Reversing Medium’s brain drain problem

After 10 years of leading Medium, CEO Ev Williams is stepping down. Medium faces a lot of challenges—I am sure Williams will reflect on many—but to me the main one is basically a way worse version of the problem that Substack currently faces: brain drain, a term used to describe “the emigration of highly trained or qualified people from a particular country.” (I’m Canadian, so I’m deeply familiar with the experience.) Many of Medium’s prominent creators have left to publish at different platforms. 

It’s difficult to remember, but Medium used to be really exciting. The Ringerwhich was acquired by Spotify for nearly $200 million—started at Medium. Sarah Cooper’s journey as a creator really accelerated with a series of articles at Medium that went (really!) viral. In 2013, the early days of Medium, traditional publishers would scour the platform for new authors to offer book deals to, founders were publishing exclusively there, and media publications would syndicate content from Medium. Here’s a really great read into Medium’s early promise and momentum.

I started writing at Medium in 2013, while it was still in beta. My first post was about ketchup as a metaphor for life, and Williams actually clapped for it. One of my next posts involved vowing to stop checking Facebook until the evening, which 8,000 people viewed in June 2013. The Next Web approached me to syndicate it. I was hooked.

Former TikTok chief executive Alex Zhu likens building a social media platform to building a country; TikTok was an emerging country that essentially needed to draw in immigrants from Europe—namely, Instagram and Facebook. As a platform, Medium had actually very much succeeded at drawing in creators and readers; the problem is it never figured out how to get them to stay. 

The immigration away from Medium

There’s a meme floating on Twitter—though I’m sure it’s everywhere else too—about the Stripe notifications of payments from Medium:

It’s been my experience, too. I’ve posted over 200 stories to Medium for over 9 years (it’s not a lot, but it’s not a little), and over 15,000 people follow me, yet fewer than 50 people saw my latest post.

I’m not expecting for us to return to the golden era of Medium—when Medium would show one of my articles to 1,000+ people, and have a good shot at going viral (Twitter and Facebook also sent much more traffic to organic links)—but I have no incentive to keep posting there. 

In fact, the emotion is the opposite; I experience discouragement to post there, because I’ve seen shrinking results for the time and energy I’ve put in. (I have a hypothesis: The low payments are actually, counterintuitively, worse than no payment at all because it can feel insulting, and its absurdly low amounts make for great meme fodder.)

Because Medium’s Partner Program didn’t exist in the early days, I’d long since figured out how to make money outside of the platform. (In fact I believe the best money is made indirectly at Medium—another piece for another day.) But I’ve talked to other creators, with many more people following their work than my own, who have all talked about their reach cratering lately. Either all of our work got crappier—we were all regressing as writers!—or Medium’s team has decided that it needs to draw in more new people than keep its existing population of writers happy.

Some version of this is also why, inevitably, the creators who start here get pulled away to the glittering lures of other social media platforms. Gary Vaynerchuk left. Sarah Cooper left. Julie Zhuo left. I’m, at best, a visitor who happens to swing by every week or two—I now essentially live at my blog, my assistant will republish some blog posts to Medium, we’ll tweak the headlines, and I’ll go back to my blog or to Twitter.

To be really clear, there will always be immigrants who want to leave. At Substack, Every, Trapital, The Browser, The Generalist, amongst many others, all moved away despite starting there. But Substack has managed this churn much better than Medium does so far; I still regularly come across really great writing there, almost increasingly so. We’ll see if it can maintain that as it builds in discovery features. 

Medium’s expat strategy

I’d actually almost fully stopped publishing at Medium—and online—in 2016 or 2017, but I picked up writing again in 2019. The first place I returned to was Medium, and I was lucky enough to pitch Indrani Sen who was just starting up Forge. We worked on this piece together, and I’d go on to publish many more with them. At the time, the deal sounded exciting; I’d get paid a bonus up front directly for my writing at Medium, which was a first, and I’d be able to earn on the residuals. As of today, here’s what this piece looks like:

As it turned out, this was the start of what I’ll call Medium’s expat strategy, which meant paying money to draw in established writers from traditional media and building its own in-house publications. I didn’t even know that Tim Kreider could use social media. Susan Orlean still writes at Medium. 

This could’ve been the start of a virtuous cycle—eventually, somebody would write something huge!—of both snobbery (Medium is a good brand that writers want to be associated with)—and monetizing. 

For whatever reason, I’m sure there are many, Medium also discontinued this approach. I get it; maybe it was just unprofitable or unsustainable, but there are ways to keep good creators, publications, and people around other than just money. When there are a million reasons not to do something, and one really good one, it’s probably worth doing. In this case, it was not only working, it was also re-branding Medium; but alas, they didn’t commit to it, and that’s that.

This strategy didn’t make everyone happy; I know creators who didn’t like pitching Medium’s publications, or felt that the “expat” creators were getting paid too much compared to the stats they were putting up. That’s part of the challenge of strategy; you need conviction to stand by it, and to be able to tolerate upset users. But now, the expats are gone, and so are many of the other creators. 

First note: Substack has committed to its expat strategy and it seems to be really working out for them. Apples, oranges, etc., but not really. Both Substack and Medium need to grow the number of people willing to pay for writing.

Second note: The expat strategy doesn’t work for every platform; it didn’t for Newsbreak!

Medium’s lively technology district

That’s not to say that this is the version of Medium that everyone currently experiences! I lead an editorial studio that works with tech companies to start their engineering blogs; we worked with one of our customers’ VPs to ghostwrite a piece, and over 100x the number of people viewed his work at Medium compared to his speech at YouTube. There is still a glimmer of hope here at Medium; I believe that it’s still a great place for technology pieces. (The Netflix Techblog migrated, and still publishes, there!)

Medium also remains one of the best places to publish and host one-off exploratory essays that a creator wouldn’t want to set up another blog for. Cooper mused on Google Docs’ new default text

There’s still hope for Medium, people still write actively on the platform, but to me it seems largely stagnant. Hence the departure and the new CEO, Coach Tony (real name Tony Stubblebine). As Coach Tony wrote, if Medium is keeping to its current business model, Medium’s long term strategy needs to offer the most value for its price; $5 per month for access to a library of great content, like all the other streaming services. But in order to get there, it needs to get people to come back. (Focusing on verticals like Coach Tony does is one great potential way to get started.) 

A reverse brain drain strategy for Medium

Medium has lost a ton of talent, but it’s still got a few great things going for it. It has built up authority in search engine optimization (which is great for user acquisition, worth lowering the paywall for, like Financial Times does!). It’s still got something of a brand and good design. It’s just not cool anymore though, and people have left for greener pastures; Substack, Twitter, and YouTube.

One first, “low hanging,” tactic is to get people to come back as creators and readers. Without that, there’s no growth to GDP. Some will need to be expats, and others get a whiff of what’s happening and want to join. A screenshot of a $1,000 Stripe notification here. A huge success story of a returning creator there (there’s no shortage of them!). Showing creators stats like how many people saw a headline (“Impressions”), not just Views and Reads. 

People immigrate for opportunity, but they stay for all sorts of reasons; culture, pace, family, and so on. I started writing more regularly at Twitter with the intention of promoting my book, but now I’ve met a lot of really interesting people and connected with them off the platform. 

There’s still opportunity; thousands of people have started following me there since I started writing mid-February or so, and I’ve seen continued engagement. We all know the stories of people who made six and seven-figures selling info products at Twitter. I haven’t heard of recent stories like that at Medium.

I know another common sense path is to do more of what’s working—which is exactly what Medium failed to do for creators a few times around. What was working to draw people to the metaphorical country of Medium was:

  • Circulating emerging writers’ articles to new audiences and existing audiences (without a paywall), incentivize them to commit to writing (or at least republishing) at Medium
  • Building brands and brand associations that creators and writers were proud to publish at (the dollar plus memes really ruin it, as does all the “How to make money writing at Medium” content at Medium)—Medium’s own version of the creator dream
  • A subset of the prior point: general buzz. I often heard, “Oh, I think I’ll write something about this at Medium,” a lot in the middle of the 2010s; much less often today.
  • Rewarding consistent and tenured Medium writers for loyalty and retained writing—essentially as paid syndication at least, or something similar to the bonuses for quality content
  • Support writers in earning more money outside of the paywall, perhaps even off platform, by packaging and selling books (Medium acquired Glose), arranging sponsorships (like ConvertKit), and promoting creators’ digital stores (partner with Gumroad!)

These are just ideas. I’m not saying it has to do all of that; in fact, Medium probably has tried too much. (Medium has struggled with strategy, which is the art of deciding what not to do.)

But the first is to build buzz again. Medium has close to a million paid subscribers, each paying $5 per month. It’s going to need to invest more of this into paying its creators, but also into probably a lower paywall—more free articles through different acquisition channels (not just friend links), more alliances and better integrations with other social channels (“Turn your Twitter Note or Thread into a Medium article in one click!”), and better creator features.

The thing about a country is, you’ll never forget your time there. Same goes for platforms. I don’t think any creator’s experience with Medium has been so awful they’ll never do it again; the problem was one of growing pains, confusion, and opportunity pulling from other places. So I’m sure people will want to come back, if they’re given enough reason to. I’m hopeful for Medium, as I always have been, and I look forward to the day this post becomes a thing of the past and Medium regains its momentum.

One response to “Reversing Medium’s brain drain problem”

  1. Medium has always been and will always be a content farm with delusions of grandeur. I would rather post on my own website and go unread than be associated Medium.

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