If you’re a new writer, you might be curious as to what the idea of a “medium” means when it comes to writing. What is a medium, and what impact does it have on your writing?
In writing, the medium is the way in which your writing is delivered to the audience. A print publication, an online blog, a digital newspaper or a PDF document are all examples of different mediums.
Writers get confused sometimes because there is also a popular writing platform called Medium. (That’s the main topic of this website.) It turns out that the two concepts are more related than you might think–Medium, the website, probably gets its name from the writing concept of a medium.
Let’s explore mediums in writing in more detail.
A Medium is the Format In Which Your Writing Gets Delivered
The medium of your writing refers to the specific way in which your writing will reach your audience.
For example, a piece of writing could be featured in a magazine. Magazines are generally printed medium with two facing pages. They’re usually in color, and they’re often printed at a relatively high quality.
In contrast, your writing could also appear on a blog. That’s an electronic medium that’s often consumed on a mobile phone. You’re dealing with a lot less physical space (phone screens are smaller than magazine pages) than in the magazine medium.
You’re often dealing with production constraints, too. Magazines often come out weekly or monthly, whereas blogs could publish several articles a day. The frequency of publication changes the amount of editing, preparation, and other work that can be done on your writing before it gets published.
- Full color
- Large pages allow for many layout elements
- Physical medium
- Fonts and colors vary by the user’s device
- Smaller page size due to smaller screen sizes
- Electronic medium
That’s just comparing two mediums. But in reality, there are hundreds of mediums for the distribution of writing today.
In short, different mediums differ dramatically from each other in physical and conceptual ways that can be significant.
How Does the Medium Impact Your Writing?
Clearly, the medium for which you’re writing will impact the writing you create, or at least how your audience consumes that writing.
In a book or magazine, the layout of your piece is fixed. You can use things like line spacing, the position of photos, and more to enhance the story you’re telling.
With a medium like a blog, in contrast, you’re often dealing with radically different devices (phones, tablets, desktops, etc.), different browsers, and more.
That makes achieving a fixed layout more challenging. It’s thus harder to use line length, word positioning, etc., expressively. It’s also harder to combine your writing with visual elements in a consistent way.
In certain mediums, typography suffers as well. In a newspaper, you know the exact font that will be used for your story. On a blog, the font might vary based on the user’s browser.
Especially if you’re writing in a genre (like poetry) where these kinds of factors are significant, the medium can make a big difference in how your piece is received.
Medium Determines Your Reader
No matter what the physical aspects of a medium might be, those aspects also control the environment in which users will consume your writing. If you write for a physical magazine, your readers will probably be located in a specific region where the magazine is distributed. They’ll probably read it in a location where they can sit down and physically hold a paper publication.
With electronic mediums, however, that’s not necessarily the case. Your reader could be anywhere in the world. Because they could be reading on a phone or tablet, they could consume your writing on the train while commuting to work, on the beach, or nearly anywhere else.
It also controls who gets to read your writing. Only people with the funds to subscribe to a newspaper or magazine can read your stories if you publish in that medium. Many electronic mediums (although, notably, not Medium the website) allow free access, opening their content to a wider array of readers.
The medium impacts your writing in a few ways:
- Layout options
- Ability to control typography and images
- The environment in which your reader will consume your writing
- The kind of writer that your words will reach
Mediums and Business Models
Different mediums can also have different business models, and this can alter your writing in a variety of ways. Print magazines are costly to produce, so they usually focus on higher-quality, long-form stories.
That means that when you publish in a magazine, you’ll likely have more time to write your piece, the ability to include more words, and more hands-on input from an editor. On the downside, you might not be allowed to experiment as much, since the magazine needs to know your piece will come out well enough to justify the space devoted to it.
In contrast, the medium of a newspaper or blog is all about speed and variety. On a blog, you might get much less time to write your piece, and you may have less control over specifics like headlines and formatting. But you might also have the leeway to experiment more.
In a newspaper, the amount of space available in a given edition is often dictated by how many ads have been sold. Newspaper editors may even cut your piece off at a certain point if there are not enough ads to fund adding another page to the paper.
The physical format of a medium matters for your writing, but so too does the business model of that medium.
Medium vs Genre in Writing
Some writers wonder about the difference between medium and genre.
I find this chart helpful. It breaks down some of the differences. In general, though, genre is about the type of story you’re telling in your writing. Is it an informational news piece, a romance novel, poetry, or something entirely different?
In contrast, the medium of your writing is the way in which the writing will be delivered to your audience. Mediums impact your writing, but they don’t necessarily dictate its topic.
One way to think about it is that nearly any genre can be published in any medium, but not the other way around. You can have a romance story published on a blog, for example, or a news article sent via Whatsapp messages.
Genre, in short, is about the kind of story you’re telling, whereas medium is about the way in which your audience receives that story.
Mediums as Expression
Communications theorist Marshall McLuhan famously said that “the medium is the message.” Although I’d argue that often isn’t true–any message can be sent via different mediums–there are some ways in which the medium ultimately dictates the impact of your writing.
A classic example of McLuhan’s statement is an article about a horrible crime. If you wake up in the morning, check social media, and immediately read such an article on your social feed, the facts of the specific article probably don’t have as much impact as the way you’re receiving them.
You’ll get the message “Social media is awful and depressing,” not necessarily “This specific bad thing happened to someone.” In that case, the medium itself (social media and its focus on negativity) has more impact than the contents of the message being sent.
Medium the Concept and Medium the Platform
That brings up back to the main topic of this website, the Medium platform. Medium is a blogging platform that’s deliberately free of advertising. It focuses on a crisp, blank page with minimal distractions from the reading experience.
On the writing side, Medium focuses on the same things–an extremely easy way for writers to dive in and start writing, whether they’re on their phones or in a browser.
In that sense, Medium the platform is itself a medium–a specific way that writing gets delivered. Its status as a medium may well have inspired the platform’s name.
Embedded in that choice of name is the idea that the medium in which writing gets delivered impacts the way it’s consumed, and, ultimately as McLuhan argues, its message.
Medium the platform seems to be betting on the idea that both writers and readers will favor a medium that delivers a cleaner experience that’s more focused on discovering great writing than on ads, sponsors, and the like.
Of course, it’s important to remember that all mediums come with tradeoffs. Although Medium the platform allows for monetization, that might exclude certain readers from consuming writing on the platform.
In writing, a medium is a way that your writing reaches your audience. Your medium can dictate how your writing gets created and consumed. In some cases, the medium itself can become as significant as your actual words.
Medium the platform takes that concept of a medium and turns it into a specific place built around a particular vision of what writing should be. Medium is a medium!
Whether you write on the Medium platform or somewhere else (or both), it’s always important to consider the impact that a specific medium will have on the writing you create and on the experience your readers will have in consuming it.
When I wrote this, I had been contributing to Medium for about two months and having a lot of fun.
I worked with IBM, photographed my dog’s feet with a thermal camera, run my grandpa’s war photos through Faceapp, placed a virtual vacuum cleaner on my rug, been contacted by one of my heroes, Matt Farley (we’re working on an interview), eaten foraged seaweed, and written way too many words about cryptocurrency mining.
Lots of my posts have been finding an audience here, and I’m grateful for that. But one post has especially stood out. It talks about Generative Adversarial Networks (GANs) — the technology behind Deepfakes — and the social and legal implications of fake people.
I’ve been blown away by the response — the post has racked up over 17,000 views in a little less than two months, earning $659 so far from the Medium Partner Program.
Clearly, this is a pattern I’d like to repeat. And I’m betting that if you write for Medium, you’d like to write more posts like this as well!
Let’s dive into the post, and look at some of the factors I think contributed to its reach and earnings — and what Medium writers can do to leverage these in their own posts.
A Compelling (and Anxiety Provoking) Title and Photo
Titles are important on Medium. Actually, titles are important everywhere.
They’re what grabs a reader’s attention in their email digest, on a publication page, on the Medium homepage, etc., and compels them to click through to your post.
People glance at headlines for a few milliseconds (long enough to read about six words) and decide if they want to learn more. So your headline needs to really drag people in and convince them your story is worth a click.
What I’ve found is that my most successful headlines on Medium include a compelling concept, but also a little taste of anxiety or concern.
The headline on my Fake People post was “This Is Not a Person. But She is a Threat.” This was accompanied by the smiling face of a fake person.
The headline immediately gets the reader’s attention through its discordance: “What do you mean that’s not a person? She looks like one.”
But the “threat” part is also a draw — why is this smiling, friendly-looking woman a threat? Is she a threat to them? Is she a criminal or something? They have to click through to find out.
I didn’t consciously mean for my headlines to provoke anxiety, or even to include worrisome language.
I just noticed this trend from looking at my Medium views and earnings — articles with a little touch of anxiety tended to do better than those with emotionally-blank headlines. Another example is my article “Deep Learning is Blowing up OCR. And Your Field Might Be Next.” It also pulled above its weight and provokes a little tinge of anxiety about job loss.
The trick with anxiety in your headlines is not to overdo it. If you do, you’re veering towards clickbait, which definitely does not fly on Medium, and will send readers running for the hills (for good reason).
Definitely make your headlines emotionally salient. But stay away from anything like “Avoid THIS one food if you want to live past 30!”. Subtlety is key, and a clickbait headline on a good, well-researched article will send readers away when they should be clicking through.
The photo is important, too. Again, the contrast of a “threat” with the smiling face of a not-woman was probably enough to draw readers in. I find that articles with a compelling photo get a little extra bump. I shoot my own photos, but there’s a lot of great work on Unsplash you can include for free.
A Solid Hook
Just because your headline and photo drew people in, that doesn’t mean they’re staying past your first paragraph.
According to Time Magazine, the average web reader spends less than 15 seconds on a page. That’s just long enough to read around one paragraph (91 words) and decide if your article is worth sticking around for.
In my fake people article, I set up a surprise. I described the woman at the top of the article as if she was a friendly, actual person, and then threw in a twist at the end of my first paragraph— she was actually generated by a computer. The surprise (and ick factor) alone was probably enough to keep people reading.
The good news? Once you’ve drawn people in, they’ll stick around for about 7 minutes. So if you’ve won their attention, enough should stick around to actually read your piece.
Overall, the fake people article has achieved a 1 minute, 20-second average read time, which is 5.33x higher than the internet as a whole. Including a hook to keep readers engage is a great way to bump up this number in your own pieces.
A Great Publication
Publications are the bread and butter of Medium. You can self-publish — and I often do — but publications multiply your reach, connecting you with thousands or hundreds of thousands of readers in your article’s niche.
My fake people post was placed in The Startup, which is Medium’s largest active publication. It has over 520,000 subscribers, which almost certainly contributed to the post’s reach.
Publications also ensure that you’re reaching an audience on Medium. I’ve had articles that got tons of traction elsewhere, but the readers weren’t Medium members. It’s fun to see your numbers climb, but they don’t translate into earnings.
One of my stories has received 2,800 views but only earned $1.27. That’s because most of its popularity came from the Medium site. Publications help you reach Medium readers, and that translates into both a higher reach and higher earnings.
If you’re not already contributing to publications, try it out. Find one you like, look up their submission process, and send them a draft.
Curation in Popular Categories
If publications are Medium’s bread and butter, curation is its special sauce. It’s the magic that keeps the aforementioned clickbait, rabid political articles, affiliate marketing, and all the Internet’s other assorted filth off the platform.
Curation used to be done by people, but it’s now mainly perform by algorithms. It’s also less important than it used to be. Still, most of the other factors I’ve mentioned above contribute to curation, too. A strong headline and hook matter as much to Medium’s algorithms as they do to readers.
But I think there’s also an extra factor that contributes to curation — some ineffable quality of an article that makes the platform promote it. If you read Quora, I think the posts that stand out there have the same indescribable quality, too.
It’s something about the article that makes you say “I’ve never thought to ask about that before. But now I’m really curious. Why do trucks have those little spikes on their tires? How does McDonald’s choose what sodas to sell?” It’s come combination of novelty, curiosity, and detailed background information about a topic.
The fake people post is about a topic that’s just weird enough — but also relatable enough — that it had that special curation-worthy quality. GANs are new and interesting, but we can all engage with the idea of being fooled by a computer.
Medium distributed the article in Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, and Cybersecurity, and I think it’s found its home in those categories.
Pickup by External Services
While publications and on-site traffic are crucial for revenue, off-site traffic is very valuable, too. It gets people sharing your articles, and sends readers your way.
And I think it also signals to Medium’s curators — and perhaps their algorithms, too — that an article is finding an audience and is worth promoting internally.
My fake people post got picked up on Digg.com, driving 1.5K visits. It also got 566 visits from Facebook and over 100 from Twitter. From Medium’s stats page, you can click through and see what people are saying about your article on these external platforms.
Overwhelmingly, the Twitter comments about my article were some variant of “This is weird”. The article also benefited from touching on a very political topic — Deepfakes and fake news — which always leads to shares on social media.
You can’t control what Twitter wants to see. Ultimately, it’s up to users whether they want to share your story.
But you can seed the process. Make sure to share your articles on your own Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, and tag relevant people, places, etc. to promote retweets and get the viral ball rolling.
Those are some factors that I think contributed to the fake people article’s success. I’ve tested many of these on other articles, and have found that they definitely help — especially crafting a slightly worrying headline, writing a strong hook, and publishing in popular publications
But ultimately, my answer to why this article really took off is — I have no idea.
And really, that’s how the internet, and any scalable system, often works. You can look for — and apply — factors that help a piece of content along, and this will almost certainly help to set you up for success. Without everything I’ve described above, I’m sure my fake people article would have been lost in the Medium ether, no matter how compelling the topic.
But even with all the right factors in place, it’s devilishly challenging to pick out content winners in advance.
Sometimes, it’s about being in the right place at the right time, or some element of an article that you’re not even aware of — a keyword combo that Google’s SEO loves, a key tweet by an influencer, or just an algorithm in someone’s recommendation engine that’s having a good day and decides it really wants more people to know about GANs.
The factors that I’ve described above are important. But the most important thing is to just keep publishing. The best way to have an article jump in its earnings and find a strangely wide audience is to write a lot of articles.
So write great, scary headlines, include strong hooks, and seed the Twitterverse. But also keep making more content. You never know what will find an audience and take off.
Update for 2022
I originally wrote the post in 2019, and when I wrote this summary of its earnings, it had earned around $600. Today, as I write this in 2022, the post has continued to earn. It’s now up to
When you’re first starting out on Medium, one of your first priorities is likely to gain your first 100 followers. Having more followers qualifies you for the Medium Partner Program, but it also helps get your stories out to a broader audience.
Personally, I have 30,000+ followers on Medium, and I got my first 100 in less than a month.
To gain followers on Medium, your best bet, in the beginning, is to write a lot and to engage with other Medium writers by posting thoughtful responses to their stories.
Both of these strategies help you to gain followers. The latter can get you as many as 100 followers in a week, and the former sets you up for long-term success and ongoing follower growth.
Here’s how to accomplish each.
How to Get Medium Followers as a New Writer
When starting on Medium, you have a chicken and egg problem. You need people to read your work in order to follow you. But because you don’t have any followers, there’s no one to read your work!
The way out of this circular trap is to lean on other writers at the beginning. I’m not a big fan of follow-for-follow schemes, since I think they tend to lead to low-quality followers. But if you can organically engage with Medium writers, they’re likely to take a chance on following you.
Here’s how to do that.
- Find a Medium writer whose story you like
- Clap for the story
- Leave a response of about 200 words on the story, sharing your own perspectives and showing that you really read and understood the story
- Follow the other writer
Writers love when people engage with their story and when it’s clear that readers are really taking the time to understand what they’ve written. In many cases, the writer will follow you back right away.
In some cases, your chosen writer will reply to your response or say thanks. In that case, it’s fine to respond with something like “I’d love to keep engaging with your writing and share my writing with you. If you’d like to keep in touch, please consider following me.” This often prompts the writer to follow you.
Remember, don’t be pushy. If a specific writer doesn’t want to follow you, move on and write a response on someone else’s story.
With this approach, you can also help yourself out by finding writers who follow a lot of people on Medium. Click through to the writer’s profile and see how many people they follow, relative to how many followers they have.
Some writers (myself included) follow a very small number of people on Medium. We’re probably not the right people to target. But if you see a writer who follows lots of other people, prioritize leaving a response on their stories.
How Many Responses to Write
This might be controversial, but in the beginning, I advise people to divide their time evenly between writing their own stories and writing these kinds of targeted responses to other writers’ stories.
Why? Engaging with other writers is the fastest way to get to 100 followers when you’re brand new. And if other readers see your insightful comment on a writer’s piece, they might choose to follow you as well.
If you publish your own stories but also leave a lot of carefully thought-out responses on other writers’ posts, you can grow very quickly in the beginning. It’s totally reasonable to get 100 Medium followers in a week if you really dig into this approach.
Write a Lot
So you should spend about half your time writing responses when you’re brand new on Medium. But what should you do with the other half of your time?
Write a lot of stories! One of the fastest ways to gain Medium followers is to publish a lot of content on the platform.
Think of each story you write as a chance to convince readers to follow you. The more stories you publish, the more chances you’ll have.
It can be hard to motivate yourself to publish a ton of content initially because you’ll probably get almost no reads on your stories. You might be tempted to think that Medium just isn’t for you and to give up and try something else.
In reality, though, if you just keep writing, your follower count will start to grow, and then you’ll be getting lots of reads on each story instead of just crickets.
With 30,000+ followers, I rarely have a story that gets less than 100 views, and a typical story is often in the 500 to 2,000-view range. You’ll get there—just keep writing!
Use CTAs Effectively
To make sure that your articles actually bring in followers, you should also include a clear call to action at the end of each article. For example, you could include text that says:
“If you enjoyed this article and want to read more of my work, please consider following me here on Medium.”
Sometimes you have to explicitly ask if you want people to perform a certain action. A good CTA can work wonders in terms of getting you more followers.
If you can commit to a specific publishing schedule, include that in your CTA. You can say something like, “I publish a new post about SEO every Tuesday here on Medium. Follow me to see my latest posts.”
Only do that if you can keep to the promised schedule! If you can, though, a promise of future value can go a long way toward winning you followers.
When you first start out on Medium, your best bet is to engage with fellow writers by following them, clapping for their stories, and leaving thoughtful responses.
Remember, they were new once too! They’re more likely to take a chance on following a brand new writer than the average reader would be.
At first, you should put about half your time towards writing responses. I advise doing this until you reach 100 followers. With the other half of your time, write a lot of stories and remember to include a compelling call to action.
Don’t get discouraged! It can be hard to write to a nonexistent audience, but if you keep at it, the followers will come.
We’ve all heard the proclamations and read the articles: Medium is dead, right? The era of high earnings for Medium writers is over, many people say.
Although I agree that it’s harder to earn on Medium than it once was, I totally disagree that the age of the blockbuster Medium article is over.
In 2022, it’s still totally possible to earn $500 or more from a single Medium article. In this post, I’ll share some proof and examples from my own stories.
One caveat: I’m no longer writing on Medium with the sole goal of earning through the Partner Program. I’m overall focused on writing quality content on Medium, so I’m not directly optimizing for earnings. Even so, several of my 2022 stories have done quite well.
Can You Still Earn Good Money on Medium in 2022?
In short, yes, you can earn good money on Medium in 2022.
Here are a few examples. My story about my dog Lance and his TikTok fame has earned $510.95 as I write this.
Another story I write about crypto this year has earned $482.
Even stories that aren’t big “hits” can still do well. This hyper-specific piece about greywater systems has earned me about $38 so far.
Again, I’m no longer optimizing for Partner Program earnings—I have a broader and more holistic focus on story quality and uniqueness at the moment. Writers who are laser-focused on the partner program probably earn way more from their stories than me.
So can you still earn on Medium in 2022? Yes, you can.
How to Earn More on Medium in 2022
So given that success is possible, how do you achieve it?
Medium is a more crowded market than it used to be. When there were fewer Medium writers and more Medium readers, I felt like per-post earnings were often higher, at least on average.
Today, the most important way to increase Medium earnings is to write stories that specifically appeal to Medium readers.
What kinds of stories do that? A contact a Medium told me to “write stories that a smart person would enjoy reading.” That’s a pretty good rubric to follow.
By that definition, a good Medium story is informative, drawn from your real-world experience, and a little quirky or different.
My $500+ piece about Lance and TikTok is a perfect example. I spent months running a real-world experiment before writing the piece. The story was unique, well researched, and told a story that fit into broader trends in terms of social media and advertising. Medium’s readers rewarded me for that.
Why Write for Medium’s Audience
Why should you care whether Medium’s audience likes your piece? Because in the Partner Program, Medium pays you for member reading time. To earn as much as possible, it’s thus crucial to write stories that appeal to Medium’s members.
In the case of my higher-earning pieces, each piece was featured (which results in more sharing with Medium members), and at least one was included in the Edition. This weekly curated newsletter goes out to all Medium members, so getting included in the Edition is a perfect way to reach Medium members.
Writing pieces that hold readers’ attention is crucial too. You can measure this by looking at the read ratio for your pieces and taking steps to increase it.
Not Every Post Earns Well
Of course, it’s important to note that not every Medium post will earn you $500, or even $10. As with any creative endeavor, there’s a lot of variability in Medium earnings.
I thought a post I wrote about getting 14,000 views on boring YouTube videos would do great, but it’s only brought me in about $14. That’s about typical for a lower-earning post.
It’s also important to note that I have over 30,000 Medium followers and have been on the platform since 2019. If you’re brand new, you probably won’t earn as much as my posts.
On the other hand, if you’re brand new you might be laser-focused on writing posts that are optimized to earn from the Partner Program.
For example, you might write super-detailed explainers about programming topics, spend hours crafting engaging headlines, and publish your stories in a top-tier publication like the Startup or Better Programming. Do that a few times per week, and you’ll probably handily beat my Partner Program story earnings.
How Much a Medium Article Earns in 2022
- I’ve found that my really strong Medium articles upwards of $400 in 2022. These are often carefully researched, use external sources, and have real-world experiments that share data you can’t find elsewhere.
- Decent articles earn around $40 to $90. These are usually articles that share useful info from my own personal experiences, but aren’t as fully-reported as the higher earning pieces.
- Lower-performing articles tend to be around $10 to $20. These are things like a local restaurant review, a brief analytical article, or a tactical article that answers a user’s specific question about a gadget.
Again, these numbers are also based solely on my own experience and data. Your earnings could be way different from mine, but at least this can give you a ballpark as to what’s possible on the platform in 2022.
Want to learn way more about improving your Read Ratio? Check out my course on Skillshare, which is free if you have a Skillshare membership.
A good Medium read ratio is generally between 20 and 50%.
It depends, though, on the length of your article and the audience you’re trying to engage. Very short articles (3 minutes or less) tend to have a higher read ratio, because it takes less time for a reader to complete the article.
Likewise, long articles tend to have lower read ratios — but not always. I have a 23 minute article that still has a 30% read ratio because its content is very engaging. But in general, if your article takes longer to read, it will tend to have a lower ratio. Seven minutes is usually the sweet spot in terms of article length to get an optimal read ratio.
If your read ratio is too high, that can indicate a problem, too. If everyone finishes reading your piece, that can be an indication that it was too short. Readers may be left wanting more, and you may have had the opportunity to go into more detail on a specific topic.
If you write a 5–8 minute piece and it has a very high read ratio, congratulate yourself on writing something really engaging, but also immediately start to think of follow-ups.
Can you write another article (or several) building on the same topic, or exploring aspects of it in more depth? If people loved your shorter article about the topic and were really engaged, it’s likely that they’ll want to engage with your follow-up pieces too.
If your ratio is really low, there can be reasons for that, too — so don’t immediately despair. It could be that your article is getting a lot of traffic from external sources (Flipboard, social media, etc.) and these readers (who often aren’t Medium members) tend to spend less time reading stories on average. Over time, it’s likely that your ratio will increase as more members read your piece.
Also keep in mind that read ratio is a lagging number. It’s only updated periodically, and Medium waits a while before assuming that a reader has stopped reading an article. So for newly published pieces, your read ratio might appear very low at first, but over time it will go up as more people who are in the middle of reading the piece finish it, and as Medium updates the numbers.
If you’re thinking about writing on Medium, you’re probably wondering if there’s money in it. Do Medium writers get paid?
Yes, Medium writers can earn money from writing on the website. In some cases, the earnings can be substantial; some people have replaced their full-time jobs with writing on Medium.
Most writers will see more modest earnings. Almost anyone, though, can earn at least a little money writing on Medium. With some effort, it’s totally reasonable to earn a few hundred dollars per month.
How does Medium pay writers?
Medium pays writers through the Medium Partner Program. This is a program that compensates writers based on the amount of time that Medium members spend reading the writer’s stories.
As I write this, Medium only pays for internal views, which are views from Medium’s subscribed members. These members pay five dollars per month to read as many articles on Medium as they like. Medium distributes the funds from these subscriptions to the army of bloggers who post on the Medium platform.
If you write on Medium, the platform will keep track of how many minutes members spend reading your articles each day. You can often increase this number by improving your read ratio.
At the end of the day, Medium will tell you how much you’ve earned from your article. You can see this number in the stats sections of your Medium dashboard.
Does Medium pay for all traffic?
No, at the moment, Medium only pays for internal views. If you get external views from search engines, social media, or people who aren’t Medium members, the Medium partner program will not pay you for the reading time.
This might change in the future. At the moment, though, a reader needs to be a paying Medium member in order for you to earn money when they read your post.
Does Medium pay per article?
Medium pays based on member rating time. The platform does not directly pay writers a fee per article.
That said, some Medium publications do pay writers a per-article fee. These tend to be lower than freelancing rates when you’re writing directly for a publication. I find that among the publications that do pay for stories, most pay around $50 per story. Some pay as much as $200.
Over time, the number of publications on Medium that pay for stories has decreased dramatically. Most Medium writers today expect to earn primarily from the partner program, or from other earnings opportunities.
Do claps on your Medium article determine your earnings?
Several years ago, Medium compensated writers based on the number of claps that they got on their articles. Readers can clap for an article if they like it. Before, this was part of the calculation in terms of how much writers got paid.
The claps system was great for short-form writers with a big audience. Poets, for example, could write a short piece that their audience loved, get a lot of claps, and earn hundreds of dollars for their posts.
In 2019, Medium moved away from the system and switched to compensating writers based on member reading time. This is great for writers who write engaging stories but have a smaller audience because you don’t need to convince readers to take an action in order to be compensated.
It’s a challenge for short-form writers, though, because short articles tend to generate less reading time and thus have less earning potential.
To summarize, readers can still clap for your articles to express their enjoyment of a particular piece. Claps no longer factor into your earnings on Medium, though.
How does Medium pay you?
Medium pays using Square. You’ll need to create a Square account and connect it to your Medium partner program in order actually to get payments.
Medium pays once per month. I find that I usually get my partner program payment around the 8th of the month. Square payments are digital, so there are no checks to worry about. I find that payment usually hits my bank account about one day after it’s sent.
Requirements to earn on Medium
To earn money for your Medium articles, you need to be part of the Medium partner program. That generally requires having at least 100 followers on the platform. There are also country restrictions in terms of who can get paid on the platform.
Because of these requirements, it’s important to focus on getting followers in the beginning if you want to be paid to write a medium. You’ll want to get to your first 100 followers as quickly as possible so that you can be eligible for the partner program and can earn on Medium.
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!