Is It Still Worth it to Write on Medium?
Is Medium dead or are they headed to the promised land?
What should you do if you’re a brand new writer and want to publish on Medium?
How should writing platforms factor into your strategy?
The CEO of Medium posted transcripts of a keynote presentation he did called the State of Medium.
I’d read the whole thing first if you haven’t and then come back to this.
I took quotes from the piece and added my own two cents and analysis to them.
After that, I provide my own analysis, insights, and tips on how you should use Medium moving forward.
“The bottom line for writing is that it’s a product for a human to read, and yet we spend all of this time considering these non-human factors, like virality and algorithms and SEO.”
This quote, and the tone of the entire talk, makes me think that Tony doesn’t see or understand the human element involved in marketing techniques like engineering virality and SEO.
Take SEO for example. When you write an article that’s optimized for search engines, you are writing a post based on topics and ideas that human beings have literally expressed interest in because they are searching for them.
When it comes to virality and marketing techniques like headlines, hooks, and irresistible subheadings, you are often helping the reader absorb and consume your ideas more easily.
I teach my students to focus on marketing and provide depth with stories and personal experiences. I get the impression that Tony believes these are mutually exclusive goals. I don’t.
By definition, every single person is an expert in their own life. The power of giving everyone a voice, which is what we do at Medium, is that we get to learn from every variation of expertise.
Medium, other writing platforms and social media sites have been trending in this direction for a while now. This trend is supported by the wants and needs of readers.
People are tired of hearing regurgitated and remixed ideas.
You should draw from your own life experiences to give advice or tell stories instead of having to ‘come up with’ content.
You will have to demonstrate how you’ve implemented what you’re talking about in your posts nowadays or else people won’t listen to you.
- Learn concepts, test them, then teach them
- Take an inventory of all the problems you’ve overcome, challenges you’ve faced, skills/lessons you’ve learned, and relevant stories you can share then use those as ideas for content
- You might, for a time, have to go out and get some more real-world experience before you start positioning yourself as an authority
I am in agreement with Tony and Medium’s thinking here.
He was right when he said:
There’s a lot of fake stuff everywhere else. We’re trying to help encourage writers to share the real stuff — real wisdom — and help give readers an opportunity to receive it.
If you’re a writer, especially if you’re a full-time writer, you start to pick up certain marketing skills. But I don’t think these marketing skills should be required for everyone. You shouldn’t be required to build your own mailing list, you shouldn’t have to learn SEO, you shouldn’t have to build a social media following. Yes, those are all valuable tools of the trade for professional writers — but they undercut the idea of social media giving a voice to everyone.
Maybe you shouldn’t be required to learn skills and build assets like an email list. But you have to if you want to be a professional writer. And many writers on Medium want to become professional writers.
I’d argue that if you removed all the people who are motivated by dreams of turning pro from Medium, the website would die. Medium was built by audience builders, not people who wrote one-off posts. Without all the content from these types of writers, Medium wouldn’t have grown to the size it did.
I am always wary of people who use collectivist phrases like ‘giving a voice to everyone.’ Never in human history has it worked to try to level up the playing field and redistribute wealth. Usually, everyone collectively just ends up worse off. Social media sites, writing platforms, and economies are built by outliers. Power laws make the world go around.
It does appear that Medium is going ‘Robinhood’ and taking views from the power writers and giving it to the up-and-comers, which is fine by me, but they shouldn’t be surprised when the power users leave. Many of them have.
“Medium is special because it’s a place where you can be heard just for sharing your academic research, or for being a great software engineer and telling people what you’ve learned, or for sharing new tools, techniques, or strategies as a designer. There’s a million definitions of merit that aren’t dependent on knowing how to market your writing.”
Tony’s right. There are definitions of merit that aren’t dependent on knowing how to market your writing, but that doesn’t discount the importance of marketing.
Pure merit doesn’t work as a model. It never has. Take business for example. You can have the best product in the world but if you have no method to get people to know about your product it doesn’t matter.
Tony’s advice is great for people who want to write as a hobby and create one-off posts from insights they gained from living life. There should be posts like these sprinkled into the mix. But if you want to become a writer and become a commercial success, you must understand that there’s no such thing as a meritocracy in the writing world. Promotion matters.
“[…] our original approach led to this algorithm that was very similar to an algorithm that YouTube or a TikTok would use. But we had readers who were telling us they read a lot, but it didn’t feel like it was truly time well spent. So the game-changer for us, for our algorithm, is that we put humans back in the loop […] One of those layers is a growing community of subject matter experts within the Medium community. These are the people that are looking for and nominating stories that they think are exceptionally important within their topic. The other is an internal curation team, the Medium curators, who act as a double-check and help keep the standards of quality and substance high. Once a story passes both standards, it’s Boosted and it’s treated with special care by our algorithm.”
Here Tony is talking about the boost system:
- Publications owners nominate posts for boosts
- Medium editors hand-pick from those nominations and hit the boost button
- Then the boosted posts go through normal algorithmic distribution after getting the extra lift
I appreciate the goal of adding a human touch to combat clickbait, viral engineering, and just churning out content. But adding more humans to the mix always runs the risk of creating a new set of gatekeepers.
From what I’ve seen and based on my conversations with other writers, the boost is creating a feast or famine cycle. Either your post makes a bunch of money or it basically makes no money. There was already a Pareto distribution to views, but now it’s even more pronounced.
There was a time when you could write a solid story, get pretty good views, and make pretty good money. Those days are gone.
“What we found with Boosted stories is that readers are 3% less likely to click on them. I think that says something that speaks to something that I was saying earlier about how you shouldn’t have to be a marketer to get your things read […] However, by far the most important finding is that when a reader reads a Boosted story, they’re twice as likely to then become a paying member. This is how we know that we’re finally, finally building a recommendation system that meets this higher bar of time well spent.”
We will see how this plays out. Medium is making a bet that it will be a net positive to promote the type of stories that drive memberships and de-prioritize what they consider clickbait.
This could work. Or it could lead to a version of Medium where a small group of people are happy and satisfied with this in-depth and valuable content, while more and more people begin to spend less time on the website because, due to a lack of packaging, none of the articles they see inspire them to want to read the posts.
If you run a publication and you’ve suspected for a long time that maybe Medium wasn’t giving you the attention that you warranted, I can completely validate that you were right. But now things are changing.
Medium is putting an emphasis on publications in multiple aspects. You get more money from posts that are read by followers of the publication you post to. Publications owners are the backbone of the boost system. The love is being spread around to more publications so you don’t have to just publish in the huge ones to have a shot at success.
I like this. I have always been pro-publication and I’ve always advised my students to post nearly 100 percent of their work in publications.
“So now, because of solutions like the Boost and publications, we’re feeling more and more confident in our ability to play matchmaker between quality and the reader and that we can treat the quality of the story as primary.”
This paragraph scares me because it sounds like something the New York Times would say, not Medium. Medium has flirted with this idea of becoming more of an editorial sort of site multiple times. It hasn’t worked.
They tried pushing their ‘in-depth and quality’ stories on the homepage with their big fancy Medium publications featuring stories by journalists, experts, researchers, etc. You were forced to see these stories at the top of the homepage regardless of your interest. And the engagement on these stories was horrible, even with the push they tried to give them.
Matchmaking sounds a lot like gatekeeping to me.
From the outside, Medium is irrationally attached to doing some things differently. Why does Medium have human curators, when TikTok, YouTube, and Twitter just use an algorithm? Why does Medium have a membership instead of ads? In fact, authors often ask us, couldn’t you make more money if you ran ads? Why do we focus on time well spent instead of attention? Why do we base credibility on the content of an individual story rather than the influence of the author? Of all the lessons from the past, the main lesson that we took from the rest of the internet is this: Attention is not merit.
Again, on its face, all these goals seem noble. Maybe it will work out for both the readers and the writers. But it is kind of weird for a business to go on an ideological crusade when the point of a business is, you know, making money.
Don’t want to run ads even though it would make the writers more money? Cool. But don’t be surprised if your labor pool shrinks because people aren’t, you know, making money.
‘Focusing on time well spent’ is subjective. It’s also susceptible to bias. It’s also clear that the company has biases in a certain direction. What Tony misses is the fact that learning techniques to garner attention can help you write better stories.
A good headline can change the nature of an article. Marketers, copywriters, and persuaders have a better understanding of what humans think than most people on planet Earth. You can’t win as a marketer in the long run unless you know how to connect with people in a real way.
A lot of writers try to just post their writing without learning marketing at all. And as a result, their writing suffers. If you are the type of writer who wants to make a living from your writing, then posting into the void without understanding the attention game is a fool’s errand.
There needs to be a place for people to share their most thoughtful, passionate, curious, and kind voices. When we say we want to give everyone a voice, it’s that — it’s in a way that’s different than what you’ve already seen on the internet.
Again, this is noble and I agree with the attitude and intention behind it. I just don’t know how well it will work. Medium doesn’t owe us as writers anything. They don’t owe us money, a full-time living, or a place to become full-time professional writers.
They can do whatever they want. But you, as a writer, should be looking out for number one. If you want to become a professional writer, Medium is now a place to re-post stuff you were already going to publish, use it as a portfolio to showcase your work, and try to siphon as much traffic from the site as possible and use it to build an audience you own in the form of an email list.
What Medium has done is typical of platforms. On the come up, they incentivize user-generated content to build their user base. Then, once the platform is big enough, they just do whatever they want and ignore the wants and needs of the people who built it.
It is what it is. Medium has been great to me and I’ve made a hell of a lot of money on the platform. But their changes have made me re-think the way I am going to use it as part of my efforts as well as the advice I’d give to a new writer starting on the platform.
The rest of this piece will focus on advice I would give to writers as well as my own independent thoughts on the platform.
You Can’t Rely on Medium to Make a Full-Time Living Writing (Anymore)
At best you can earn $1-5,000 per month on the platform if you’re good. That’s a lot of work for that amount of money. I’ve had conversations with tons of writers whose earnings have been decimated, with some reporting an 80 to 90 percent drop in their views and earnings.
My numbers have shrunk quite a bit too. If you are writing often, improving your skills, and putting out higher quality work, yet your views and earnings are going down, that’s not a good sign.
Just look at this comment from Ossiana Tepfenhart, a popular Medium writer:
When is the algorithm going to be fixed? The payouts I’m getting are literally pennies and they are in line with the boost standards. I feel like there is something wrong here.
There’s a valuable lesson to learn here. You shouldn’t rely on earning money directly from platforms, period. Take the money, but use the platforms to build your own distribution:
- Build an email list you can sell products and services to
- Treat Medium as a re-posting platform (don’t cater your posts to Medium to make money). Write optimized content on your blog, then copy and paste to Medium for free money
- Build an income stream with guaranteed income and cash flow like freelancing.
I will still re-post all my blog content to Medium, but I’m focused on building my own home turf and distribution. You should too.
Do Take This Piece of Advice From Tony To Heart
Tony is 10,000 percent accurate when he says that readers are tired of hearing fake made-up content. You do have to back up your flashy headlines and intro hooks with real value.
But there’s a way to provide value and be a good marketer at the same time. You want to combine traditional blogging and marketing techniques with depth.
Here are some tips to do that:
- Each time you give a piece of advice, add an anecdote explaining how you’ve implemented it
- Only write about topics you’ve either researched and tested or lived yourself
- In general, learn how to become a better storyteller because stories make lessons stick better than tips anyway
- Don’t speak to your readers from a pedestal. Bleed on the page. Talk about your struggles and vulnerabilities
- Spend time studying what readers are saying in comments. Take real feedback from their words and use it in your posts
Good News For Beginners and Intermediate Writers
The big-name writers are getting shredded right now.
But, the little guy or gal is getting a chance. So, if you are new or have a smaller following, take advantage of it. I have had students report their earnings going up. The size of your following really doesn’t matter anymore, so go ahead and post on Medium and try to get some wins in the form of boosts.
You shouldn’t rely on Medium to make a full-time income, but as a new writer, it is thrilling to make hundreds or thousands from a single post, so it does make sense to get a taste of that sweet mulah because it will inspire you to do the real work it takes to build a well-rounded writing business.
When you’re new, you just need to get better at writing, period. So, use Medium to practice and get paid at the same time. Right now Medium is an amazing platform for beginner writers who are looking to get their feet wet. I wrote on Medium before the partner program even existed because there’s value in practice. You still get the chance to get paid, too. Win-win.
Esoteric Writers Are Getting Their Shine
The essayists, memoirists, poets, and other writers who have zero interest in writing traditional blog-style stuff now get a chance to shine and earn from their words. I’m happy for them.
Because, honestly, outside of a place like Medium, you won’t make much money for that type of writing.
If you want to become a full-time professional writer all that marketing stuff is required. And some writers just don’t want to do that. Medium will be their home. More and more of these types of pieces will emerge.
Totally fine by me.
We should have places on the internet where different styles are rewarded. It might be bad news for ‘audience builders’ but it’s great news for those of you who don’t want to ‘sacrifice the quality of your art.’
It’s your time now. Show us what you got.
Medium Doesn’t Want Audience Builders on the Platform Anymore
Even though we built the platform from the ground up, they just don’t want us here anymore. Even though most of the fan favorites on Medium have been audience builders, they just don’t care.
Again, this is fine. It’s their company.
I’m an audience builder. Most of my students are audience builders. If you want to go full-time, you have to be an audience builder. Here’s what you must understand as an audience builder.
Platforms come and go. Algorithms change. You have to weather the storm and build an audience you own. Medium isn’t the first platform I’ve seen make moves like this and it won’t be the last. I’ll keep on keeping on, pivoting along the way, and so will my students.
Even though they might not want us here, we can still use the platform to our advantage. Keep posting on Medium. Just detach yourself from the outcomes. Start a blog, post to it, learn a bit of SEO sauce, and use Medium to get links to your site. Use Medium to get email subscribers. Write books, sell products, and monetize in other ways like affiliate marketing and ads.
If you’re the type of writer who has ambitions to go full-time, here’s what I’d do:
1. Publish blog posts to your website
2. Copy and paste to Medium for free money
3. Learn basic SEO
4. Optimize your site for traffic & earn from ads, affiliate revenue
5. Become a freelance SEO writer
6. Quit your job
7. Build your big personal brand after 1-6
This path help will help you:
- Build cashflow much much faster: write a blog post for a guaranteed $300-500 as a freelancer instead of posting to Medium and crossing your fingers
- Build a real business independent of Medium: One of the guest experts in our community received a multi-six-figure offer for her blog. She built it by posting on her blog first and then copying it over to Medium.
- Create a more secure and reliable path to going full-time: This strategy isn’t as sexy as the glory days of writing posts and earning a bajillion dollars per month on Medium. In retrospect, it was a faulty strategy that just happened to work.
A lot of top writers were canaries in the coal mine on this trend.
I tried to fight tooth and nail to defend Medium.
I’m done. Because I no longer can.
Medium Isn’t Dead…It’s Just Different
I will always love Medium. If I do happen to post something to my blog, I will re-post it to Medium. If you create long-form content, you should post it on Medium. There’s no downside to posting on Medium.
There’s just less upside.
So instead of hoping to ride the wave of the Medium algorithm like people used to in the past, just recognize Medium for what it is and act accordingly.
The leadership in the platform straight up says your writing career is of no concern to them. They want to use your content to build their member base. The members are the top priority, not the writers.
This is a mistake on their part, but it’s a mistake they have the right to make.
Use Medium to your advantage. Don’t let it use you.
There are competitors on the horizon. Build on Medium and put yourself in a position to take advantage of them when they emerge.
Writing is a life-long game with ups and downs. Play it well.