Medium unveils paid subscription option, disappointment ensues - an enterprisey take

Profile picture for user jreed By Jon Reed March 26, 2017
I was waiting in anticipation of Medium's bold new reader-supported model. Whoops. Here's why I'm disappointed, and why it won't work. But that doesn't mean Medium is doomed either.

When I last weighed in on Medium, founder EV Williams had pared down their publisher content program, howling into the wind about the appalling state of publishing economics: (Medium lays off 50, cancels native ad program):

In building out this model, we realized we didn’t yet have the right solution to the big question of driving payment for quality content.

Unfortunately, social shares and lyrical angst don't placate investors. Williams promised a "transformational" re-invention of Medium's business model, an imaginative new way for readers to directly support content that matters:

We believe people who write and share ideas should be rewarded on their ability to enlighten and inform, not simply their ability to attract a few seconds of attention.

Rumors swirled that Williams was looking at a Spotify-inspired approach, or maybe even a blockchain-powered micropayments system. As a fan of paying artists fairly for their content. I waited with anticipation for Williams to emerge from his idea lab with a bold new foray.

We need alternatives to Facebook's "Content is free, but you must put up with intrusive ads while we take liberties with your data" model. The Google/YouTube approach of "Want us to remove these ads that you hate? Then subscribe" is a total value fail. Surely Williams - the creator of the most elegant publishing online publishing we've seen - can do better?

So much for re-inventing publishing

Well, the new model is here, and its... Five bucks a month for a premium edition of Medium. Yep, that's the brilliant new approach. But the worst thing is not the failure of imagination. The worst thing is it's not going to work.

I'm not the only skeptic. NiemenLab gave the subscription a test run and was underwhelmed. The premium features are tweaks. Subscribers now see a home page structured like Medium's pre-existing daily emails, including “New from people you follow,” “Most recommended by people you follow,” “New from publications you follow,” “Popular on Medium,” “Handpicked by Medium staff,” and “You might like.” Offline reading is another modest perk. (Only a select group of Medium readers have the paid subscription option as yet).

For writers, the "revolution" comes down to a "A flat fee per piece, which will vary depending on length, amount of original research, and the credentials of the author.” In other words, what readers like and consume doesn't seem to factor into the compensation. No bold experiments with dynamic payment models.

The real problem is not the bland feature set or timid pivot. The problem is a flaw in Williams' unrealistic world view. As he wrote last week, he sees a mass of underserved readers that crave "smart" content. He wants to reward writers who don't have a hoot about clickbait, laboring for content that feeds our intellectual curiosity:

[Writers] who make us all smarter. Those who maximize our understanding of the world but don’t necessarily maximize clicks - and, therefore, are at a disadvantage amongst the highly optimized algorithm chum being slung by the truckload by low-cost content purveyors.

I'd love to see market research quantifying all those Internet readers who are fed up with free content and who are clamoring to pay for "content that makes us all smarter." That's a world I'd like to live in. Last time I walked through a plane or a bar, patrons were happily glued to their Facebook status updates.

"Smart" readers are not an economically viable demographic. Williams does bend a bit here, talking readers-by-topic. His pitch to writers emphasizes the themes of US Politics, Technology/Science/Future, Self Development/Productivity, Business/Startups, and Culture. But as NiemenLabs sarcastically put it, such content is everywhere:

Williams then outlined the kind of content that he expects members to pay for, which sounds like the content on pretty much any site anywhere on the Internet, including regular free Medium:

Politics. What’s happening behind the headlines. How to think about it. What to do about it.
Work. Lessons in business, startups, leadership, management, and money.
Self. Smart takes on how to be your best you - happier, healthier, more productive.
Future. Where the world is going - technology, trends, what it all means.

Cracking the publishing subscription model on a mass scale is a beast. The best examples of viable digital subscriptions are specialized in tech and investor topics, from companies lower to the ground in expenses than Medium. One a mass scale, a few iconic brands like The New York Times are pushing ahead, though digital subscriptions are just one aspect of their still-in-progress revenue model.

From what I can tell, Medium still has other revenue tricks to toy with, including an opt-in ads program for publishers. However, after pulling its guaranteed money for publishers in its beta publisher content program, publisher confidence in Medium is low. As per Poytner, several publishers raised issues of trust, none more scathing that the founder of pop culture site Film School Rejects:

What we were sold when we joined their platform is very different from what they're offering as a way forward... It's almost as if Ev Williams wasn't concerned that he was pulling out the rug from underneath publishers who had placed their trust in his vision for the future of journalism.

My take

As long as their investor runway doesn't run out, Medium still has a decent shot at a sustainable model. But with this wet noodle offering, I don't expect them to revolutionize the future of publishing. I suspect over time Medium will double down on a few winning themes, perhaps culture or AI or the future of work, that play into topical revenue streams. Those streams might veer close to the advertising Williams despises, and could include everything from partner-branded events to sponsored content models from big players in those topics.

If Medium pans out, it will probably be from that angle - a diverse set of revenue streams targeting audiences that appeal to the corporate interests Williams decries. Don't be surprised if opt-in reader data factors into it.

Any type of publishing success is notable, but it's too bad Medium didn't take a bolder step. Even Medium's smaller partners, such as The Establishment, are pushing it further with experiments like reader-sponsored stories (kind of like an online tip jar, which at least gives them a move into micropayment tech). Blendle, a Dutch online service that has been compared to an iTunes-for-news, has a bigger appetite for innovation.

In my prior piece, I explained why enterprises (fortunately) don't have to think like Medium, and shared intriguing models from tech publishing. As I advise enterprise publishers/marketing departments, forget about charging for content. Focus on winning opt-ins with content your niche audience values:

Data-for-content is a fair and achievable goal. Medium can’t survive on data. It has to achieve profitability [charging for] content. If your company can avoid that narrow pressure, avoid it.

For those who must charge for content:

I’d suggest building a digital media business with no offices to close, few if any employees to fire, and no venture capitalists to fret about. Maybe then you’ll be the one to create the formula Williams and company are under pressure to find.

I'm still rooting for Medium. But the gap between ideals and good ideas has left me disappointed.