Problem: How to Monetise Medium when users don’t want to pay for online content?
Solution: Grow the user base by improving service and build trust through a transparent donation model, then develop a revenue stream through educational products and services.
MEDIUM, an online publishing platform founded by Evan Williams has a problem. Like Twitter, which Williams also played a key role in developing, Medium is very popular and has millions of users.. however it does not have a monetizing strategy and is in danger of being unsustainable.
After a brief experiment with branded content and native advertising, the executive team decided that the approach was not in line with the values of the platform.
Our brief was to develop a monetizing strategy for Medium, one that was also true to their core values.
Monetizing online written content has been a problem that many established publishers have struggled with for a decade, and we only had 3 weeks to come up with a solution.
No one wants to pay
One of the key pillar of the Internet is that information should be freely accessible to everyone. For content producers that means that charging people for online content, particularly written content, is going to be difficult. Despite people understanding that paying ensures quality, it is not something the majority of the people wants to do.
We sourced and arranged interviews with numerous Medium users as well as sent out an online survey to gain as much insight as we could. In particular we were looking for people who have written blogs on Medium as we hypothesize that people most likely to pay to use Medium would be those that were most active on the platform, or at the very least what solution or feature we add would have to be implemented by them.
A key insight we uncovered was that users were struggling to find good articles after reading the initial one that brought them onto the platform. Without being able to retain readers it was certainly not justifiable to charge them to use the service.
Aside from user interviews we also looked into a number of articles, industry reports and reputable blogs concerning online publishing, as well as exploring some analytics around Medium’s online presence and usage.
The research revealed some glimmer of hope for Medium’s monetization. As much as people were resistant to the paying for content, there was also a clear growing appreciation for quality. In a landscape saturated with biased reporting, clickbait, fake news and branded content, there was a real desire for a trustworthy platform.
There was a real opportunity for Medium to grow. Positioning itself between social media and an established publisher, Medium could leverage the strengths of both. It just had to find a way to sustain that growth and find a workable revenue stream.
Online publishers have tried various payment models over the years, subscriptions, paywalls, freemium were the usual approaches but one company had an intriguing new model – micro payments. Instead of monthly subscriptions users can pay a tiny amount for each article they read, and via the platform had access to a large number of publishers’ exclusive contents, without having to commit to multiple subscriptions.
I arranged a phone interview with Adam Mather, Senior Vice President of Product to get his expertise on the online publishing market. His insights was invaluable in understanding the market and demographic of people who were serious about online content.
From all the research I created 3 personas (scholar, seeker and surfer) to reflect the main types of users on the Medium platform. Each one had a distinct level of engagement and different needs. What they had in common was an appreciation for Medium’s core values and ease of use.
These personas gave us a focus point in our solution ideation. What would work for them? How do we turn the casual 'surfer' into an interested 'seeker' and finally into a devoted 'scholar'?
In a surprising development, about a week into the start of the project Medium launched their Subscription model. At $5 a month users would have access to exclusive content and features. The public reception was mixed.
This was somewhat a vindicating moment for our team as it confirmed much of what our research was suggesting. Also quite a number of new features listed were things that we identified as needing improvement and have offered similar solutions.
Better Article Search
We decided that we needed to streamline Medium’s interface and introduce features like human curated reading lists, to allow users to continuously read one article after another in order to help them stay hooked on the platform.
The ability for users to create and share their own reading lists also meant that people who weren’t confident riders could still actively contribute to the medium community by curating content for others to appreciate.
We also made a ‘recommendation’ that all the proposed new features in the subscription model be made freely available.
To keep true to Medium’s values we realized that we really needed to employ a donation model, one that has been used successfully on Wikipedia and The Guardian.
Not everyone will donate of course, however with industry standard subscription rate being 3-5% we felt it was not a bad compromise, particularly considering that it proves to user that Medium was committed to it’s vision and values.
The key to success here would be tone, transparency and timing. Techniques like running donation campaigns during peak user periods or during major news event have produced good results for the Guardian, but ultimately it is about building trust between the users and the platform. It’s about laying a solid foundation to grow.
One of the main reasons why people use Medium is to seek out content for their education and development. Whilst we feel that people would not pay for medium’s written content, it is very possible they will pay for courses, events, key speakers and other types of content that can be perceived as a self improvement or perhaps even as a tax deduction. This is a recommendation we would greatly encourage Medium to explore if it wants to generate revenue more actively.
For a PDF of our final presentation please see the link below: