About 90% of the notifications on my phone relate to Tim Denning. Why? I follow Tim here on Medium, and he produces a lot of content.
And by a lot, I mean a lot. He’s been publishing about 2 new articles a day for this whole year, and most of them are things I want to read. Since I don’t follow too many people on Medium, nearly every article he publishes appears as a push notification on my phone. Sometimes it’s exhausting. But often it’s nice to see one person’s output, and especially to see (and be inspired by) how extremely prolific Tim is.
With new changes from Medium announced this weekend, the kind of one-to-one connection between readers and content producers that I’ve inadvertently created with Tim is going to become a lot more common.
Toward a more relational Medium
Why? Medium has announced that they’ve moving the platform — and especially the mobile app — towards a more “relational” approach to content instead of a “transactional” one.
What does that mean overall? And especially, what does it mean for prolific content producers? Let’s explore in more detail.
Content is Becoming More Relational
Right now, Medium essentially follows the dominant model for content across the Internet — treat each interaction as a discrete one, and focus on what the reader is looking for in that specific moment. If you go to Google and search for “tomatoes” for example, Google will probably find you a website about cooking or growing tomatoes, like Burpee.com. If you then search for “election”, Google will find you a totally separate website related to politics and whatever election is upcoming where you live, like CNN.
Each transaction is discrete — you’re unlikely to get a political article from Burpee.com, or a tomato article from CNN. That’s a “transactional” interaction — you’re looking for one thing in a discrete transaction, and each transaction is separate.
Usually that makes sense. But when it comes to reading content, it also means that much of the context of how your content is produced gets lost. If you love reading CNN, maybe you would prefer to see a CNN article about tomatoes (they exist) than a page from Burpee.com. Maybe you’ve established a relationship of trust with CNN over time, and you’d really like to know what they feel about tomatoes.
That’s a “relational” interaction — one where you’ve established a relationship with a content source over time, and new content from that source is prioritized in your future interactions.
Medium’s new move focuses it on relational interactions instead of transactional ones. That means that content from trusted sources (or at least sources you interact with a lot) will be prioritized over ones that might be more objectively “relevant” but with whom you haven’t established a relationship already.
Follows and Publications Will Matter a Lot More
What will this mean practically? Follows and publications on the platform will matter a lot more than before.
Follows and publications on the platform will matter a lot more than before.
Follows have always shaped the content that you see on the platform — again, just look at my relationship with Tim’s prolific output. But now they will matter even more, with the newest content from the writers and publications you follow receiving first priority in the mobile app, versus content selected from a nebulous algorithm.
For prolific content products that have established a following already, that’s great news. Your follows are about to become a much more significant and helpful force in getting your content seen.
For new producers with few followers, it means publications will become a much more important way to get started on the platform. Even if you don’t have a following yourself, you’ll presumably be able to submit to a great publication and take advantage of the fact that their followers will be more likely to see content from the publication, including the content you produce.
Publications will become a much more important way to get started on the platform
Follows are a new source of engagement for creators — and publications appear to be emerging more and more as the gatekeepers to the platform for new content producers who don’t yet have a following of their own.
Build Your Brand, Then Ignore It
Of course, there’s a danger here for prolific creators. People like Tim tend to write about whatever strikes their fancy in a particular moment. Sometimes that’s the details of how Medium works, sometimes it’s money advice from Warren Buffett, and sometimes it’s deeply personal chronicling of their own struggles or life challenges.
With a transactional model, staying “on brand” doesn’t really matter. Each content interaction is separate, so with a content producer like Tim, people who care about finance would be directed to his Buffett articles, people interesting in life fulfillment would be directed to his more motivational pieces, etc. The finance articles wouldn’t annoy or distract people interested in motivational life advice, and vice versa.
With the new model though, that’s at least nominally not the case. A relational model encourages creators to stay “on brand”, creating a specific type of content that will appeal to all of their followers. This kind of model would say that Tim should choose one thing and stick to it. Maybe he should become a finance blogger, build his following around people who care about finance, and stop publishing motivational articles that won’t appeal to that audience.
Should prolific content producers like Tim actually choose one brand direction and stick to it? Absolutely not. Because here’s the thing — even if a content producer is “off brand”, it’s still really interesting and helpful to at least be exposed to all of their output.
Here’s an old-school example. I read the Economist magazine. Yes, the real physical, magazine. When I get it each week, about 20% of the articles appeal to me (usually the ones about business and science). About 70% are totally uninteresting to me (usually the deep dives on politics).
But about 10% are things I wouldn’t seek out myself in a transactional model, but that I end up reading and finding really engaging (maybe a political article that relates to food or something else I care about). It’s often those 10% of articles where I really learn something new. And I’m only reading them because they’re in the Economist. I wouldn’t seek them out in a transactional model.
That’s the power of a relational model — once you establish a relationship with a content producer, you’ve more willing to try out new things from that producer, even if you wouldn’t ordinarily be interested in a specific subject.
The same thing applies to content producers here on Medium. I probably wouldn’t seek out Tim’s motivational life advice pieces in a transactional model. But because Medium pings me with everything he produces, I occasionally see one of his articles that I wouldn’t seek out myself, but that turns out to be fascinating and teaches me something new.
So should content producers pick a niche and stick to it, building a brand around a specific subject? For some, the answer might be “yes.” But for prolific content producers, the answer is a resounding “no.” Like Tim does, they should continue producing content about whatever interests them. Their followers will see everything they produce, including some irrelevant content.
Unexpected departures from normal reading patterns will help readers discover new things, while also deepening their relationship with the creator.
But at least some of the time, those followers will likely see something they wouldn’t ordinarily seek out, and click through it it just because it comes from a creator or publication that they care about enough to follow. Those unexpected departures from normal reading patterns will help readers discover new things, while also deepening their relationship with the creator.
You might take a chance on new content that comes from someone you follow, even if you wouldn’t seek it out directly. And you might find that the new content your favorite creator produces is actually more relevant or interesting to you than you expected.
Mixing it Up
There’s one more caveat here. Relational models for content can be great for prolific creators, since they push everything you create out to your followers, and deepen your relationship with those followers over time. They also, as I described above, encourage your followers to engage with all aspects of who you are as a creator, and to come along with you as you explore new directions that your followers might not take on their own.
But a relational model also creates the danger of filter bubbles and silos. If you develop a relationship with MSNBC and only see content from them, that will shape your worldview. Likewise, if you like Fox News and only see their content, that will also shape your worldview in a totally different direction.
Relationships with content sources can be good. But they can also create group-think and discourage you from moving outside your own bubble.
That’s why it’s absolutely essential that in Medium’s new move, they focus on relational content from people and publications you follow, but also sprinkle in a hefty dose of new content from people you’ve never heard of. From the platform’s announcement, they seem committed to doing that. And because Medium doesn’t rely on advertising for revenue, they’re in a great position to do this without having to care about feeding a filter bubble to keep their advertisers happy.
Getting the mix of trusted content from familiar sources vs. new content you’ve never heard of right will be essential to the platform’s new pivot. Especially for prolific content producers, the focus on followers and relationships is important. But you also want your content appearing in front of totally new audiences, so they have a chance to engage with it, decide they like you, and follow you.
In short, you want to speak to your audience. But you also want the chance for that audience to grow through chance encounters with your content beyond your existing followers. That’s important so that you reach the maximum number of people, and so that your followers don’t get locked into a bubble or a specific worldview that becomes self-reinforcing.
I think Medium is in a great position to walk this line, and perhaps other platforms who curate content will follow it if it proves successful.
Stay the Course
What should prolific content producers like Tim do in response to these new changes?
Immediately, they should do nothing. Or rather, they should keep doing what they’ve always done — producing interesting content (and lots of it), creating value for their audience, and engaging with a variety of topics and audience categories. That’s always been a model for content success, and it will continue to be.
You shouldn’t alter your content strategy because of changes to a platform — if you’re creating great content that’s helpful to an audience, any platform should help you find value from it.
What it does mean, though, is that certain elements of content creation here at Medium will be reinforced and enhanced. Developing an ongoing relationship with followers will become even more important. Submitting to many publications (or running your own) will become more significant, too. This is something most prolific creators already do. But again, it will just be enhanced and made even more important going forward.
For new creators, the changes are more significant. Curation will likely matter less in terms of content discovery. Engaging with publications that already have a robust following will likely matter more.
Rather than focusing on trying to outsmart an algorithm or reverse engineer what goes into curation, new creators should focus on building an organic audience of followers, and especially on submitting content to relevant publications that already have a large follower base of their own.
Successful prolific content creators like Tim already follow a range of best practices — creating materials that are relevant and valuable to an audience (even if they’re creating materials for 10–15 different audiences), working across a variety of platforms and publications, cultivating ongoing relationships with their followers, and sharing everything that’s of interest to them without worrying about staying “on message”.
With the new platform updates, none of those best practices will change. But for prolific creators especially, following them is about to get a lot more rewarding.