Four years into a subscription strategy, Medium still doesn’t spend money to acquire subscribers

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For most of the past three years, Medium spared no expense producing content for its platform and its publications. But it seems to have been philosophically opposed to spending money to market that content or the brands that produced it.  

Over the past three years, Medium has spent next to nothing on advertising and has not spent any money at all on customer acquisition, preferring instead to let its platform and the organic reach of its content drive subscriber growth, current and former staffers said. 

In fact, the amount of money Medium has spent on advertising and promotion has been declining since Medium began ramping up its publication-focused strategy. The platform spent just over $1 million on advertising in 2018, slightly less than $1 million in 2019, and less than $500,000 in 2020, according to Kantar data. 

Thanks in part to its large audience — a spokesperson said Medium attracts around 170 million unique users per month (SimilarWeb [200 million monthly visits] and Comscore [19 million monthly unique users] estimates diverged wildly) — Medium, a startup which has raised $132 million in venture capital to date, managed to build a strong foundation organically, piling up 725,000 subscribers paying either $5 a month of $50 a year, according to a current staffer. (Axios originally reported Medium’s subscriber totals).

That number would be the envy of many subscription-focused publishers, but it also fell short of the 1 million subscriber target the company set in 2019. Medium’s subscriber growth began to slow down in the second half of 2020. Medium also slashed commissioning budgets last year, and on March 24, Medium founder Ev Williams announced that the platform had scaled back its investment in its publications, which range from the tech-focused OneZero to Zora, a publication created for Black women, and offered buyouts to the publications’ staffers. The company’s head of editorial, Siobhan O’Connor, will leave later this year, Williams wrote. Content will be supervised dually by Scott Lamb and Jermaine Hall, and the two will report in to Karene Tropen, who will assume the newly created role of svp of marketing and content.

“We had no illusion these publications were going to pay for themselves in the short term,” Williams wrote. “The bet was that we could develop these brands, and they would develop loyal audiences that would grow the overall Medium subscriber base. What’s happened, though, is the Medium subscriber base has continued to grow, while our publication’s audiences haven’t.”

Since that announcement, many Medium staffers have announced on Twitter that they are taking buy-outs.

“It didn’t surprise me that there was a pivot,” one current staffer said, before adding, “It was maybe two steps further than we would have thought.” 

Current and former employees said that while Medium did promote the platform and its publications using organic distribution, there was a feeling internally that the platform would drive its own success on the subscriber acquisition front.

But even the largest platforms spend money on advertising. LinkedIn, which monetizes through advertising as well as consumer revenue, spent $46 million on advertising in 2020; Twitter, which Williams himself co-founded, spent almost $49 million on advertising, according to Kantar. 

Even The New York Times, whose 7.5 million subscribers are the envy of the journalism industry, spent over $46 million on advertising in 2020, per Kantar. 

“I think it comes from an overblown sense of the superiority of the viral message in news and in digital,” said Alice Sylvester, a partner at Sequent Partners, who noted that it is highly unusual for a digital consumer product not to spend any money on consumer marketing. “At the core, it’s still a product that needs to find an audience, it needs to retain its audience and it needs to refill its user base.”

That is especially true for new products, said Michael Felice, a principal in the consumer and media practice at the management consulting firm Kearney, which have to overcome a lack of familiarity when they are trying to build the trust and value needed to convert a reader into a subscriber.

“You have to be able to prove your differentiation,” Felice said. “When you’re starting with unknown writers and unknown brands it’s hard to prove that out.”

While the decision not to pay to market its homegrown publications irked staff — “Editorial was begging for marketing,” one former employee said — both current and former employees acknowledge that Medium was trying to toe a careful line. The content created by Medium’s publications, even though its costs ran into the millions of dollars, represented a “drop in the bucket” of the total output created by the platform’s users, a current employee said. 

And even though that content also represented a disproportionate share of what Medium’s members read, the current employee said, the platform wanted to avoid creating the impression that the publications and their output were being privileged over the content created by regular platform users. 

“They didn’t want to create hierarchies of content,” another employee said. 

The company went to great lengths to keep the playing field level. Current and former employees told Digiday that the publications’ teams were not given any insights into what made content successful on the platform. A Medium spokesperson, when reached for comment, responded that editorial staffers had data on how their content was performing and that Medium was always analyzing what worked and what didn’t.

What happens next to Medium’s subscriber base is uncertain. Following an executive reorganization, the company plans to focus more on identifying and promoting individual writers using its platform, a move toward what Williams describes as “relational media,” which prioritizes relationships between readers and individual authors.

As for whether the company decides to start spending money to acquire more customers, “it comes down to whether or not they see marketing as an expense or an investment,” Sylvester said.

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