put us at risk — even if we were successful, business-wise — of becoming an extension of a broken system.
Williams’s decision to rely entirely on paid memberships was noble, but his reasoning was flawed. Yes, advertising can create perverse incentives, but plenty of high quality content is still funded — at least in part — by advertising. Companies ranging from YouTube to The New York Times have managed to create an ecosystem that caters to both advertisers AND high quality content.
Medium already serves as a content marketing hub for lots of brands and executives, and it could have rolled out a simple native advertising tool that targeted brand marketing content to a larger audience. This wouldn’t have precluded the company from launching a paid membership offering, and it could have combined the revenue from these sources to attract better writing.
It lost its head start
Medium had a huge head start when it came to providing a home for longform, independent writing. If it had stuck to its original vision and rolled out a creator payout system earlier, it may have become the de facto place that writers chose to monetize their content.
Instead, it engaged in too many pivots and left an opening for other platforms like Substack, Ghost, Revue, and Patreon to move in and capture many of the entrepreneurial journalists who might have otherwise given Medium a try.
Which is kind of sad! Whatever you think of Williams, you have to admire him for the role he played in democratizing web publishing, first with the creation of Blogger and then with Twitter. Medium introduced a slick, minimalist design that actually fostered a good user experience, and I genuinely believed that Williams wanted to create better incentives for high quality content.
But in some ways, he failed to fully realize how the Creator Economy would evolve. Medium ended up chasing trends rather than setting new standards, and in the end it never created a product that had the same level of stickiness as TikTok, Twitter, or YouTube. At some point, it lost its momentum, and it couldn’t gain it back. The zeitgeist passed it by.
What do you think?
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Inside Morning Brew's video strategy
If you’re aware of Morning Brew, it’s probably because of its daily business newsletter. Since its founding in 2015 by two college students, it’s grown to over 4 million subscribers, and its news digest format has been copied by dozens of other media startups.
But since getting acquired in 2020 by Business Insider, Morning Brew has expanded into new niches and verticals. Not only has it launched several B2B industry newsletters, but it also invested heavily in podcast and video production.
That’s where Dan Toomey comes in. After graduating college in 2020, he pitched Morning Brew’s founders on the idea of him coming on board to create video, and to his surprise, they went for it.
After experimenting with several different formats, Dan started creating sketch comedy videos for TikTok, and it worked. Every morning he woke up, scanned that day’s business news, and chose a topic to parody on video.
In our interview, Dan talked about how he came up with the format, his daily routine for writing scripts, and Morning Brew’s strategy to grow beyond TikTok and launch new video series.
Snapchat is getting better and better about sharing revenue with content creators. That's great! [Digiday]
The Guardian has been a remarkable turnaround story, especially when you consider that it generates so much money directly from its readers despite not having a paywall. [Guardian]
Substack's Recommendations tool has been a game changer in terms of creating network effects that drive new subscribers. It continues to beef up this tool with new features. [Substack]
"Over 43% of digital media subscribers become inactive the day after they subscribe" [Axios]
Foreign bureaus are making a comeback, only now they're geared toward attracting international subscribers, whereas before they focused on educating American readers about foreign issues. [Axios]
Industry Dive is one of those media companies that just stayed incredibly focused and executed on its core vision extremely well. [Axios]
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