In March 2017, Medium scrapped its previous ad-driven revenue model to become a publisher of premium, subscription-based content. The company launched a new $5 subscription program and gave a select group of writers and publications the ability to publish articles behind a paywall inside its network. Medium’s invitation-only Partner Program launched in August but has now been expanded to include any author or publisher who wants to publish behind the paywall.
“Starting today, anyone can enroll in our Partner Program and earn money based on the depth and value they provide to members, not the fleeting attention they deliver to advertisers,” Medium CEO Ev Williams said. “Along with that, we add stories from the world’s best publishers and seamlessly combine it all in an ad-free, personalized experience. The end goal is to offer the world’s best source for important stories and ideas.”
Authors are rewarded based on engagement with their posts, as measured by the number of “clap” reactions a post receives via the network’s new applause button. Readers can clap multiple times and the system evaluates claps on a per-user basis, tracking the number of claps a reader assigns relative to the number of claps that individual typically sends. Subscribers will have their membership fees allocated to different authors based the claps they have given to posts behind the paywall.
Medium quickly changed its “no access” paywall to a “metered” one after launching with a small group of publishers. This means that members can still read a limited number of locked stories each month before hitting the wall. The idea behind this move, according to Sam Duboff, Medium’s head of product marketing, is to give paywalled posts exposure to a wider audience while still paying content creators, instead of having articles simply get buried due to lack of exposure.
with our metered paywall, we're hoping to enable both reach & $$. also lots of great writers haven't joined b/c they can be paid elsewhere.
— Sam Duboff (@duboff) September 18, 2017
Perhaps, but note the paywall is (now) metered, a la NYT, so free readers can still access (w/login)
— Ev Williams (@ev) August 22, 2017
Some authors have posted publicly about their earnings and Medium representatives told TechCrunch that 83% of those who published paywalled stories received payments during the month of September with payments averaging $93.65. The largest payment for a single author was $2,279.12 and the largest payment for a single publication was $1,466.68. It’s too soon to see the effects of opening up the partner program to anyone who wants to participate, but Medium’s membership fees will need to stretch further to accommodate all the claps for newly paywalled content.
— 👨🏻💻🏢☀️ (@hunterwalk) September 20, 2017
Non-subscribing readers were not enthused with the paywall when it first launched. With the number of Partner Program participants going up, there are bound to be more links to paywalled content floating around social media.
Stop posting links to paid posts, or at least include “Paywall” “Premium” “Subscriber Only”, ANYTHING! Create a Medium Premium handle maybe?
— Branden Bytes (@BrandenBytes) September 30, 2017
click the @Medium article link to see it is behind the paywall. Close the page and move on. That may teach people not to click at all ;)
— Denys Vuika (@DenysVuika) September 30, 2017
Muted @Medium for a month. Maybe after that they’ll stop tweeting paywall’ed articles.
— spooky🎃watermelon (@smartwatermelon) September 23, 2017
Readers are finding, however, that they are frequently encountering articles behind Medium’s paywall that are already available for free elsewhere. This is because Medium’s membership also includes curated selections from from The New York Times, The Financial Times, The Economist, CNN, Fast Company, and other publications to supplement original content created by those within the Medium ecosystem. The experience of finding otherwise free content behind Medium’s paywall seems to be confusing for non-subscribers and is ultimately driving readers back to independent publishers.
New routine: See interesting @medium tweet, see it's behind their paywall, search headline in google, find original piece, read article.
— Matt Deegan (@matt) September 24, 2017
— Lizzie Ellis (@lizmeister321) September 25, 2017
— JD (@jarroddicker) October 4, 2017
In a post titled “Words Still Matter,” Williams once again described the broken ad-driven model and the attention economy it fuels. After failing to find success with this model, Medium has repackaged itself as a publisher of subscription-based content and aims to throw a wide net by calling its partner program “the internet’s first open paywall.”
“And while many publishers are looking towards subscriptions as an alternative to the deleterious effects of ads (a move we support for everyone), Medium is the only ‘open paywall’ for thoughtful content on the internet,” Williams said. “Which means, we tap into the ideas and expertise of thousands of the smartest minds on the planet — many of whom made Medium what it is today — to bring fresh perspectives to Medium members.”
Despite setting out to create “a different, bolder approach,” as Williams called it earlier this year, the company has landed on a cheap paywall that is open to any content creator. Putting content behind a paywall isn’t a good strategy for individuals or businesses that depend on their products and ideas getting maximum exposure. It’s also not a sustainable model for larger publishers, several of which Medium had wooed to its platform before suddenly shifting its business strategy.
Our medium publication gets a ton of traffic, but feels shitty to paywall it to make $12 bucks. I don’t get this model.
— Erik Flowers (@erik_flowers) September 22, 2017
Opening up the partner program is the next step in Medium’s continued experimentation with monetizing its users’ content. If the company cannot substantially increase its subscriber base to properly pay all the authors who will soon be paywalling unlimited amounts of content, it will need to pivot yet again after its users have spent their efforts building an audience inside the Medium paywall.
“These are just the early days of what we consider a grand experiment,” Williams said after expanding the parnter program in August. “Imagine a day when anyone with the skills and willingness to put in the effort can write something useful, insightful, or moving and be compensated based on its value to others. There is a lot we need to figure out to make this work right. But we are convinced that by joining forces, we can make a new economic model for quality content. We hope you’ll join us in this experiment.”