Medium’s Anti-Ad Stance Continues to Fail

The membership model is problematic

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Obvious Ventures CEO Ev Williams recently announced a “buyout and leadership change to the Medium editorial team” in which he contextualized a shift away from Medium’s homegrown publications, writing, “The Medium subscriber base has continued to grow, while our publication’s audiences haven’t. Medium is struggling to reach a general audience.”

This is partly explained by Medium’s member-based model. As a Medium writer, you’re compensated based on “member reading time.” External reads don’t factor.

Readers don’t become members without prior exposure. Surely, some basic tenets of sales marketing apply. According to Salesforce, it takes six to eight marketing touches to generate a viable sales lead. This should prove difficult to overcome as Medium caps the number of articles nonmembers can read at three a month.

One might argue that acquiring subscribers amid the artesian well of free online content is the challenge many publishers face, but there are two salient differences between those publishers and Medium: They have offerings that are clearly understood by consumers, and they have other revenue streams, most notably advertising, which Williams famously referred to as the “broken system” of “ad-driven media.”

The offering

Many consumers don’t quite know what Medium is: A blog? A social network? A publisher? A repository of mea culpas? 

By contrast, consumers know exactly what they’re getting with a newspaper or magazine. The brand equity of traditional publishers does much of the heavy lifting for them, limiting the need to educate the consumer, something that Medium must prioritize.

A publisher needn’t be a brand with a long history to succeed. The Information Age is brimming with wild internet media success stories, after all, but the new media outlets that thrived sold advertising slots and eschewed content gating, at least at first. Which dovetails neatly into how Medium’s success is inextricably bound to membership. That’s not inherently damning, but it poses a strategic problem given Medium’s intended direction. 

Williams argued that the “role of publications … has decreased in the modern era,” adding that “credibility and affinity are primarily built by people—individual voices—rather than brands.” To that end, one of their directives moving forward will be “redirecting editorial resources to finding and supporting independent writers.”

As an independent writer and Medium member, I hope Medium succeeds, but I can’t help wondering if Medium has preemptively hamstrung independent writing by tying its fate to membership. 

A publisher can prop up independent voices by compensating them and by providing them with a platform, but Medium isn’t a media platform. It tried, courting publishers and professional writers in an effort to build up its reputation as a source of high-quality writing, but it often served instead to amplify already established brands and known quantities.  

Medium pivoted, creating the membership program and establishing its own publications, but, by Wiliams’ own admission, those publications failed to bring in big audiences in spite of membership growth. William thinks it’s a failure of Medium’s publications due to a changing media landscape, but I suspect it’s a baked-in limitation of the membership program. 

Why would readers pay for articles written by writers they’ve never heard of on a platform they don’t understand? They don’t.