I’ve been writing on Medium for three and a half years.
In that time, I’ve written somewhere north of 100,000 words, in more than 50 long-form essays, read by many tens of thousands of people. I’m a “Top Writer” in two of the most popular categories on the site — Productivity and Reading — and have more than 8,000 followers between my personal profile and my publication. Praxis is a paywalled publication generating almost $2,000 in recurring monthly revenue from 400+ subscribers.
I don’t think there’s anyone more invested in the success of Medium than I am. And over the next week I’ll be taking my writing and my audience to a new WordPress blog (the one you’re reading now).
In this article I’ll explain why, despite all this investment, functionality, and exposure offered to me for free, it still makes no sense for me to stay. I’m hoping it will shed some light on blogging-as-a-business, provide the Medium team some useful feedback, and explain to my audience why I’m putting them through this migration.
The death of freemium
In December of 2016, I received an email from Medium about an experiment they were running to allow publications to charge for their content. This seemed unthinkable at first. It seemed contrary to everything I’d ever learned about blogging.
The conventional marketing wisdom is that you should open the doors of your blog as wide as possible, because it is your best customer acquisition channel. It is the easiest and most frictionless way for someone to “try out” what you have to offer. Once hooked, a reader can be turned into a customer by selling them other products or services.
But around that same time I started reading Stratechery, Ben Thompson’s email newsletter offering “analysis of the strategy and business side of technology and media.” He writes one free weekly article, and paid daily articles dissecting and explaining the news and trends of the day.
First, I noticed his impressive business model: $10 per month (or $100 per year) for in-depth articles that could reach any number of people at almost no marginal cost. Internet rumor has it that he has more than 10,000 paying subscribers, which would suggest monthly revenue of $100,000.
Again, this contradicted everything I thought I knew about media. I don’t think there is a topic more oversaturated than tech news and analysis, and here was one man single-handedly producing the best content in the whole industry. Reading the short Stratechery updates each weekday has allowed me to drop dozens of other news sources and still come away with a better understanding of what’s happening in technology and why.
Second, I read Thompson’s rationale that paid subscriptions are the future of local news media, fully explained in The Local News Business Model (free article). I won’t try to replicate the full argument here, but here’s the gist:
By owning printing presses and delivery trucks (and thanks to the low marginal cost of printing extra pages), newspapers were the primary outlet for advertising that didn’t work (or couldn’t afford) TV or radio — and there was a lot of it. Maximizing advertising, though, meant maximizing the potential audience, which meant offering all kinds of different types of content in volume: thus the mashup of wildly disparate content listed above, all focused on quantity over quality.
Traditional newspapers had to maximize their potential audience by including “something for everyone” in each issue. Thus their pages include a wild diversity of content — crossword puzzles, editorials, comics, recipes, news stories — but most of it of mediocre or standard quality. This makes no sense in a digital world where the very best content in each category is just a click away.
Online media, despite being so different from traditional printed media, is still trying to maximize its potential audience, and in order to do that, going for quantity over quality. Look at any popular media website, and you’ll see a constant stream of mediocre, click-bait updates. This is because, until recently, the only viable way to monetize online was advertising, and making any meaningful revenue from advertising required millions of readers. Only the biggest operations could afford to play this game, so we mistakenly concluded that online media only worked for large corporations.
But times have changed. Maximizing audience size and number of views no longer makes any sense in an online world of hyper-niches. Thompson’s theory about local news applies equally well to the rest of online media — now it’s just digital neighborhoods, which can be targeted ever more precisely via email, social media, and ads.
For the first time in the internet age, it now makes economic sense to focus on a specific niche, write only high-quality content that appeals to that niche, and monetize the audience yourself using subscriptions and information products, rather than relying on advertising.
A number of trends have made this model both sustainable, and even preferable:
- Online software-as-a-service that makes billing, analytics, subscription management, content hosting, email marketing, and many other capabilities easy and affordable
- The scarcity of attention, driving people to seek authoritative sources that carefully curate what they publish
- The rise of ebook self-publishing and premium-priced online courses, providing a way to monetize readers in a scalable way
- The dominance of social media for discovery, making personal word-of-mouth around specific pieces of content even more important than it already was
Thompson goes on to define what is needed to make a subscription model work:
It is very important to clearly define what a subscriptions means. First, it’s not a donation: it is asking a customer to pay money for a product. What, then, is the product? It is not, in fact, any one article (a point that is missed by the misguided focus on micro-transactions). Rather, a subscriber is paying for the regular delivery of well-defined value.
Each of those words is meaningful:
Paying: A subscription is an ongoing commitment to the production of content, not a one-off payment for one piece of content that catches the eye.
Regular Delivery: A subscriber does not need to depend on the random discovery of content; said content can be delivered to the subscriber directly, whether that be email, a bookmark, or an app.
Well-defined Value: A subscriber needs to know what they are paying for, and it needs to be worth it.
All of the points above applied to my own niche and business, and I saw an opportunity to move Praxis behind a paywall. I’d been publishing monthly for a couple years already, and knew I would have no problem keeping up that pace.
In fact, the paywall idea came as a welcome relief. I’d been feeling the pressure to make my articles shorter, simpler, and more digestible for a mainstream audience, to ride the waves of social media algorithms. This made me depressed: I didn’t want to write bite-sized listicles with clean-cut takeaways. What I really wanted to do was go in the opposite direction: write deeper, more subtle and complex, and even longer-form series exploring the frontiers of productivity. Charging members directly allowed me to test my hypothesis that there was a market for such writing, without getting distracted by the demands of endless promotion.
In many ways, there was no tradeoff for me. The more accessible posts I could continue to publish for free, bringing in new readers. The deeper, longer posts wouldn’t be attractive to new readers anyway, so I wasn’t losing anything. And dedicated readers would find these longer posts even more interesting for being exclusive. They would also be more likely to stick around and actually try out the methods I was recommending, since they were paying for them after all.
The experience of blogging changed dramatically after I flipped the switch. My articles went from thousands of views to hundreds, but the quality of my readers spiked. I found my tribe. The noise of random passersby leaving inane comments dwindled to nothing, and we started having real conversations about what it would take to manifest a new vision of work. I started learning as much from them as they were learning from me. I went from having a blog that a large group of uncommitted readers perused, to a much smaller but more intimate group of people pre-committed to trying new things.
This change also enabled other business models. It suddenly made more sense to compile my essays into ebooks (Amazon Affiliate Link), which people valued more highly because the contents weren’t freely available. Paying members were far more likely to purchase my online courses, since they were already customers. Even personalized services like coaching made more sense, because readers were more likely to want to put my methods to use. Paradoxically, putting up a paywall at the front door made the Full-Stack Freelancer lifestyle possible, by setting a higher bar for every interaction I had with my customers.
But this goes deeper than the needs of my business model. I’ve come to believe that we’re seeing the death of the freemium model that has governed online media since its inception. Freemium is the practice of publishing free content to give readers a taste of what you offer, and then up-selling them to other products and services over time.
Freemium relies on one basic assumption: that attention is cheaper than money. It essentially allows you to pay for content with a cheaper currency — your attention — than cold, hard cash. But this assumption has now been overturned. For an increasingly larger percentage of the online population, attention has become the scarcest good of all. So “free” content has become terribly expensive, if it consumes your attention without delivering tangible value.
This is the fundamental driver of the subscription wave. What people are paying for is not a bunch of text. They are paying for the perspective the writer brings to the subject, distilling a vast amount of raw information on a topic into a highly curated, manageable stream. Every minute reading Stratechery saves me many minutes of lower-quality reading. My hope is that reading Praxis likewise saves my members many hours of first-hand research and experimentation.
Why I’m leaving Medium
In the past year, Medium has pivoted to an “open paywall.” Any writer can join with the click of a button, allowing them to make money on their articles. I’ve thought many times about joining the program, but I just can’t justify it.
First, because I won’t make anywhere close to the revenue I’m making now. Why would I give up $5 per member per month in exchange for random readers that I’ll probably never see again? Not to mention that Medium’s membership program directly competes with my own, and they understandably give theirs favorable placement everywhere on the site.
Second, because Medium users are in a walled garden. I have 8,000 followers, but the only ones I can contact directly are the 400+ who pay for my publication. Every month about 100 new people follow me, but these emails make me cringe, reminding me of all the people who like what I have to say but remain just out of reach.
Third, because I don’t think their open paywall is going to work. I might be willing to give up the previous points if I thought they were on a path to explosive growth. As every platform always promises its merchants, they could “make it up in volume.”
But I think the theory that people will pay for an “all-you-can-eat” subscription for written text on a webpage just like they do with music and video is deeply flawed. Music and video is entertainment — you want more volume, more diversity, and more access in more places. We’ve discovered so many little pockets in our day we can fill with this content (along with free media like podcasts and social media).
But written text is different. It’s not a leisure activity for most people most of the time. Especially dense topics displayed on a screen — the last thing most knowledge workers want at the end of a long day sitting at a computer is to stare at yet another screen. Because digital reading is seen in terms of utility, not entertainment, people don’t want more volume, diversity, or access. They don’t want “unlimited reading.” Reading is hard work. People don’t like hard work, so they won’t pay you to assign more of it to them. They want to read as little as they can get away with!
But there is an even more fundamental reason I don’t think it will work: there is no substantial group of writers whose incentives line up with an open paywall.
I think there are two basic groups of “people who write online.” The first is non-professional, casual writers sharing their thoughts, commentary, or ideas. What they care most about is an easy writing experience, and readership. It is exhilarating as a casual blogger to see hundreds or thousands of people reading what you’ve written. I think a lot of this writing is migrating to Facebook, where it’s even easier and more discoverable. Medium will continue to capture the high end of this group, but not behind its paywall. If all you care about is people reading what you’ve written, why restrict access? They don’t have a large enough audience to make the income worthwhile anyway.
The second group is professionals. Either professional bloggers, or others for whom writing is a strategic investment in marketing, thought leadership, or idea prototyping. But these people are even less likely to join an open paywall. By definition, they have much more effective ways to monetize even very small audiences, from online courses to ebooks to consulting to donations. I was offered a hefty sum just to write an article for Medium members, but even that generous offer I had to turn down. Just one conversion to my online course would generate the same amount of money — limiting readership of even one article would be stupid, especially considering that paying members can still see my free posts. They can’t even promise exposure to a targeted group of people: “Medium members” are a monolithic, diffuse demographic.
So who exactly do they expect to be writing for this open paywall?
Even smaller groups don’t make sense: journalists want to build their home publication’s membership base, OR promote their own reputation among a larger audience; politicians and business leaders want articles that can be linked to from anywhere; startup and tech leaders have avid followings and know better than anyone the value of an email address. It seems the only ones left are part-time self-improvement gurus.
What I think we’re seeing is a deep inversion: the basic connection between scale and revenue (more scale equaling more revenue) has now been reversed. You no longer need to scale massively to build a profitable business. The option of focusing intently on a core audience is enabling the rise of “online small businesses” that never need to wade into the storm of mass media.
With this inversion, I believe that charging for access to writing provides value in and of itself. Instead of allowing a reader to meander through article upon article chasing the promise of a reward, you ask them to make a decision upfront: is this work valuable enough to pay for? If not, you’ve saved them a lot of time and attention. If so, their financial commitment is aligned with their psychic commitment from the first minute. Especially when it comes to self-improvement and productivity advice, the reward only comes with action anyway. Asking people to put skin in the game by taking out their credit card sets them up for greater success at every subsequent stage of their journey.
The vision for Praxis
There are a lot of opportunities opening up as Praxis has found its audience. Being able to rely on the attention and engagement of a loyal following allows us to run experiments:
- The Anti-Book Club: having everyone learn the same method for highlighting and summarizing books, we’ve created a repository of book summaries using a standard template. Everyone who contributes is given access to the repository, which will grow and improve over time.
- Webinars and workshops: knowing more precisely what readers care about, we’ve started facilitating monthly workshops and webinars on topics related to productivity: speed-reading, scaleable freelancing, Wardley mapping, other personal development programs, and more to come.
- Case studies: having more dedicated readers means they’re more likely to put what I’m teaching to use. I’ve published a number of case studies from members, providing examples I couldn’t come up with myself.
My ultimate vision for Praxis is to become much more than a blog. I want it to become a living and breathing experimentation platform for the future of work. I want to be able to invite writers, makers, entrepreneurs, and practitioners into an environment primed for learning and discovery, with an audience ready and waiting to try radical new approaches. It will be an idea accelerator, launching new ways of working into escape velocity much faster than they’d be able to otherwise.
The move to WordPress (along with Memberful and Discourse) as a blogging platform will propel us in this direction. Among the many capabilities we’ll gain are:
- Improving the reader experience: we’ll be able to improve all aspects of the visual layout, how images and videos are displayed, and add other widgets and embeds to provide a more interactive experience
- Creating an online forum for organic discussions: instead of a little comment box at the end that no one reads, all post comments will now be routed to a dedicated online forum on Discourse. We’ve been testing this for the past year with our online courses, and I believe it will allow for much richer, evergreen conversations around articles
- Hiring a Praxis Community Manager: having admin permissions on WordPress and increasing the monthly price from $5 to $10 (with all existing members grandfathered in at the lower price) will allow us to hire a Praxis Community Manager. They’ll be available to answer questions, point out useful resources, manage customer service, and work with me to consistently improve the blog
- Publish more guest posts: I’ve long wanted to have more contributors writing about their own niches and experiments. Being able to grant contributor privileges and have an easier review process will make this more frequent
- Templates and process improvements: the backend functionality of WordPress and Memberful will help us optimize many parts of managing the blog, from post templates that I can update automatically, to making invoices instantly accessible, to providing annual billing options. That means more time for creating new stuff!
- Bundling and membership management: I’ve long wanted to bundle Praxis membership with other courses or programs we offer. Reading Praxis articles is obviously the perfect complement to anything else we’re doing, and now we’ll be able to make it into one integrated package that’s easy to access using Memberful
To be clear, I believe Medium is still the absolute best place to start writing for the vast majority of people. If I was starting today, I’d start there. The ability to create an account, open up a new document, and start writing in a beautiful, user-friendly interface within minutes is a miracle of modern technology. Most people spend so much of their initial motivation “designing the furniture” — picking themes, customizing templates, fiddling with settings, worrying about layout — that they never actually make a habit of writing.
But it’s time for Praxis to grow up, and us along with it. I sincerely hope you’ll join the community we’re building for a new chapter of Praxis’ growth.
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