When one of the Twitter cofounders decided to eschew the 140-character count and start a blogging platform, it seemed more humorous than rational. Blogging platforms have been around for a while, what more is there to innovate? Medium, with $82mm of venture capital funding, is proving me wrong. While blogging platforms have always been just a tool for individual authors to express themselves in their separate properties, Medium has turned the model on its head, by instead viewing the bloggers as a crowd eager to provide content for its publishing platform. It is using crowdsourcing to challenge the troubled news and publishing industry.
The Medium model
To get the critical mass in participation, it helps that blogging has been around for long enough that most people are familiar with the concept and many of us have written blog posts, such as this one. While the traditional blogosphere has become fragmented with many brands and fiercely competitive, with some blogs essentially becoming professionally managed businesses, it has turned away people that gets the urge to write every once in a while, but do not want to maintain a blog with the regular contributions that that requires. Medium is perfect in scooping up these lagged contributors by allowing them a forum to publish their thoughts in beautifully laid out pages, share with their networks, and build an audience with the broader Medium community.
For readers, who might typically read the New York Times Editorials section, Medium’s value proposition is that it provides authentic content from more perspectives. However, in order to truly challenge the NYT and its staff of distinguished columnists, Medium needs to sift through the contributions by its amateur writers to always be highlighting high quality content. Medium can gauge the quality of content using techniques from the consumer web, such as the number of “hearts”, views, and bounce rate for each article, as well as to study the demographic of readers for each article to recommend other articles that a particular reader might like. The Medium homepage and the weekly newsletter, Medium Weekly, curates the most popular pieces trending right now. Recently, with the new $40mm of funding, Medium has also invested in teams of editors to curate publications targeting individual verticals, e.g., Backchannel for technology, Bright for education, to really hone in on quality and challenge the likes of Techcrunch and EdSurge.
Growth, value capture, and challenges
Having eschewed ads in favor of a clean aesthetic, Medium currently has no obvious revenue stream. However, as it builds a valuable and engaged audience of the more tech-savvy, well-educated crowd, value capture is not far on the horizon. Interestingly, Medium has also become the destination for corporate press releases that have been disguised as original content from prominent individuals. For example, the head of Google Car wrote an article with the leading title of “Google’s robot driver got into 11 minor accidents over 6 years, but was responsible for none“, to make sure that you read their story before you read the one from the Associate Press. As more brands realize that Medium is a perfect medium for their corporate communications, Medium should be able to monetize this value that they provide, in return for more promotion and better placements for the sponsored articles. Medium can also offer to create partner pages for brands to control their message and become thought leaders in their areas, and monetize these offerings similarly as Facebook and Twitter.
While Medium is capitalizing on a very different economic model compared to the industry incumbents, its model is not yet refined and faces difficult choices ahead. If Medium favors brands too much, then the platform’s content would seem to lose the refreshing authenticity to the audience. If Medium skews too much on promoting gimmicky titles that naturally would attract more clicks, then it will become like Buzzfeed and not be taken as serious thought-provoking pieces. If Medium caters too much to the more popular contributors on its platform, it will alienate new contributors in joining the platform and undermine the crowdsourcing of content — there might be a bit of self-serving plea in here.
All in all, Medium is the most exciting thing to happen in the news and publishing industry for a while. Medium has the potential to reimagine how thoughtful writing should occur and be promoted, as long as it keeps value creation and value capture, readers, writers, and advertisers, in balance.