It’s the bane of every YouTuber’s existence.
You complete a great video for your channel or brand—maybe one that took you weeks to develop and hours to shoot and edit.
You upload it to the platform, key in your metadata, and wait for the flood of views—and ad revenue—to flood in.
Right after you hit publish, you see it: the dreaded yellow dollar sign.
A Yellow Dollar Sign Means No Monetization
YouTube’s yellow dollar signs are the evil cousin of the friendly green ones that gracefully monetized videos.
They indicate that Google’s algorithms have flagged your video as potentially inappropriate. As long as your video has a yellow dollar sign instead of a green one, no ads will show on it and it won’t earn any revenue.
Why do the yellow dollar signs exist?
It used to be that any channel with 10,000+ views could enable monetization and earn with ads. Sadly, that led to widespread abuse of the YouTube platform. Creators started uploading content that was at best schlocky and unhelpful and, at worst, downright abusive.
This came to a head in 2018 when a popular channel posted a video showing a dead body in a forest in Japan. Advertisers reasonably wondered why their ads were being shown beside such filth. And they started to leave the platform en masse—an event known among creators as the Adpocalypse.
To win them back, YouTube took drastic measures. It set the threshold for monetization at a much higher 1,000 subscribers. And it added much more aggressive AI-based measures to weed out inappropriate content. Thus were born the yellow dollar signs, which show that YouTube’s AI has an issue with your video.
Ultimately, it worked. Advertisers flocked back to the site, and CPMs (cost per thousand views) for legit creators went up. My own CPM tripled from around $4 before the Adpocalypse to about $13 today.
Update: As of 2022, it’s now around $16.
How Accurate is YouTube’s AI?
The challenge though is that YouTube’s moderation of new videos relies primarily on AI, and the AI isn’t perfect. Overall, I’d say it’s 95% there.
Depending on what’s been uploaded recently–or on YouTube’s own whims–it can get stricter or more lax, too.
The upshot for creators is that there’s a certain amount of uncertainty around YouTube’s process. You can upload a great video, press publish, and have it flagged by the AI. The video will remain on the platform, but you’ll be in yellow status and it won’t earn you a dime.
Lots of creators probably stop there. They figure their video must not have met some quality threshold and accept that creating it was a sunk cost and they’ll never get any revenue back.
Here’s the thing though. YouTube’s standards for what constitutes inappropriate are actually very clearly defined—and they’re very narrow.
Here’s the list:
- Inappropriate language
- Adult content
- Harmful or dangerous acts
- Hateful content
- Incendiary and demeaning
- Recreational drugs and drug-related content
- Tobacco-related content
- Firearms-related content
- Controversial issues and sensitive events
- Adult themes in family content
Most of these are fairly self-explanatory. It’s pretty easy to imagine what violence, adult content, hateful content, etc. looks like.
Others are looser.
- Profanity is a gray area. Curse a couple of times in your video, and it might be fine. But curse throughout — or include profanity at the beginning or in your metadata — and you’ll probably be flagged.
- Controversial issues is similarly loose. You can take a stance about an issue, but if your video is very political and polarizing, don’t expect advertisers to want to show their products beside it.
- A few others are surprising and important to know about. Recreational drugs and firearms-related content are one example. If you’re shooting a how-to video or a cooking video and there’s a box of cigarettes on your work bench or a six-pack in your fridge, your video might get flagged.
In many cases though, your videos might be flagged even though they have nothing to do with any of these topics.
Note that none of these community guidelines deal directly with video quality. There’s no flag for “boring” or “not terribly well produced.” Your videos should meet minimum quality standards, but poor production values alone generally won’t get you flagged.
So why do random videos get flagged? Let’s look at one in particular. Here’s a video that I shot about dealing with Amazon’s airbag packaging materials:
I think you’ll agree that there’s nothing hateful or pornographic in there. Yet this video got the dreaded yellow dollar sign treatment and was flagged by YouTube’s AI as inappropriate.
Why? I don’t know for sure, but here’s my guess. The popping of the bags makes a sudden, loud sound. YouTube’s AI may have mistaken it for gunfire and flagged my video for firearms content.
Likewise, my videos about the Dyson V7 Trigger vacuum cleaner get flagged a disproportionate amount. Three of the videos I uploaded for my nine videos in an hour experiment got flagged.
Why? The V7 Trigger looks like a gun, and I used the word trigger throughout the video. It’s solidly a vacuum cleaner and not a firearm, but YouTube’s AI didn’t necessarily know this.
As you can likely begin to see, the AI overall is pretty jumpy. If it sees anything in your video that concerns it, that’s a yellow dollar sign for you!
How do you fix the yellow dollar sign on YouTube?
That’s the bad news. And here’s the good news.
Initially, there wasn’t much you could do about videos flagged by YouTube’s AI. But after outcry from creators, YouTube stepped up and hired an army of human reviewers to take a closer look at flagged videos.
If your video gets flagged and you feel it was a mistake, there’s now a simple procedure you can follow.
- Open the video in Creator Studio, and go to Monetization. You’ll see the reason your video was flagged. This is usually vague — something like “inappropriate content.”
- Click on Request Review. Your video will go off to a human reviewer who will watch it and revise the AI’s decision if it made the wrong call. This process usually takes two to three days.
- If your video was actually fine, monetization will be switched back on, and your orange dollar sign will become blessedly green.
If your flagged video complies with the community guidelines I listed above, don’t be shy about pressing the Request Review button. I’ve submitted lots of videos for human review, and I’ve never had one rejected. Every video I’ve submitted has had monetization re-enabled upon a human review.
Overall, I think this is an example of something YouTube has done really well. And it’s a case study that other platforms can learn from.
YouTube’s aggressive AI probably weeds out 99% of inappropriate videos. If my how-to about a vacuum cleaner can get flagged, I’m sure that genuine firearms-related content doesn’t stand a chance.
Rather than penalizing creators with this strict process, YouTube has created an easy, clear path for human review. This isn’t always the case — on many platforms if your content gets flagged there’s no recourse at all. Tons of Instagrammers have woken up to find their account disabled for reasons they never understand, for example.
By taking a strict approach with AI, YouTube keeps advertisers happy and CPMs high. But by investing in fast, easy-to-use human reviews, it avoids unfairly penalizing creators who do follow the rules.
So the next time you see an orange dollar sign on your video, fight back. If you’re complying with the community guidelines, request a human review and get yourself back to green!
How long do you think people spend reading your article’s headline? Ten seconds? Five seconds?
Try 1.8 seconds.
According to research reported in Fast Company, the average person reads about six words of a headline. Since the average reading speed for an adult is around 200 words per minute, that means most readers spend under two seconds reading your article’s headline.
That’s why headlines are crucial. They have an amazingly short span of time to grab the reader’s attention and draw them into your story.
But what draws readers in, exactly? What makes a good headline “sticky?” Why does one headline grab attention, while another one totally fails? I’ve explored the conceptual idea of sticky headlines in my 6-15-7 rule article — now let’s dive into the biology.
As an entrepreneur with a neuroscience degree from Johns Hopkins, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and learning about the brain. And I think there are some big lessons from brain science which can explain why some headlines fail, and others dominate.
Let’s look at the neuroscience of headlines — how they impact the brain, what makes certain headlines salient, and what lessons you can apply to your own blog posts and Medium articles.
At a Glance
In the big scheme of perception, 1.8 seconds is a vanishingly short span of time.
In neuroscience, there’s a saying that “nothing interesting happens before 100ms.” That’s an acknowledgment that it takes about 1/10 of a second for all the basic processes associated with vision — photoreceptors firing in the retina, the optic nerve transmitting a signal, etc — to complete, and for your brain to register that it’s seen something new.
So if you see a new word or picture, your brain doesn’t even know you’ve seen it for about 100ms.
Once you’ve seen a word, the brain still needs to do the basic processing required to read it. This adds more time.
For written language, the total seeing/perceiving package takes about 130ms per word. So, for a six-word headline, you’re spending 130 * 6 = 780ms just on seeing the words with your eyes, getting that data into your brain, and performing the very basic function of reading them.
That’s literally a glance.
And at that point, all you’ve done is physically seen and read the words. You still have to do all the neural work we would normally call “thinking” — evaluating the headline in the context of other things you’ve read/your own interests, considering whether you want to know more, making a decision to click through or move on, chasing away intruding thoughts about lunch, etc.
The issue is that now, you only have about one second left.
How does the brain process a headline’s content in such a short time?
Put simply, it cheats. In one second, readers are not carefully considering anything about your headline. They’re making snap judgments, led by very specific neural processes and areas in the brain.
As a marketer, understanding those processes and brain areas can be very helpful. Let’s look at two which are crucial for great headlines.
Fear, Food, and Fighting in the Amygdala
Again, it’s hard to do much higher-level thinking in one second. Luckily, the human brain has a specialized area that deals with fast, thought-free decisions.
The amygdala is an area in a deep part of the brain’s temporal lobe. It’s one of the brain areas most responsible for handling emotion. Lots of sensory areas send information there, and the amygdala has one primary role — figuring out the emotional salience of what you’re experiencing.
Is this scary? Can I eat this, and will it be tasty? Has this hurt me before? Is it about to hurt me now? These are all things the amygdala helps to determine.
And it does this job very quickly — often so fast that it’s processed a stimulus before you’re consciously aware that you’ve seen something.
This makes a lot of evolutionary sense. If a saber-toothed cat leaps out at you, you don’t want to waste a lot of time thinking “Hmm, is that a cat? I wonder what kind?” You want to respond quickly with the appropriate reaction — fear.
Because it works very fast, the amygdala is one brain area that can get involved in processing a headline, even if it only has about a second to do its job.
So what gets the amygdala’s attention? What causes it to send the rest of the brain the message “stop and focus on this thing you’ve just seen”?
For one, fear. That’s likely why I’ve noticed that Medium headlines that have a slight element of fear or anxiety tend to do well. It’s also why clickbait is effective, even if it’s a terrible pox on the Internet and we all know we shouldn’t click on it.
When you read a headline that makes you a little anxious, that’s the amygdala flagging it as a potential threat that you should analyze in more detail.
The amygdala also responds strongly to suggestions of a reward. This is likely why marketing words like Free, Win, Best, Easy and New perform so well in headlines.
Again, this has an evolutionary purpose. If you’re walking through the woods and see some tasty berries (or an attractive potential mate), you want your brain to notice these things and quickly point them out to you. The amygdala is great at doing just that, for berries and blog posts alike.
And finally, it also responds to stimuli with a lot of emotional content. That’s why concepts like “struggle”, “failure”, etc. also do very well in headlines.
Speaking to the Amygdala
As a marketer, what can you do to get the amygdala involved? Make your headlines emotionally salient.
Headlines that provoke a little anxiety grab readers’ attention and make them pause long enough to learn and process more. As I’ve shared elsewhere, headlines like “This Is Not a Person. But She Is a Threat” have done well for me since they suggest something scary and get the reader’s attention.
Headlines suggesting a reward tend to do well, too. The reward doesn’t have to be explicitly for the reader, either. I wrote an article titled Anatomy of a $650 Medium Post. It’s done very well, earning almost as much as the actual $650 post I wrote it about.
I think a big reason for this is that the title suggests a specific, monetary gain. This engages the amygdala’s reward circuitry and makes the brain pause to see if it might, too, be able to get that same reward/gain. I’ve spotted some berries in the woods, and when you read my headline, your brain wonders if it can eat those yummy berries, too.
It’s how I originally found out about Medium, actually. I saw Tim Denning’s excellent article “How I Made $11,000 from Writing in 30 Days” in a random Twitter digest. Normally I scroll right by these, but Tim’s reference to a specific monetary reward was enough to make me stop, click through, and start contributing to the platform. Thanks, Tim. And thanks, amygdala!
Words that suggest a challenge, fight, or difficulty also engage the amygdala. How often do you find yourself clicking through to a Medium article about someone’s struggle, failure, or challenge?
Partly, these articles are humanizing and naturally compelling. But the emotional content of headlines that reference a fight or struggle also engages the amygdala, causing you to stop and consider the headline in more detail.
This probably draws on the evolutionary benefits of understanding strong emotions. When someone else is speaking, the amygdala is constantly processing questions like “Are they angry? Are they going to attack me?” This same tendency makes the amygdala very sensitive to emotional content, even if it’s coming from the text in a headline and not a potential attacker.
So if you want to get the amygdala involved — and take advantage of the fact that it can do a lot in one second — you should do a few things.
Include some element of worry or concern in your headline, if it’s appropriate to your article. Is there a risk the reader should be aware of? Should they stop doing something? Is there a disruption taking place in a company or industry? All these concepts engage the amygdala and grab the reader’s attention.
Likewise, is there something to be gained? Can the reader make more money, win in some way, be successful, etc? These concepts — centering on gains and rewards — are good to include in headlines, and make them much stickier. Whenever possible, include a specific number or another reward.
And finally, include emotionally salient words and concepts whenever you can. Don’t write neutral headlines, or ones loaded with corporate jargon. Instead, get at the emotional meat of a topic. Did something hurt you? Did you face a fight? Or conversely, were you overjoyed to learn about something? Did something thrill you?
These emotionally-charged concepts also engage the amygdala and lead to stickier headlines. And as a bonus, sharing your big successes and defeats also tends to lead to compelling articles and more read time than emotionally neutral, jargon-filled, generic ones.
Going Too Far
I’ll throw in one caveat here, though. When using emotions in your headline, a little goes a long way. Throwing in some words like “defeat” or “big win” is great, but writing a headline that screams “Read This or You’ll DIE” takes the emotion too far.
Why? Instead of subtly engaging the amygdala, it clues the reader in to look at your article with an extremely critical eye, as potential clickbait to be avoided. I don’t know the neural correlates of the B.S. detector, but it’s definitely there in your readers. Don’t make it angry.
I like to think about this as the difference between the subtle feelings of anger, disgust, etc. that build up during a good documentary film (think Supersize Me) versus the moment in a horror movie where a creepy doll jumps out from behind a door and murders the protagonist.
A good headline is like the documentary — subtly using emotions to make its point, but mostly sharing fact-based, powerful content. A bad headline is like the horror movie doll attack — it’s so over the top that readers find it startling, but more absurd (or annoying) than engaging or thought-provoking.
Patterns, Patterns Everywhere
Beyond emotion, there’s one more brain quirk that I want to cover since it relates strongly to good headlines. That’s the brain’s remarkable ability to find (or even create) patterns.
If your brain had to process everything you saw as a totally new stimulus, it would quickly get overloaded. There’s a ton of information flowing through your world at any given moment, and it’s impossible (and would be crippling) to think about all of it in detail.
So what does the brain do instead? Again, it cheats. Specifically, it looks for patterns that help it quickly make sense of the world without needing much higher-order processing.
Think about this in the context of driving. When you’re a new driver, you’re constantly thinking about every aspect of the experience. Which thing do I push to turn on my blinker? Is that a red light ahead, and where do I need to stop? I want to turn — where do I look? It’s exhausting, and new drivers need to focus all their attention on the road just to (usually) avoid crashing.
Fast forward a few years, though, and you can drive around — for better or worse — without paying much conscious attention at all. Each time you see a red light or a stop sign, you don’t have to think about it and say “Stop. Hmm, what does that mean? Oh, I should stop the car here.” It becomes automatic.
That’s because your brain has learned all kinds of patterns. Stop signs are red, usually appear at intersections, etc. When you see one and your brain has learned these patterns, you don’t really need to think about what you’ve seen. As soon as you see a stop sign, you know at a nearly unconscious level that you’re going to have to stop the car.
At that point, the stimulus barely even matters. Someone could change the stop sign to read “DROP” and keep the red color and shape, and most people would probably glance at it, stop at the intersection, and not even notice that a word was changed. At that point, you’re not really even processing what you’re seeing — you’re just following a pattern, which your brain has helpfully identified and learned for you.
Think I’m wrong? Just try driving in a new country, where you have to drive on the opposite side of the road, there are different road signs, the cars look different, etc. You’ll find that it requires a lot more thought — and is much more exhausting — than driving around your own neighborhood.
What does this have to do with headlines? In the same way that the brain learns patterns to “automate” physical skills like driving, it also learns patterns to simplify things like reading and processing text.
In both cases, much of this happens in the parietal lobe and in the hippocampus of the temporal lobe. These regions of the brain handle pattern recognition (among many other things), both for learned skills and for functions like vision and language.
Following patterns lets the brain cheat by not really processing everything you’re seeing. In the literature, these little hacks and cheats are called “heuristics.” They let you process information in a “good enough” way, and avoid the fatigue and attention requirements of having to fully process everything you’re seeing and experiencing.
It’s part of how the brain can process a headline in one second — often it’s not really seeing the stimulus as something new, but finding a familiar pattern and using that to get a fast, general sense of what the headline is saying.
Patterns for Fun and Profit
There are two ways marketers can leverage this. One is to conform to it.
As I’ve shared before, headlines that follow a familiar pattern do surprisingly (annoyingly) well. “How I Learned to ______”, “8 Ways to Be More Productive by _______”, “I Increased My Earnings By $1K Per Month Through _______” and headlines that follow other predictable patterns are easy to process since they engage with the brain’s natural tendency to seek patterns.
If you’ve read and enjoyed ten articles that follow the pattern “I Increased My Passive Income By ______”, you’re probably going to enjoy reading an 11th.
By following these well-worn patterns, you’re allowing your readers’ brains to apply a heuristic and immediately understand what your article is about without really having to fully process it. This can be a great way to communicate your article’s point in a way that is easy to understand in the one second of attention you have.
The other way to leverage these heuristics is to violate them. If you’re a comfortable English speaker and I say “Water, water everywhere…”, you can probably fill in “…but not a drop to drink.” These kinds of idioms are a staple of language, and most speakers of a given language can recognize thousands of them. They represent the same kinds of familiar patterns that our brains are used to learning.
As neuroscientist Roger Dooley points out on his website, Neuromarketing, violating these well-worn idioms can lead to engaging headlines. If I wrote a headline like “Water, Water Everywhere But You Can’t Have a Drink” (maybe about water politics in the Central Valley of California), your brain would think it knew exactly what to expect. It would make a prediction from the first few words of the headline.
When my headline violates that prediction, the brain does a double-take. This violation of expectations engages the hippocampus and also lights up the brain’s error detection circuitry. The brain hates to be surprised by a stimulus, so when it is, it forces you to pause for a moment and see what went wrong.
This pause leads your readers to consider your headline in more detail, and to think about it at a higher level, rather than treating it as a familiar pattern and moving right over it. Dooley provides some great examples of idioms you can modify for your own headlines, like “Fight Fire With ______” and “Money Doesn’t Grow On ______”.
You can also play with the format of familiar headline patterns. Articles with a headline like “How I Followed 8 Simple Productivity Tips and Lost Everything” turn the normal pattern of a how-to headline on its head. You’d want to read that article, right? Just seeing a pattern violated is often enough to make you stop, read in more detail, and click through.
The Brain is Your Friend
If you’re a marketer writing headlines (or email subject lines, YouTube titles, or any other short piece of text that needs to grab attention), realize that you have very little time to get a reader’s attention. By the time your reader’s brain has performed the basic steps of reading your text, you only have about one second left for them to process it.
By engaging the amygdala, you can make this second count. Any emotionally-charged language or concept will get the amygdala involved. Include a little element of fear/concern in your headline, evoke ideas of gains/rewards (especially with specific numbers), or just include emotionally evocative words instead of boring, corporate ones.
Recognize the power of patterns, too. The hippocampus and regions of the parietal lobe are great at recognizing and processing patterns. Appeal to them by following a comfortable, familiar pattern, like “5 Ways to Do _______”.
Or, shock them into attention by starting out with a familiar pattern and then violating it. This makes the brain pause over the headline to see what went wrong in its predictions and gives your reader a few crucial extra seconds to consider your article in more detail.
The brain can seem murky, complex and confusing. But as a marketer, it’s actually your friend. By understanding and appealing to specific brain regions, you can write killer headlines that grab your reader’s attention, pull them in, and make the most of your 1.8 seconds in the spotlight.
I’m a pro photographer, and sometimes I imagine a future person looking back at my work 100 years from now. What word would I want them to use to describe me? Groundbreaking, perhaps? Innovative? Brilliant and misunderstood (probably not that)?
No, I have a very specific word in mind: prolific.
Why? We live in a world where content is everywhere. According to a recent study by Nielsen, American adults consume an average of 11 hours of media per day. This includes music, TV, movies, Medium articles, etc.
Think about that for a minute. 11 hours. If the average person sleeps (let’s be generous) eight hours per night, that means we’re awake for 16 hours per day. So we’re interacting with content for the majority of our waking hours. You’re doing it right now. Live TV still accounts for more than four hours per day, with the balance split between radio (one and three-quarter hours), apps (two hours), websites, and other media.
That’s a lot of content. Feeding the need for that content is a major undertaking — and a lucrative business.
Racing to the Bottom
Despite the huge explosion of content consumption, it can still feel like producing content is a race to the bottom. For much of the 20th century, musicians could release an album with a major label and count on years of revenue from record sales. Writers could publish a book (or a column in, gasp, a print newspaper) and expect to make at least some money for their trouble. And photographers at a certain level could rely on four- or five-figure assignments from cash-flush magazines and advertisers.
All that has changed. According to data from Rolling Stone, music publishing saw steady increases in royalties through 1998. What followed was a rapid decline, which nearly halved the value of the industry by 2008. A similar story has played out across the content landscape. With blogs and the internet, everyone is a publisher, and traditional print media has changed dramatically. In photography, pros are competing with microstock sites, free content sites like Unsplash, and even Instagram. Large, lucrative photo licenses are largely a thing of the past, outside very specific parts of the industry.
So what’s a content producer to do? Is it all doom and gloom?
No. If you feel disheartened, keep repeating this to yourself, like a mantra: 11 hours. 11 hours. 11 hours.
Remember, content consumption has never been higher. Return to that graph from Rolling Stone, look past 2008, and things appear downright rosy. After a decade-long slump, recorded music royalties went up nearly 4000% between 2008 and 2016. The industry is now worth $43 billion per year, the highest ever. So what gives?
It’s a Streaming World
While the need for content has never been higher, the way we’re consuming it has changed. The world of streaming is here. Rather than buying our music, we stream it through Spotify and pay for it with a subscription or by selling our attention to advertisers. Instead of getting a daily newspaper, we stream our writing through platforms like, ahem, Medium. Instead of paying a ton for cable, we stream our entertainment through Hulu or YouTube. And instead of brands hiring photographers like me for large one-off shoots, they subscribe to and stream tons of images from stock agencies like iStock and Shutterstock.
With streaming services, the value of a single piece of content goes down dramatically. But again, there is so much consumption today (11 hours, 11 hours, 11 hours) that overall, the content world has never been larger or more lucrative.
So how can content producers thrive in this new landscape? With the value of each piece of content going down, but the overall consumption going up, there’s only one thing to do: Produce a lot of content.
Rather than focusing tons of resources on producing the perfect photoshoot, album, video, or whatever you create, focus your resources on making the process of producing content as cheap and easy as possible. Why rent an expensive studio when you can record your band on your iPhone, edit the recording in GarageBand, and have it ready to stream on Spotify tomorrow via CDBaby? Why wait to get a TV deal when you can make a series with a cellphone camera and have it on YouTube in minutes? Why do expensive photo shoots in exotic locations when customers want to see well-shot pictures of everyday life, which you can sell directly through iStock or Alamy?
Another reason to focus on volume is that it’s difficult or impossible to predict the value of content in advance. That passion-project short film you spent months producing might languish on YouTube with a few hundred views, whereas something you shot on your phone in 20 minutes might go viral and reach millions. I’ve spent thousands of dollars producing pictures that never sell (like an ill-fated experiment with renting an electronic microscope), yet at the same time I’ve taken photos out my car window (relax, I wasn’t driving) that find an audience in the hundreds of thousands.
In music, Matt Farley is the patron saint of volume. He’s an artist who has zero hits but has made a living by releasing over 20,000 songs on Spotify. They cover every topic you can imagine, from David Beckham to guinea pigs. By reducing his cost of producing songs to nearly zero, he’s turned what’s normally a winner-take-all industry into a lucrative daily grind.
In many cases, successful content comes down to luck and timing. Maybe an influencer logs into your social media platform of choice right as you post something, shares it, and causes it to trend. Or conversely, maybe Google’s SEO gnomes just hate one of your blog posts and it never goes anywhere. When the value of a piece of content is unknown, it doesn’t pay to put years of your life in one basket. And when there’s so much luck involved, and each piece of content is essentially a lottery ticket, it does pay to make yourself lots of tickets. Diversify, produce quickly, learn from what works, and grow.
Yes, But What About Quality?
I can already hear the critics chiming in: But what about quality? If you’re focused on producing content quickly, won’t the quality suffer? Won’t your output suck?
The challenge with quality is that it’s inherently subjective. If you’re a fine art photographer, you’d probably find my shots of the facades of tech companies’ headquarters terminally boring. But if you’re a financial journalist, you’ll look at them and go “Aha, the perfect image for the top of my next story on Amazon!” Likewise, if your band produces 1980s-inspired K-pop death metal, a classical music lover will probably find it very low quality. But those in your community will love it and be thrilled that they found you on Apple Music!
With so many different types of people and companies consuming content today, there’s no fixed definition of quality. One consumer’s quality content is another consumer’s garbage. It doesn’t matter — so long as you’re reaching an audience that appreciates your work, you’re producing something of quality.
One caveat, though, is that technical quality is a little different. No one will buy my photo of a random tech company if it’s blurry or poorly exposed. And no one will read your Medium articles if they’re formatted weirdly, have lots of typos, or are poorly written and researched. Technical quality is important, but with much better recording tools, editing tools, and simple tech functions (like spellcheck!), the bar to achieving a basic technical quality is much lower than in the past. My cellphone shoots 60FPS 4k video. Five years ago, a camera that did that would have run five grand or more.
So yes, make sure you achieve a basic level of technical quality. But beyond that, focus more on producing content quickly and cheaply versus making something perfect.
Embrace the Machines
How can you produce content faster and cheaper? Some of it comes down to a mindset — focusing less on perfection and more on meeting an immediate consumer need. I’ve produced YouTube videos that are terribly shot but provide useful information about electronics. I get yelled at in the comments section, as the watch numbers and engagement metrics rise and rise. Read The Lean Startup, pretty much any productivity publication on Medium, etc., and you’ll get the drift.
Another aspect, though, is choosing the right tools. Artificial intelligence, for example, can do wonders for automating the process of producing content. Using AI software from Google Vision, IBM Watson, Imagga, Clarifai, and CloudSight, I can automatically tag, organize, and even caption the photos I shoot. Hundreds of hours of labor in creating a valuable end product are automated away. It allows me to produce more than 10,000 saleable photos per year.
Creator software is cheaper, too. It can even (surprise) be streamed! Adobe Creative Suite, which once required a $4,000 per seat purchase and an enterprise sales deal, can now be had for a $60 per month subscription. And again, the physical devices for producing content have never been better or cheaper. Equipment that cost $10k a decade ago (or didn’t even exist) can now be had for under $1k.
Which brings me back to why prolific is the superlative I’d choose. In a landscape with so much consumption, there’s never been a better time to create. The world is hungry for content, and that hunger will only grow as more people are connected and devices become faster and better. With such a diversity of people, platforms, and types of content, the only way to make sure you’re creating something of lasting value is to create a lot — to maximize your exposure to this unprecedented landscape of viewers, readers, listeners, and fans, and to see what grabs their interest.
So if you’re a creator, focus on lowering the costs of creating, both in terms of time and money. Use today’s advanced tools like AI to streamline your workflow and try creating with more of a focus on your audience’s real needs and less on perfection. You might find the exercise artistically freeing — when the cost of creating new content is low, it’s cheap to fail. You can afford to be more experimental and to try new things without caring too much if they don’t succeed.
In short, try being prolific. You might be surprised by how enjoyable it is and how much great content you produce.
I started contributing to Medium in late 2019, and I’ve written a lot about my successes. I’ve had a post take off and earn over $650, found success with neuroscience-driven headlines, and become a top writer in Machine Learning, Artificial Intelligence, Food, and more.
Now, let’s have a look at the failures!
Why? For one thing, it’s only fair. If I’m going to talk about the pieces that earn hundreds of dollars, I should also talk about the pieces that went nowhere. Otherwise, it gives the impression that I’m some kind of Medium rockstar.
Spoiler alert: I’m not.
I just contribute content consistently and write about a variety of different topics based on my own experience. As I’ve shared previously and at length, succeeding in today’s content landscape requires generating a lot of content. When you do that effectively, you’ll have successes, either through skill (very occasionally) or luck (much more frequently).
Trying to predict what will work in advance is nearly impossible. You usually don’t find out until you hit publish. By generating a lot of content — and the occasional smashing success — you also generate a lot of pieces that do just OK and some that fail completely.
The complete failures are just part of the process. And it’s worth acknowledging and even celebrating them.
Having pieces that everyone hates (or totally ignores) indicates that you’re remaining experimental, putting enough content out there, and placing yourself in a great position to take advantage of the random times when a piece hits on some user/algorithmic nerve and skyrockets.
By looking at these in more detail, I hope to show that any success I’ve had on Medium isn’t due to some innate understanding of the platform. It’s due to producing lots of content and seeing what works. That means you can do it too.
Produce content consistently, learn from the successes, and embrace the pieces that go nowhere, and you’ll be in great shape to capitalize on those situations where a particular piece touches on something and takes off.
Let’s take a deeper look at some of my 2019 pieces that failed and see what we can learn together.
The Experiments That Fail
Sometimes you create a piece of content and have no idea whether it will work. It’s an experimental leap and you know it.
Sometimes these do really well. Earlier this year, I experimented with bringing back old content from a home automation blog I stopped updating in 2015. The blog was taken down by Russian hackers (yes, really), but all the content had been backed up by my friends at the Internet Archive. I downloaded the old blog posts and reformatted and published them on Medium.
None of these have done super well, but in the aggregate, they’ve produced some mild successes. This post about the Raspberry PI, for example, has brought in about $15. It’s enough to buy a few coffees from a piece that was otherwise languishing in the digital vaults of the IA.
If an old piece about obscure hardware does well, I thought, why not publish some short-form pieces about new hardware? Maybe those will have an audience too, and I can get some revenue and readership from posts that take a few minutes to write.
Turns out, they don’t. I’ve published several posts of this type and they’ve all failed to catch on. A representative example is the piece “Is the Nest Learning Thermostat Worth it?” It shares info that has done very well on another channel (YouTube), but here on Medium, it’s gone nowhere. It received a total of 29 views, earning a mere $0.15.
Another failed experiment was writing brief reviews of Bay Area restaurants. I thought I would repurpose restaurant photos that I took for other projects and build them out into short, visually compelling reviews. Surely these would attract interest (and perhaps curation in the strangely specific “San Francisco” Medium category).
Here’s one about a popular local restaurant and their visually stunning brunch. The total? Two views. And one of those was from Medium’s curators when they read the piece so they could reject it.
While a few similar pieces did get curated, most have languished with less than 50 views. None have earned significant revenue. I haven’t given up on this angle yet, but so far, no dice.
Why experiment with random new types of content like these? Why not find a topic where you’re successful and pound away at it ad nauseam? Shouldn’t I spend all my time writing wildly successful long-form pieces about the specific technical details of AI?
These experiments make sense because sometimes they work. I never thought, for example, that Medium readers would want to read 1,000+ words about a specific brand of analog film. I wrote an experimental piece about Kodak’s Ektar 100 anyway, profiling the film in the kind of excruciating detail only a fellow photographer could appreciate.
Turns out, fellow photographers did appreciate it. The piece has received several hundred views and earns a respectable $10 or so per month. It inspired several more pieces and a new Medium publication about analog photography.
Experiments that fail are part of the bread and butter of entrepreneurship or any creative pursuit.
You should collect these kinds of failures. They’re evidence that you’re trying new directions for your company or brand. And they’re the only way to discover new business lines, uses for your existing content, partnerships, etc.
The trick is to try new things quickly and cheaply. You probably need to test 10+ things before you find one that works. So the key is to make it quick and easy to try out new ideas. I didn’t invest more than a few hours into any of these experiments. So I can easily walk away from (or modify) those that fail and put more time and energy into those that look promising.
Those are the pieces that are supposed to be experiments. But what about the pieces you do put resources into and expect to do well? Does this expectation always pan out? Effort must yield results, right?
Nope. I’ve written several pieces that were exhaustively researched, had compelling (or so I thought) premises, and appeared in solid publications, but failed to find an audience.
One example is my piece “The Neuroscience of Deepfakes.” People love to hear about the neuroscience of random things! And my other piece about deepfakes had gathered 17,000+ views and $650+ in revenue. I wrote up a carefully researched piece and published it in The Startup, which has 512k subscribers.
The result? 89 views and less than $0.75 in revenue. Why? I have no idea. Despite following a similar formula to other successful pieces (a technical topic, research, a great publication, etc.) it was a total failure.
It’s a powerful reminder that formulas and rules of thumb are helpful, but ultimately if an audience doesn’t like your piece, it’s going nowhere.
Another similar piece titled “Deepfaking my Grandpa,” about the accuracy of Faceapp’s aging functions did even worse. Again, it had a compelling concept and appeared in The Startup but received only 56 views.
My guess is that Medium’s curators took one look at the title and went “Nah.” Even though the piece went into a lot of technical detail and covered serious topics like using AI in policing, the title made it sound gimmicky. A better title would have been something like “How Accurate is Faceapp’s Aging AI?”.
It’s a reminder of how important headlines can be — choose one that doesn’t properly capture the feel of the piece and you’ve sunk it from the start.
Still, at least those pieces got picked up somewhere. I’ve also written pieces that completely failed to get chosen for a single publication, much less Medium curation. These are the total stinkers that you shop around all over the place with no luck at all.
My piece “14 Technical Disciplines Summarized in a Single Quote” is something I had been working on for years. Every time I learned about a new discipline, I’d make a mental note about the single line that could sum up all its practices. Some were ironic, others poignant and inspired by my own experiences.
I finally wrote these up as a piece and could almost imagine the members of different fields sharing it, or at least writing in angrily to say I’d misrepresented them.
That’s not how it panned out. The piece was rejected by three different publications. Medium’s curators passed on it. Social media shrugged. It’s gotten less than 30 views. Not quite the smashing success I’d anticipated.
Sometimes you just have no idea what an audience will like and what they won’t. This is the challenge of working in a scalable industry, like content, art or PR. If I spend an hour consulting about AI, I know I’ll get paid for an hour. But with content, you can spend five hours on a piece and have it go nowhere.
Of course, the exact opposite can occur. You can spend no time at all on a piece and have it skyrocket. Last month, I wrote up a brief post-mortem (Anatomy of a $650 Medium Post) about another piece that had found success on Medium. It was breezy and conversational, and I expected it to pick up a few hundred views (at most) from my regular readers.
What happened? The post started to trend. It’s received 3,700 views and yesterday alone it picked up 20 hours of member reading time. I would never have anticipated that a post about a successful post would become a successful post!
That’s exactly the kind of thing that can happen in a scalable environment. You can write something that you think will have limited appeal and through some unknown factor, it can take off.
If you want the positive elements of scalability (random posts that do unexpectedly well for reasons you don’t understand), you have to be willing to accept the negatives (great pieces that go nowhere for equally opaque reasons).
The key is to keep your ego out of it. It’s too easy to get angry at the platform (or your readers) when a good story goes nowhere.
Don’t. Failures with no explanation are the cost of doing business in a scalable environment. Sometimes a piece just doesn’t find an audience. Recognize that these failures can be just as random and unconnected as the surprising successes. Consider the piece a sacrifice to the content gods, click the New Story button, and move on.
Failures That Aren’t Failures
In looking at pieces that failed, it’s important to differentiate the true failures from those that were never meant to succeed.
A failure is when you expect a piece to do well — or think that it might, as in an experimental post — and it doesn’t.
Some pieces, though, are never intended to pick up a big audience and that’s fine. These pieces aren’t failures at all — they’re things you wrote for the enjoyment of it to reach a super-specific niche or for other reasons which are entirely your own.
When I published a two-minute piece about different kinds of whitespace characters, I didn’t expect it to be curated or read by anyone. I’m tickled pink by the fact that it’s received 12 views. It won’t earn anything, won’t trend, and won’t make it into a publication beyond the one I started to collect exactly this sort of code-related ephemera. And that’s fine — that’s what I intended.
For these kinds of pieces, set your bar for success at one reader. If someone other than yourself reads the piece, you’ve done well.
These kinds of pieces can be liberating to write. They allow you to explore a topic without caring about whether others want to follow along with you. But once in a while, one of these pieces might spark an idea for something bigger or help you connect with an audience that cares about the same hyper-specific thing that you do (even if that audience is tiny).
Being Van Gogh
I’ll leave you with one final thought on failure.
In his lifetime, guess how many paintings the renowned impressionist Vincent Van Gogh sold? Keep in mind that he was incredibly prolific — in a single decade, he painted over 900 pieces.
The answer? One painting. And that sold just seven months before his death.
Fast forward a century and Van Gogh’s paintings are considered priceless. In 1990, one sold for nearly $150 million.
I’m not saying my piece about Fitbit’s changing business models (16 views and $0.01 in earnings) is on the level of a Van Gogh. It’s unlikely to suddenly surge in popularity a century after my death.
But at the same time, the dynamics which applied to Van Gogh’s works can apply at a much smaller level on Medium and other platforms. Sometimes ideas aren’t bad — they’re just before their time, obscure, or doomed by a bad title, poor formatting, or some other deadly sin not related to the content.
And these pieces of content can — and do — have unexpected resurgences. Medium is known for occasionally unearthing a piece written years earlier and showing it to some people to see if it finds a new life and trends.
Take a look at the most popular pieces on Medium. Usually, they’re written within the last month but you’ll almost always find something written way further back. At the moment, a post about time travel is in the top 10. It was written in November 2017, more than two years ago.
I don’t know if the post did poorly at first (the author would have to weigh in there). But the fact that it can trend to the top of Medium more than two years after it was published is a reminder that even old posts can unexpectedly come back and find a broad audience. Maybe there’s hope for my “14 disciplines” post yet!
In the end, if you’re writing on Medium or working on any creative pursuit, failures are part of the equation.
If you try an experiment and it fails, pat yourself on the back. Failed experiments are evidence that you’re testing new things, and not falling back on your laurels and becoming complacent. Then, dust yourself off and run another experiment. Good ideas that work in practice are hard to come by — in entrepreneurship, writing, PR, and many other fields, you have to kiss a lot of frogs to find that prince.
If a good piece fails to engage an audience — or even find one in the first place — give it a shrug and consider it a cost of doing business. Scalability is the Internet’s secret superpower — it’s what allows a piece you spent 30 minutes writing (or a pitch you sent out as a Hail-Mary) to trend and find a massive audience, rewarding you in spades for the minimal effort you put in. But it’s the same dynamic that can lead a great piece to fail dismally for reasons you can’t grasp.
Again, let it go, consider it a write-off, and keep generating more content.
Make sure you know which failures are really failures. It’s fine to write pieces you don’t expect to find an audience. If one person reads them, they’re not a failure at all — even if their readership and earnings numbers look similar to some of your genuinely failed pieces.
And finally, realize that failure is seldom absolute. Even a piece that went nowhere at first can suddenly trend months — or even years — later. Remember Van Gogh — you can enjoy similar dynamics to his (and keep both your ears intact to boot).
Looking back at failed pieces is a valuable exercise — you might see helpful trends, recognize patterns, and even learn something that contributes to your next smashing success!
If you’re already a blogger or writer, you might be wondering whether it’s worth writing on Medium. In most cases, the answer is a definitive yes!
That said, certain types of writing do better on Medium than others. Also, many new riders and bloggers on the platform have a lot of basic questions about how medium works.
Let’s take a look at some of the top reasons to write on Medium, as well as some of the biggest questions people have when they first come to the platform.
Can I write on Medium for free?
If you want to read an unlimited number of stories on Medium, you’ll have to pay for a $5 per month Medium membership. Many people assume that will have to be a Medium member in order to write on the platform.
Thankfully, that’s not true. You can write on Medium as much as you want without paying to become a Medium member. Being a writer on the platform is totally free.
That said, most Medium writers do end up becoming Medium members. It’s helpful to be able to read stories from your fellow Medium writers, and it’s nice to be able to support them through that reading. You’ll often find that you want to link to other writers’ stories from within your own stories, too, so it’s helpful to be able to read an unlimited number per month.
In short, although you don’t have to become a Medium member or pay anything to write on Medium, most writers do choose to become Medium members so they can more easily connect with and read the work of fellow writers on the platform.
Does Medium own your content?
No, one of the best things about writing on Medium is that they don’t take any ownership of your content. I am not an attorney, and of course, you should consult one for any details about your intellectual property.
But if you look at Medium’s Terms of Service, they clearly say the platform does not take ownership of the content you put there: “You retain your rights to any content you submit, post or display on or through the Services.”
In my years of writing for Medium, I’ve never seen any indication that the platform has done anything with my content that I didn’t explicitly want it to do.
Medium even lets you re-post content from your existing blog to their site. They have an import tool that allows you to do this and imports your existing content in a way that’s unlikely to impact the SEO of your blog.
When you agree to publish something on Medium, you do grant the platform some rights to display your content, promote it, etc. Make sure to read and understand the terms of service and any contributor agreements you sign. Again, if you have any questions about the ownership of content, you should always talk to a trusted advisor.
But in general, Medium is not in the business of taking the content you post there, and I’ve never had any issues with this happening.
Can you write on Medium anonymously?
There’s not an option to publish a post on Medium anonymously. When you publish, the post will appear under your account name.
That said, it’s totally optional to make your account name your real name. You can always write under a pseudonym or pen name by making this the name for your account.
I know many writers who write under their own name on their primary account, but also maintain a second account on Medium under their pen name. They use the pen name account to publish stories that they wish to remain anonymous.
Because Medium doesn’t charge anything to write on the platform, it’s easy enough to have multiple accounts for pen names, business names, etc.
How old do you have to be to write on Medium?
This is an easy one. According to Medium, you have to be at least 13 years old to write on the platform.
Different requirements may apply to the Partner Program, where you can earn money for your content. Check out the terms of service for that program specifically for more details. Keep in mind that you’ll need a Stripe account, a bank account, etc. to earn from the program, and you may not be able to start these unless you’re over 18.
If you just want to write and publish on the platform, though, 13 is the age cut-off.
How do I get started writing on Medium?
Getting started is easy! I just go to Medium.com and then press the Get Started button in the upper right of the screen. Creating an account is easy, and you can even link your account to an existing Google Facebook or Twitter account to sign in easily.
I love writing on Medium, and I definitely suggest trying it out.
Medium recently made changes to the Medium Partner Program requiring writers to get 100 followers before they’re eligible to monetize their writing. That means many writers are probably scrambling to get to 100 followers if they haven’t prioritized followers before. Here are some strategies you can use to get your first 100 followers on Medium.
How do I know that these work? I’ve been writing on Medium for over two years, and in that time I’ve amassed 28,000 followers. My follower count sometimes grows by 100 or more in a single day! Part of that is getting established on the platform, but a big part is using the right strategies to grow a following.
Why do I need 100 followers on Medium?
The biggest reason most writers want to add to the following on Medium is to hit the initial threshold for the partner program. Once you’ve reached us and met other eligibility requirements, you can potentially monetize your Medium articles.
I would encourage you to think more broadly about your following, though. If you’re just focused on reaching 100 followers in order to monetize, you’re losing out on the opportunity to build passionate following that will engage with your content over the long term.
Getting to 100 followers is important, but these strategies are geared more towards a holistic look at your follower account. They are intended to help you grow your following over time, and ensure that you’re building an engaged audience that actually cares about your writing. In the long term, this will serve you better than rushing to 100 followers and ignoring their quality.
A few ways NOT to get followers on Medium
A lot of new writers think that the fastest way to get a following on Medium is to join follow-for-follow schemes on Facebook or other social media platforms. With these, Medium writers agree to follow each other, increasing both writers’ follower counts.
I don’t like this strategy. When people follow you just because they expect something in return, they’re unlikely to really care about your content. You also risk that they will follow you from a fake account, or even from a bot account.
That creates a wide range of problems. Even if their account is legitimate, they probably don’t care about the writing you’re putting on Medium. It’s very likely that they’ll unfollow you in a few days or weeks. You could hit the 100th follower mark, and then find the half your followers abandon you because they didn’t really care about what you’re writing. You then be back down under 100 followers, and essentially back at square one.
If someone follows you from a bot account or a fake account, you could even risk having Medium remove that follower from your account down the line. If most of your followers are fakes or bots, that could even potentially put your own Medium account in jeopardy.
Instead of using follow for follow schemes, focus on attracting real followers who actually care about what you’re posting. They’ll be more engaged over time, they’re less likely to unfollow you, and they’re less likely to be bot or fake accounts. Again, focus on building a followership for the long term, not just reaching the 100 follower number.
Ask for followers in the right way
The simplest way to develop a following on Medium is to ask people to follow you. I know that sounds so simple that it’s useless. But in reality, most writers don’t ask for followers effectively. And if you want this strategy to work, there are some good ways to do it and some bad ones.
There are two keys to asking someone to follow you:
- A value proposition
Let’s look at timing first. You want to catch your reader at a time when they’re genuinely interested in engaging with more of your content. Usually, I find that readers who finished one of my articles found my contact useful, and are likely to want more of it. For that reason, I find it works best to put a message asking for followers at the end of your articles. Readers who made it through the whole article probably like what they read, and are likely to want more of your stories in the future. That makes them a prime candidate to click Follow and connect with you.
The second aspect of asking for followers is providing a clear value proposition. Ultimately, readers don’t care about you. They care about the value of the content you’re providing. Your follower message should clearly articulate what they can expect if they follow you. That way, they know what valuable benefits to get from hitting the follow button.
Keep your follower message simple. I like using a message along the lines of “If you enjoyed this article, please follow me here on Medium for more stories about _________.” For example, at the end of a food story about Bay Area cupcakes, I might include a message that says “Please follow me here on Medium for more stories about food in the Bay Area.”
The message is simple, and it articulates a clear value proposition. The reader knows exactly what they’ll get out of following me (more stories on a similar topic to the one they’ve just finished. And by putting my ask at the end of an article, I know that I am engaging my reader at a time when they’re most likely to be receptive to the message. It’s a winning combo that can help you quickly build a Medium following.
Write a lot
Once you’ve included a clear follower ask at the end of your articles, one of the most important things is to write a lot of articles. The more stories you have on Medium, the more chances you have to pick up followers.
Remember, it’s OK if your articles are mix of longform and short form. If you write a two minute read that your audience finds helpful, and you put a compelling ask at the end of it, you can still pick up followers just as easily as on a seven or 10 minute read.
I’ve written about 400 Medium articles so far. That’s a big part of why I have 28,000 followers.
In fact, when you’re first starting it’s helpful to write shorter articles about a wider variety of topics. This maximizes the reach of your content and ensures that you engage with audiences that have a wide variety of interests. Assuming you included a good follower ask at the end of your articles, this will maximize the number of potential people who choose to follow you.
Write for publications
When you’re first starting out on Medium, your lack of followers means that your stories will likely be distributed to a smaller set of people. That becomes a chicken and the egg problem. You don’t have followers, so your content doesn’t reach as broad an audience. And because your content doesn’t reach as broad an audience, it’s harder to get followers.
One way out of this loop is to write for publications. When you write in a popular publication like Better Marketing, Start it Up, or any of the Medium in-house publications, you get instant access to their audiences. These can be hundreds of thousands of people in some cases.
One well-placed article in a popular publication with a good follower ask message at the end can easily get you 10 followers, 50 followers, or even 100 followers. Yes, it can be hard to break into these publications as a new writer. But if you are able to get established in one, it can make it way easier to build a following.
Here’s the other good news. The same loop works in a positive way. Once you have followers, your stories will be promoted to a broader audience, which makes it more likely for you to pick up additional followers. Now that I have 28,000 followers, I’ll often pick up 100 new ones in a single day without doing anything, just because my content reaches a broad audience.
Leverage your other networks
I definitely think that follow-for-follow schemes are a bad idea. But that doesn’t mean you can’t pick up new followers from your existing networks on other platforms.
People who follow you on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or other social networks have already indicated an interest in your content. If they enjoy your content on another platform, it’s likely they’ll enjoy your content on Medium as well.
Again, when soliciting Medium followers on different networks, it’s all about showing your readers or followers on other platforms what they can personally gain from following you on Medium. For example, you could post on Facebook asking your existing audience to follow you in Medium so they can get your latest stories about earning passive income, baking brownies, or whatever it is you write about.
You’re not just hitting them up for a free follow. You’re telling them what they will gain from following you on Medium. And since you’re preaching to the choir of people who already want to follow your content, you’re likely to pick up followers in this way.
From my own experience, LinkedIn and Twitter are the two networks that are most similar to Medium, and are the best places to attract new Medium followers.
But putting it all together
To summarize, there are plenty of ways to get your first 100 followers on Medium.
- Skip the follow-for-follow schemes, and never buy followers.
- Write a simple and compelling follower ask message articulating what your readers will get out of following you . Put it at the end of all your articles.
- Write a lot of articles, prioritizing short-form articles in the beginning. This will spread your content and your ask message to a broad audience
- Try to get at least a few into publications to capitalize on their existing audiences
- At the same time, write compelling asks for your existing social networks, and post there explaining why your followers should also follow you on Medium
Use all these strategies effectively, and you should have your first 100 followers in no time.
There are tons of great reasons for publishing content on Medium. Everyone’s reason is unique and personal. For me, it’s mostly about sharing my knowledge, learning about interesting new topics, and spreading awareness of my own work and the work of my company and colleagues.
For many, though, earning money through the Medium Partner Program is a major reason to write on the platform. Medium pays writers directly, and you can earn tens of thousands per month on Medium if you reach a high enough level. The top writer on the platform earned $49,705.40 in September, 2020. So the earnings potential is definitely there, if that’s one of your main reasons for writing.
I don’t share my overall Medium earnings. But I received about 12,000,000 views on my stories in my first year on the platform. And I’ve shared how specific stories I’ve written can easily earn $650 (or more).
Medium earnings are complex, and it’s hard to know exactly how they’re calculated. I don’t work for Medium, so I don’t know exactly how their earnings algorithms work. If the algorithms are based on Machine Learning, it’s possible that no one knows exactly how they work — even Medium itself.
That said — through publishing content on the platform for a year, writing over 200 Medium articles, getting 12 million+ views, and doing a ton of research — here is the general formula which I’ve found determines your earnings on Medium.
(Average # of Member Views) * (Average Read Ratio) *(Average Story Length) * (Average Value Per Reader Minute) * Number of Stories = Earnings
Let’s dig into each part, and see how you can optimize your process using the formula, in order to maximize your Medium earnings.
Average # of Member Views
For your story to earn you money on Medium, it has to be seen. Specifically, it has to be seen by Medium members. Medium only pays you for the time that paying Medium members spend reading your stories.
For that reason, external views (like those that come from non-members via search engines, third party website like Flipboard, Twitter and the like) are great in terms of promoting your brand (and may be a factor in determining the stories that Medium promotes to members). But external views aren’t directly earning you money. Only member views do that. That’s why the average number of member views that you stories receive is a big factor in your earnings.
How do you get more members to read your stories? Firstly, make sure you’re covering topics which appeal to Medium members. Self improvement, technology, AI, productivity, and more are all popular topics on the platform, as are creativity, tech, and finance. Always write what you know, though, and don’t pander to an audience by selecting topics based only on audience appeal. If you know nothing about AI, don’t try to write AI stories–they won’t deliver value, and your readers will see right through it.
But do consider looking at the topics you understand well, and determining which ones are the best fit for Medium’s audience. For example, I love to write about both Artificial Intelligence and food. I place my AI stories here on Medium (where I know there’s strong appeal) and save my food stories for food-obsessed platforms, like Instagram.
You can also increase member reading time by building a following on Medium. If other writers and Medium readers are following you, you’re likely to get more member views on any story you publish, because many readers who follow writers on Medium happen to be paying Medium members. I’ve written about this extensively — and shared specific strategies to build followership — in other pieces.
It’s also helpful to keep a close eye on the stories that are chosen for Medium’s own publications, and especially for communications like the weekly The Edition and the monthly Medium Writers Newsletter (both of which you’ll find in your inbox). Medium’s staff have a great sense for what the platform’s audience wants in a given moment. Looking at the pieces they choose to manually curate and highlight is a great way to see what Medium’s readers are focused on.
The bottom line is this: the more views you get from Medium members, the higher your earnings will be.
Average Read Ratio
But (and this is a big “but”), more member views alone won’t get you anywhere. The quality of those views (and overall the value of your Medium articles to your readers) is also vitally important. Why? Because Medium pays you largely based on your total member reading time, not necessarily based only on how many member views you receive.
Imagine that you wrote an article with a super compelling headline, but terrible content. Now imagine that you had a robust following on Medium. Your followers would see the compelling headline, and click through to the article. But as soon as they saw the terrible content, they’d click away. You’d get a bunch of views, but almost no reading time.
On Medium, your story’s “Read Ratio” is the main metric for determining how “sticky” your story is, or how effective it is at keeping people reading. The Read Ratio shows the percentage of readers who finish reading your entire story. In general, the higher your read ratio, the better.
You should aim for a read ratio between 20% and 50%. I typically consider a ratio above 30% to be solid. Longer articles tend to have lower ratios, so don’t stress about them too much, but in general try to keep you read ratio as high as possible.
Again, the best way to keep people reading is to keep delivering value in your stories. There’s no free lunch here–you can’t trick readers into continuing to read a piece if they’re bored. That said, there are some structural things you can do in your piece to make sure readers are engaged early and stay engaged. You can read about these in my article on the 6-15-7 rule.
It’s also a good idea to pare your articles down to their bare minimum form. I’ll often write an article and then cut 1,000 words or more. You have to be ruthless here. By axing unnecessary parts of your article, you ensure that there’s no filler or fluff. Your article will be more engaging and your read ratio will soar, optimizing this aspect of the earnings formula.
Average Article Length
Again, Medium pays you based largely on total member reading time. That means you should write the longest articles you possibly can so that readers have to spend more time reading them, right?
No. There’s no ideal length for an article on Medium —your articles should be exactly the length they need to be. Some stories require lots of time to tell. I wrote a piece called A Solar Crypto Manifesto, for example, that’s a 22 minute read. Despite its length, it still has a 30% read ratio, because every word in there is important to the story — there’s no filler at all.
Likewise, I routinely write pieces that are super short. My piece Hard Reset Your Frozen Fitbit teaches readers how to…hard reset their frozen Fibit. It only requires 1 minute to do this. Yet the piece has still received 6,300 views and a 69% read ratio, because the one minute that readers spend engaging with it is all that’s required to tell the story.
As long as your pieces are providing value to readers, they shouldn’t be any longer (or shorter) than they need to be in order for you to tell your full story. As soon as you start adding in extra words or padding your stories to artificially increase their length and bump up reading time, readers will pick up on this and stop reading. People are extremely sensitive to articles which waste their time — don’t do this.
That said, there are plenty of ways to increase the average length of your articles while still adding additional value for your readers. Including a few really helpful photos, videos, charts, illustrations, etc. to each of your stories can help get your points across, while also giving readers a reason to linger on your story for longer. This is especially true of super short form stories, like poetry.
You can also choose to tell stories which are longer-form. Medium is a perfect platform for this. Unlike with social media — where most readers want to glance at a post and then move on — Medium readers come to the platform for long-form content. A recent piece by Alexandra Samuel about Google Drive is a 94 minute read — the length of a short book. But it shares extremely helpful information, there’s no filler, and so it’s still extremely readable at that length.
You should never pad your articles to increase your average article length. But by choosing topics which lend themselves to long-form writing (like deep dives, tutorials, in-depth investigations, etc.) or adding in valuable videos, images, charts or illustrations, you can increase your average article length and optimize this aspect of the earnings formula.
Average Value Per Reader Minute
The rest of the formula up to this point has provided a sense for how many minutes of member reading time your average story will get. But there’s another part of the picture — how much is each reader minute worth, in actual dollars and cents?
Again, this varies widely across the platform, and the average value of a Medium reader minute isn’t fixed. Why? It’s likely because Medium pays you based not only on how many minutes people spent reading your pieces, but also based on how many minutes those same people spent reading other pieces. The platform calls this your “share” of their reading time.
Think about it this way. A Medium member pays $5 per month to subscribe to the platform. That $5 is then distributed to the authors of all the articles that they read during the month. Let’s suppose that a theoretical member (We’ll call them Member A) spends 1 minute on your article, and 1 minute reading four other articles. Each of their reading minutes will be worth $1.
Now let’s suppose another member (Member B) reads your article for 1 minute, and doesn’t read anything else. Their 1 minute of reading time would be worth $5. Again, the average value of a reader minute is based on how engaged specific readers are across the whole platform. That’s not something you can control.
Medium puts it this way:
Imagine an author writes about fly fishing. She finds an audience of fly fishing enthusiasts who subscribe to Medium primarily to read her stories, meaning she receives a strong share of reading time from each of her readers. In contrast, an author who writes about a wide variety of topics might receive smaller shares from a broader audience of readers, who also read a variety of other authors. While the generalist will often earn a lot through the first total reading time part, the fly fisher is well equipped to earn through this share part — even with a smaller audience.
And the value of a reader minute is probably even more complex than this, too. Medium says that reading time is a major factor in calculating earnings, but other engagement factors weigh into the mix, too. Certain members’ reading time might be weighted higher than others’. And Medium also credits reading time to writers retroactively if a non-member reads their piece and then becomes a member within 30 days.
For that reason, Medium says that it’s not possible to calculate a consistent value per reader minute, because “payouts are tied to the number of active Medium members”, “your earnings are calculated based on a mix of factors, not a straight calculation based on word or time count”, and “your daily views and reading time are not the only input into your daily earnings. Other components of your earnings are lagging, meaning that it may take a while for you to earn for each view.”
What you can do, though, is determine an average value for a reader minute on a particular story, or across a broad range of stories. Several writers like J.J. Pryor have done this, and determined that their average value per reader minute is around 3.5 cents. I don’t obsess about these things too much, but doing a spot check of several articles, my own value ranges between 3–5 cents per minute across many thousands of views.
Keep in mind that the value per minute can change dramatically for a story over time. I find that reading time from early readers is often counted at a lower value than time from later readers. It’s possible that early readers are Medium fanatics who read a ton of stories, and so my “share” of their reading time is diluted. It’s also possible that Medium is tacking on other bonuses (like reading time for non-members who I “convert” to the platform) after the fact.
How do you increase your value per reader minute? It’s all about the kinds of readers you attract. If you’re like Medium’s proverbial fly fishing enthusiast and you bring an audience to Medium who exclusively read your stories, your value per minute of reading time is likely to be very high.
Most people don’t bring their own audience to Medium. And most Medium members don’t read the work of only one author. You can, however, choose the topics that you cover in order to appeal to specific kinds of readers whose time tends to be more valuable.
I’ve found, for example, that tech articles about very specific topics can generate high-value reading time. It’s likely that certain tech professionals sign up for Medium (and are happy to pay $5 per month) to read about a very specific, niche topic — like a particular programming language they use.
They pass over all the general self improvement content, health content, and more in their Daily Digest. But if they see an article (ideally, your article) about their niche topic of interest, they’re likely to click through and read it. Because they don’t read that much, their reading time is correspondingly more valuable. Writing articles on niche topics (programming languages, fly fishing) can bump up your value per reader minute.
I find that articles which are surprising tend to generate valuable reading time, too. Again, imagine a Medium reader who subscribed to the platform at some point, but doesn’t read that much. Suddenly, they see your article with a very surprising headline in their Daily Digest. They’re intrigued, and click through. You could get their entire $5 for the month if yours is the only article they read.
In short, to maximize your value per reader minute, think about what topics would grab an infrequent reader if they saw that topic in their Daily Digest. These niche, surprising, unusually compelling topics pull in less-frequent readers whose reading time draws higher earnings.
Number of Stories
At this point, the earnings formula has given us the average value of one of your stories. But I’ve actually saved the best part of the formula for last — the number of stories that you write.
All the other elements of the formula are areas where you have limited control. You can absolutely tweak the topics you choose, the length and structure of your stories, the kinds of audiences you draw in, and more to optimize your views, reading time, read ratios and value per reader minute. But for all these factors, you’re still largely at the mercy of the platform, and you’re working with data which is helpful to consider in general terms, but often hard to compute with specificity.
There’s one factor in the formula, though, that’s totally under your control — the number of stories that you write.
Writing (and publishing) frequently has a number of benefits. Publishing more stories usually leads to move views, and the development of a following that drives still more views in the future. Frequent publishing also maximizes the chances that you’ll develop an unusually compelling story with a super high read ratio, often my mistake.
As you write and publish more, you’re likely to get better at it, too, and to figure out the patterns of writing that appeal to your readers. This means you can write longer stories in less time, which tends to naturally increase your average story length. You’ll also likely develop a broader audience — including more infrequent readers whose reading time is especially valuable.
And if you write a lot of content, you don’t need to worry about going too niche. In a single day, you might publish a niche story that appeals to a tiny handful of readers, and then a general story which keeps your broader audience engaged. Again, niche content can appeal to infrequent readers, further increasing your value per reader minute, and if you write a lot of stories, niche stories won’t bother your more general followers.
And of course, there’s the sheer power of volume. As long as the quality of your content (measured by how well it meets a reader need, not necessarily how slick and polished it is) doesn’t suffer, publishing more stories will naturally lead to more earnings. Even if you never have a “big winner”, publishing more stories means creating more chances to earn each month. Over time, even low-earning stories add up.
To maximize each element of the earnings formula, consider the steps I’ve described.
- Increase your following and promote your stories to drive up views
- Make your stories appealing (and pared down to essentials) to increase your read ratio
- Write long-form content when you can (but never pad your stories)
- Make sure you appeal to niche, infrequent readers whose reading time earns more
But at the end of the day, remember that the most important way to increase your earnings on Medium is to write content that has value to an audience, and to publish it frequently. You can tweak and optimize formulas or try to reverse-engineer algorithms ‘till the cows come home. But if you never hit Publish, you’re unlikely to earn much on Medium (or any other platform).
The earnings formula I’ve described can be valuable in building an overall content strategy. But at the end of the day, all the other factors (read ratios, time values, and the like) will sort themselves out if you keep creating lots of content that your audience finds helpful.
Focus on that, publish a lot, and you’ll see every other factor in your own earnings formula improve, and see your Medium earnings increase over time.
Medium’s recent updates have meant a lot of changes for creators. One of the biggest shifts has been from a transactional model that emphasizes discrete units of content (and where the specific author is less important) to a relational model that encourages readers to follow and engage with specific writers.
The platform’s new model emphasizes developing a following, and Medium has said that followers will matter a lot more going forward. This is implemented on the platform in a variety of ways. But one of the most compelling is a shift toward treating publications and individual writers essentially the same.
Just as publications could brand themselves in a deliberate way and build a following on the old Medium, individual creators can now do the same thing on the updated platform. In short, on the new Medium, you are a publication.
Let’s look at what this means for writers — from a design and strategy perspective.
Medium’s changes are a broad-reaching set of updates to the platform. They affect back end processes (like how the stories that each reader sees are chosen), as well as the site’s front end design (how stories are actually displayed).
Medium goes into detail about these design changes in several recent blog posts and shares some valuable information about what they mean for individual creators. The biggest change is that when you publish a story outside of a publication, your own branding now appears at the top of the story.
Here’s an example. I published this story with no publication. As a result, information about me is now displaying in the header — my name, my number of followers, an About link which goes to my profile, etc. If I wasn’t signed into Medium as myself, the page would also display a button encouraging readers to follow me.
Images courtesy of the author.
This is a big shift. Before, this page would have displayed the categories that the story had been curated in. Instead of information about me as a creator at the top of the page, readers would have seen info on a specific topic like Writing or Productivity. Again, this was the transactional model where Medium assumed that readers were mostly interested in specific topics, not specific people.
This design shift may seem subtle, but it’s actually a big deal. It’s saying that if you don’t publish your story in a publication, Medium is going to essentially treat your own profile and Medium persona as a publication. The platform is going to encourage readers to follow you instead of following a topic and will make it easy for readers to click through from the story to your own profile page.
That Profile page looks different now, too. In fact, it looks a lot like a publication’s homepage.
Readers see information about you at the top of the screen (including a custom image that you can choose) and then a feed of your most recent stories. The page looks almost identical to if you had clicked through to the homepage for The Startup or Better Marketing. I’d be willing to bet that in time, Medium will let you “curate” your own stories into topics or menus, just as publications can do today.
These design changes take the concept of making Medium more relational and implement that concept as a set of concrete changes to the site’s user experience and appearance.
As a creator, how can you make these changes work for you? There are several things you should do right now:
- Make sure your profile information is up to date. Connect your Twitter and other social media if you want to do so. Lots more people are going to be seeing your profile with Medium’s changes and you want to push them to your social platforms.
- Make sure you have a compelling author photo. Your author photo is going to appear much more frequently in Medium’s new design, and you should make sure yours looks great. Consider hiring a professional photographer for a socially-distanced headshot session if you don’t have a professional headshot already.
- Go to the new Design section of Medium and make some updates to ensure that your Profile page reflects your own brand. Consider uploading a header image (you can find one on Unsplash or use your own), customizing your font, or choosing a background color for your page. These small changes give your page more of a branded feel. Make sure your updates are subtle and professional — a bright, neon background might make your text hard to read, for example.
- Consider choosing a custom logo. This will now display at the top of your stories and on your Profile page. I’ve kept my text-based logo, but if you have a logo for your personal brand, you can now use it on Medium. Ideally, the logo should say your name in it.
These design choices are very similar to the choices you would want to make if you launched a new publication. Again, with the new Medium, creators are being treated like their own publications.
Those are the design elements of the new change. But Medium’s changes are more than skin-deep. The platform has indicated that its move toward prioritizing individual creators also means shifts in how Medium’s algorithms recommend and surface content on the site.
Again, the changes are geared toward treating creators more like publications. On the platform, followers have always been among the primary currencies by which publications judge their success and reach. The Startup’s description, for example, highlights the fact that it’s “Medium’s largest active publication, followed by 717k people.” When publications reach out to me and ask me to send them stories, they almost always talk about how many followers they have.
Why? Because Medium has always pushed stories out to a publication’s followers. If you publish a story in a big publication, it’s likely to find an audience, even if it’s not curated. And recently, Medium had begun allowing some publication editors to curate stories themselves — a foreshadowing of the new changes we’re seeing implemented today that de-emphasize curation overall.
With Medium’s new changes, they’re still pushing out stories to publications’ followers (and probably doing this more than ever). But they’re also pushing out stories much more aggressively to writers’ own followers. This happens through “shelves” on the Medium homepage (like the collection of author photos you see at the top right of your homepage), and it is likely happening on the back end with Daily Digests as well. Again, that’s a move toward treating writers like their own publications and weighing their followings as highly as publications’ followings were weighed before.
What does this mean, strategy-wise? As a Medium creator, you should put a lot more emphasis into building your following if you haven’t already. I’ve covered this in detail in other articles.
But you should also plan to publish a lot more content. Publications have long known that publishing lots of stories is an important way to build influence and a following on Medium. Sand Farnia of the Writing Cooperative says in a recent article about growing their publication:
“I think the most important way to attract followers is consistency in publishing. There needs to be a steady flow of articles published, preferably every day.”
With Medium’s new move to treat individual writers more like publications, individuals should aim to publish as frequently as possible, too. Frequent publishing achieves a few things. Since recent works from writers and publications now appear front and center on readers’ homepages, publishing frequently maximizes the chances that your followers will see one of your stories when they come to Medium.
With the new “More From Medium” section — which highlights more of your work when someone finishes reading one of your articles — there’s also an incentive to have more stories on the platform. Having more work on Medium maximizes the number of related stories that the platform can show a reader when they finish one of your pieces. With Medium’s changes, I’ve already started to see an increase in traffic to my older stories.
With frequent publishing, you have to make sure the quality of your articles doesn’t suffer — you still have to provide value to your audience. But Medium is providing several ways to make frequent publishing easier and more valuable.
A big one is shifting toward encouraging shorter-form posts in addition to Medium’s bread and butter of long-form articles. Medium has said clearly that tools for short-form posts are coming. These are already being Beta tested. You’ve probably already seen short-form posts from some of the publications and creators you follow — Ev Williams included.
But the move away from curation is also a major tacit acknowledgment that short-form, experimental content is welcome on the platform — at least from established writers. Before, pieces less than three minutes were very unlikely to be curated, creating an incentive to write longer articles (and thus, in most cases, to publish less often, because long-form stories often take longer to produce).
Creators also had to worry about things like “curation jail,” where creators said that if a certain number of their pieces weren’t curated in a row, they would be locked out of curation for a period of time. Now that curation has become less important than building a following, Medium creators can feel freer to try new things, test more experimental content, and otherwise step outside their comfort zones without worrying about “jail.”
All these things make frequent publishing easier and less risky. Your ideas don’t have to be perfect for you to hit the “Publish” button. You’re no longer as accountable to curators — if you’re delivering value to your audience with each piece you write, that’s what matters most under Medium’s new framework — even if you publish three or more pieces per day.
If you’ve run a publication on Medium before, the platform’s new changes (especially around the design of Profile pages) will feel very familiar. So, too, will strategies like maximizing the number of quality articles you publish.
If you’ve never run a publication, now’s the time to learn more about what’s involved because your own brand on Medium is effectively a publication now. Read up on creating custom logos and headers, polish up your profile, and think about what you’d publish in the short-form world that is likely just around the corner.
You’re a publication now. Optimize your design and strategy to leverage Medium’s new changes, and go publish great things.
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.
This article originally appeared on Storius on Medium.