I’ve been an active user of this platform for…well over two years now. I was among Medium’s first wave of paid writers last spring, one of the first invited to their Partner Program, and even picked up a bit of cash providing my insights as a user. I’ve launched two publications on Medium — both of which are still active today.
Medium and I have invested a lot in one another, and I value our relationship. That’s why I keep writing about this platform, and providing my (oftentimes of late critical) feedback.
Because I want both of us to succeed.
Also, I’ve always had a bit of a tech crush on Ev Williams. #truestory
With that in mind, some of the changes and shifts in strategy that have come from the Medium Staff over the last few months don’t sit well with me — and I’m not the only dedicated user who’s had some critical feedback of late.
Rather than complaining and rehashing, or giving a detailed examination of the stats and variables I’ve observed (as I’ve done several times before), I’d like to just lay out the strategy that I believe would make Medium successful — and by that I mean financially sustainable, and continuing to accomplish its mission for decades to come.
1) Stop editing, and curate instead
Medium’s team has done an incredible job of attracting some of the most dedicated and talented minds of our generation. It’s like the fucking Chelsea Hotel in the 1960’s, brimming with beat poets and musicians and the bards of the last century. That’s what Medium has become, to this century. It’s incredible.
It is, I think quite obviously, Medium’s best asset by far. And it’s a deeply engaged and self reliant community.
Yet Medium’s most juicy features — book chapter and audio features, as well as being pulled to homepage and featured content sections — are held behind the lock and key of an editorial team, which is busy editing its own publication, working hard to pull in writers and content from outside the platform.
There’s no need for Medium to run its own editorial staff, or to curate content for its members; unique, fresh, high quality content is already there in abundance. It just needs to be brought out into the spotlight.
Medium doesn’t need an editorial team. It needs a curatorial team.
2) Build up small/independent publications
Independent publications using Medium as their platform boomed last spring, for too many reasons to count. As a small, independent publisher who needs to stay lean, I have to say it’s pretty much the gold standard. From the layout and ease of publishing, to its built in email list feature, Medium’s publications are built to disrupt the publishing industry as we know it.
To be sure, publications are so easy to create that there were a lot of false starts and now dormant publications, which I’m guessing ate up a lot of developer support time for custom domains. That’s probably why Medium stopped offering custom domains for small publications in January. Which, I have to say as an SEO, made me cry a little bit.
But this pool of new, independent publications has also produced some world class creative and journalistic work; its redefined genres; and — perhaps most importantly to Medium’s bottom line: it’s engaged new writers and readers.
Medium publications are like little Medium promotional machines.
Yet for users, accessing content from the publications you follow is convoluted from a desktop, and all but impossible via mobile. The homepage doesn’t recommend or promote publications. You can’t tag or mention publications. These are another asset goldmine, but they fly largely below the radar on the platform.
Better access to and promotion of publications, and re-introducing custom domain support for publications are critically low hanging fruits.
Medium needs to have a little more faith in its publications. They’re brimming with mutually beneficial potential.
3) Open up audio feature to all Partners
It’s easy to understand why Medium has kept a tight lock on this feature: Members expect a certain level of audio quality, which taps into issues of accessibility, for those with hearing impariments and without.
If all Partner writers were allowed to submit their own accompanying audio, Medium’s team would have to create and implement an entire system of standards for audio creation, and an entire team dedicated to auditing audio quality, and explaining why unqualified submissions are rejected — then dealing with that backlash. That’s a lot of resources and manhours. It’s much easier to just hire vetted audio experts for select stories, and to have celebrity writers come into the studio on occasion.
Here’s the thing, though: that makes audio inaccessible, and hierarchical. It’s not in line with the mission.
If Medium reallocated its focus on hiring professional voice artists to record audio, and bringing writers into their studio, they would have more resources to put towards creating the structure I describe above.
This would empower writers more, and allow them to expand their audience and reach into new audiences, which would in turn provide increased opportunities for Medium’s brand awareness and Member recruitment.
4) Give followers and users better access to one another
One of the most common complaints I’ve read among Members lately has been having little to no visibility of the authors and publications we follow. I can attest to this, as both a writer and a reader. There’s no easy way to click through to a dashboard of all the writers and publications I follow, because no such dashboard exists.
Yet I, along with so many other Members, both longtime and new, have been diligently following users and publications we find fascinating, and want to hear more from.
This is the content users should find their homepages and digests inundated with: the latest content from the people and publications they follow.
Medium has been overly reliant on a broken taxonomy of categorized tags for a long time. It’s a rather obvious flaw that’s been pointed out by others more articulate than I am: they’re not intuitive, and they weight tech/business/politics very heavily, while making creative genres like fiction and poetry all but invisible.
This taxonomy needs to be reorganized with the help of objective human centered design.
Rather than curating content from tags people follow, Medium’s team needs to look at a much more reliable data set: followers.
This speaks to lists as well. Publications can connect with their followers via email using the “Letter” feature, but this feature isn’t available for individual authors, no matter how large the size of their followers.
As a user, I can say I would most definitely like to be able to subscribe to the email newsletter of authors I choose — and I’m not the only one.
5) Let Members curate 100% of their homepage
This has been alluded to, but it’s worth stating outright. As a publisher, I can customize my homepage with nearly infinite variety, pulling in latest posts and tagged posts wherever and however I want.
This is what Medium’s team needs to be working on: building this feature out to be accessible to all users, allowing Members to curate their own custom homepages — which they can then use to promote content outside their network. As a Member-only feature, this would offer a huge hook to those who are tired of the blur of the news cycle and want to curate their own newsfeeds. This is an incredible value proposition to Medium’s most valuable target audiences. And it would make for Members who were loud about their loyalty.
BUT MARJORIE, YOU DON’T MEAN —
Let’s address the elephant in the room for a second: I know that this is a massive, seemingly unfeasible ask.
Because in doing all these things, Medium would effectively be negating the usefulness of everything its team has spent the last six months building: relationships with mainstream publications and editorial teams.
If Members had 100% control over their own homepages, there would effectively be no need for Medium to have any editorial staff whatsoever, nor to manage any kind of publishing. It would, as I allude to earlier, necessitate a shift away from publishing, and towards curation.
There would be a host of freshly inked contracts that would go embarrassingly limp. There would be teams of editors who would suddenly be unemployed. And there would be armies of development teams to hire — and to lead.
I understand that this strategy I’ve laid out would require massive organizational shifts, away from a newly minted strategy. It would be a huge risk, and, for a still young organization that’s still finding its feet, that risk could be catastrophic.
And, perhaps most frighteningly of all: it could be mass chaos. If users had 100% control over what they consume, and Medium had no editorial team laying down the baseline for tone and topical focus, what, then, could new users expect to find on Medium? What’s the value proposition — what can we tell them they should expect?
Whatever they want. That’s the beauty.
People are good at figuring out what they need — much better than they are at figuring out what other people need.
That’s why it’s the right strategy. The most sustainable strategy.
You need to ask yourself, Medium: are you a publisher, or a software provider? Because you can’t be both.
Be who you’ve been all along: a software provider, hellbent on allowing writers to disrupt the publishing industry.
If you agree with any of this, or if you have examples and/or suggestions on anything I talk about here, please respond in the comments below and make some noise.