When I wrote this, I had been contributing to Medium for about two months and having a lot of fun.
I worked with IBM, photographed my dog’s feet with a thermal camera, run my grandpa’s war photos through Faceapp, placed a virtual vacuum cleaner on my rug, been contacted by one of my heroes, Matt Farley (we’re working on an interview), eaten foraged seaweed, and written way too many words about cryptocurrency mining.
Lots of my posts have been finding an audience here, and I’m grateful for that. But one post has especially stood out. It talks about Generative Adversarial Networks (GANs) — the technology behind Deepfakes — and the social and legal implications of fake people.
I’ve been blown away by the response — the post has racked up over 17,000 views in a little less than two months, earning $659 so far from the Medium Partner Program.
Clearly, this is a pattern I’d like to repeat. And I’m betting that if you write for Medium, you’d like to write more posts like this as well!
Let’s dive into the post, and look at some of the factors I think contributed to its reach and earnings — and what Medium writers can do to leverage these in their own posts.
A Compelling (and Anxiety Provoking) Title and Photo
Titles are important on Medium. Actually, titles are important everywhere.
They’re what grabs a reader’s attention in their email digest, on a publication page, on the Medium homepage, etc., and compels them to click through to your post.
People glance at headlines for a few milliseconds (long enough to read about six words) and decide if they want to learn more. So your headline needs to really drag people in and convince them your story is worth a click.
What I’ve found is that my most successful headlines on Medium include a compelling concept, but also a little taste of anxiety or concern.
The headline on my Fake People post was “This Is Not a Person. But She is a Threat.” This was accompanied by the smiling face of a fake person.
The headline immediately gets the reader’s attention through its discordance: “What do you mean that’s not a person? She looks like one.”
But the “threat” part is also a draw — why is this smiling, friendly-looking woman a threat? Is she a threat to them? Is she a criminal or something? They have to click through to find out.
I didn’t consciously mean for my headlines to provoke anxiety, or even to include worrisome language.
I just noticed this trend from looking at my Medium views and earnings — articles with a little touch of anxiety tended to do better than those with emotionally-blank headlines. Another example is my article “Deep Learning is Blowing up OCR. And Your Field Might Be Next.” It also pulled above its weight and provokes a little tinge of anxiety about job loss.
The trick with anxiety in your headlines is not to overdo it. If you do, you’re veering towards clickbait, which definitely does not fly on Medium, and will send readers running for the hills (for good reason).
Definitely make your headlines emotionally salient. But stay away from anything like “Avoid THIS one food if you want to live past 30!”. Subtlety is key, and a clickbait headline on a good, well-researched article will send readers away when they should be clicking through.
The photo is important, too. Again, the contrast of a “threat” with the smiling face of a not-woman was probably enough to draw readers in. I find that articles with a compelling photo get a little extra bump. I shoot my own photos, but there’s a lot of great work on Unsplash you can include for free.
A Solid Hook
Just because your headline and photo drew people in, that doesn’t mean they’re staying past your first paragraph.
According to Time Magazine, the average web reader spends less than 15 seconds on a page. That’s just long enough to read around one paragraph (91 words) and decide if your article is worth sticking around for.
In my fake people article, I set up a surprise. I described the woman at the top of the article as if she was a friendly, actual person, and then threw in a twist at the end of my first paragraph— she was actually generated by a computer. The surprise (and ick factor) alone was probably enough to keep people reading.
The good news? Once you’ve drawn people in, they’ll stick around for about 7 minutes. So if you’ve won their attention, enough should stick around to actually read your piece.
Overall, the fake people article has achieved a 1 minute, 20-second average read time, which is 5.33x higher than the internet as a whole. Including a hook to keep readers engage is a great way to bump up this number in your own pieces.
A Great Publication
Publications are the bread and butter of Medium. You can self-publish — and I often do — but publications multiply your reach, connecting you with thousands or hundreds of thousands of readers in your article’s niche.
My fake people post was placed in The Startup, which is Medium’s largest active publication. It has over 520,000 subscribers, which almost certainly contributed to the post’s reach.
Publications also ensure that you’re reaching an audience on Medium. I’ve had articles that got tons of traction elsewhere, but the readers weren’t Medium members. It’s fun to see your numbers climb, but they don’t translate into earnings.
One of my stories has received 2,800 views but only earned $1.27. That’s because most of its popularity came from the Medium site. Publications help you reach Medium readers, and that translates into both a higher reach and higher earnings.
If you’re not already contributing to publications, try it out. Find one you like, look up their submission process, and send them a draft.
Curation in Popular Categories
If publications are Medium’s bread and butter, curation is its special sauce. It’s the magic that keeps the aforementioned clickbait, rabid political articles, affiliate marketing, and all the Internet’s other assorted filth off the platform.
Curation used to be done by people, but it’s now mainly perform by algorithms. It’s also less important than it used to be. Still, most of the other factors I’ve mentioned above contribute to curation, too. A strong headline and hook matter as much to Medium’s algorithms as they do to readers.
But I think there’s also an extra factor that contributes to curation — some ineffable quality of an article that makes the platform promote it. If you read Quora, I think the posts that stand out there have the same indescribable quality, too.
It’s something about the article that makes you say “I’ve never thought to ask about that before. But now I’m really curious. Why do trucks have those little spikes on their tires? How does McDonald’s choose what sodas to sell?” It’s come combination of novelty, curiosity, and detailed background information about a topic.
The fake people post is about a topic that’s just weird enough — but also relatable enough — that it had that special curation-worthy quality. GANs are new and interesting, but we can all engage with the idea of being fooled by a computer.
Medium distributed the article in Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, and Cybersecurity, and I think it’s found its home in those categories.
Pickup by External Services
While publications and on-site traffic are crucial for revenue, off-site traffic is very valuable, too. It gets people sharing your articles, and sends readers your way.
And I think it also signals to Medium’s curators — and perhaps their algorithms, too — that an article is finding an audience and is worth promoting internally.
My fake people post got picked up on Digg.com, driving 1.5K visits. It also got 566 visits from Facebook and over 100 from Twitter. From Medium’s stats page, you can click through and see what people are saying about your article on these external platforms.
Overwhelmingly, the Twitter comments about my article were some variant of “This is weird”. The article also benefited from touching on a very political topic — Deepfakes and fake news — which always leads to shares on social media.
You can’t control what Twitter wants to see. Ultimately, it’s up to users whether they want to share your story.
But you can seed the process. Make sure to share your articles on your own Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, and tag relevant people, places, etc. to promote retweets and get the viral ball rolling.
Those are some factors that I think contributed to the fake people article’s success. I’ve tested many of these on other articles, and have found that they definitely help — especially crafting a slightly worrying headline, writing a strong hook, and publishing in popular publications
But ultimately, my answer to why this article really took off is — I have no idea.
And really, that’s how the internet, and any scalable system, often works. You can look for — and apply — factors that help a piece of content along, and this will almost certainly help to set you up for success. Without everything I’ve described above, I’m sure my fake people article would have been lost in the Medium ether, no matter how compelling the topic.
But even with all the right factors in place, it’s devilishly challenging to pick out content winners in advance.
Sometimes, it’s about being in the right place at the right time, or some element of an article that you’re not even aware of — a keyword combo that Google’s SEO loves, a key tweet by an influencer, or just an algorithm in someone’s recommendation engine that’s having a good day and decides it really wants more people to know about GANs.
The factors that I’ve described above are important. But the most important thing is to just keep publishing. The best way to have an article jump in its earnings and find a strangely wide audience is to write a lot of articles.
So write great, scary headlines, include strong hooks, and seed the Twitterverse. But also keep making more content. You never know what will find an audience and take off.
Update for 2022
I originally wrote the post in 2019, and when I wrote this summary of its earnings, it had earned around $600. Today, as I write this in 2022, the post has continued to earn. It’s now up to