Medium is a website that exists in the space between a number of inherent contradictions.
The blogging platform is ostensibly democratic in that anyone can sign up and share her thoughts on it, and yet the people who choose to do so are primarily members of the tech and media elite — or at least they are aspiring to reach this status.
The site is extremely DIY in how people can write about whatever they choose, and yet Medium's most striking feature is its clean, spacious design, which comes standard and forbids the sort of customization offered by the LiveJournals, Blurtys, and Bloggers that came before it.
And of course, there is the central paradox that advertisers must first grapple with before they choose to spend money with Medium: the fact that it is at once a premium publisher that commissions stories from high-end journalists and a social platform with an algorithmically determined homepage, a follow feature, and heaps of free-form, user-generated content.
If you ask Riddhi Shah, a Huffington Post veteran who became Medium’s first branded content lead at the end of last year, this ambiguity gives Medium a tactical advantage over the media companies we tend to think of as publishers.
Whereas a BuzzFeed or a Time Magazine is reliant on social networks to distribute its content to the masses, Medium's proponents say the platform is a place people can both publish their stories and have them automatically distributed to an audience eager to consume them.
"Medium is hard to categorize because it isn't one or the other [a publisher or a social network]. It's both," Shah said. "We often say that in a sense, everyone is Medium's competition and nobody is Medium's competition because we're doing something that doesn't exist."
This may be true, but despite its aspirations as a social platform, Medium's present user base and business model look much more like a premium publisher's than those of a Facebook or a Pinterest.
Created in 2012 by Twitter co-founders Ev Williams and Biz Stone, Medium has become a favorite among influential members of the tech community, who flock to the platform to share their thoughts on the latest gadgets and debate policy issues relevant to the media and technology industries.
It also hosts several curated online magazines covering topics like sports, music, and technology, which publish thoughtful, quality journalism created by professional writers, designers, and photographers.
This is all to say that Medium’s audience is made up mostly of the sort of educated, upwardly mobile, and media savvy people who like to ponder the future of technology or the cultural significance of the Coachella music festival.
A full 95% of Medium's readers are college graduates, and 43% of them earn six figures or more. Even better, from an advertiser standpoint, these readers are also young, with half of them in the coveted 18-34 demographic and 70% of them being under the age of 50.
But while celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio and even Barack Obama have published their thoughts (and even the transcript of a forthcoming State of the Union address) on Medium, its audience is still far, far smaller than the big pure-play social media networks like Facebook (1.4 billion monthly active users), Twitter (288 million monthly active users), or Pinterest (50 million monthly active users).
Medium's internal statistics peg it as having 25 million monthly unique visitors worldwide. ComScore maintains that just 2 million different people visited Medium in March, but it only takes into account people from the U.S.
Either way, Medium is reliant on other social sites for roughly half of its traffic, according to Joe Purzycki, the company’s head of partnerships who was recently hired away from Vox.
Though Medium is still building the scale required to obviate the need for external distribution, it allows high-end advertisers like BMW and Marriott to engage the extremely desirable readers that come to the site with visually stimulating, in-depth narrative pieces. As a bonus, the brands get to have their pieces sit beside those written by the platform's powerful and influential user base.
Medium helps brands achieve these ends by setting up an online magazine on its site, like Marriott's travel publication "Gone." These publications are then populated with a mixture of stories created by Medium's in-house creative services team or by the brand itself. On some occasions, if a piece of user-generated content fits with the branded publication's theme, Medium will reach out to the creator and pay him to include it in the publication.
Medium creates two kinds of content on behalf of its clients: editorial stories and what it calls a "brand portrait."
For a brand portrait, like this one about Nashville nightlife published under the Marriott International byline, the brand gets significant control over what the story looks like. The Medium creative services team will brainstorm ideas with the client and ultimately submit the final product to it for approval before the piece goes live.
For the editorial stories, like this piece on smuggling subversive literature into Soviet-era Prague, Shah says brands are given only a weekly editorial calendar to keep them abreast of which pieces are going up when. The entire writing and editing process, a collaboration between freelancers and members of the creative services team, is done without the brand's direct input.
Medium prides itself on producing great stories that draw deep engagement from readers.
Regardless of whether it's a brand profile or an editorial piece, Medium prides itself on producing great stories that draw deep engagement from readers. Rather than measuring the success of its content based on how many pageviews it gets, Medium uses Total Time Read (TTR) to place greater value on whether people stick around to read a story once they've clicked on it.
According to Shah, readers spend an average of nearly two-and-a-half minutes on every Medium story. While this number might sound low to someone who is not yet privy to how short our attention spans really are, it is in fact much higher than the one to one-and-half minutes that Chartbeat estimates people spend reading the average news article.
As a result, Medium sells its branded content projects on a flat fee with a guarantee that it will meet a certain TTR benchmark. In addition, it will sometimes measure brand lift after the fact as a means of showing clients that their work with Medium has improved the way they are perceived by readers.
"There's a deep loyalty amongst our readership for Medium and it's because they expect quality," Shah said. "They know when they come to the Medium homepage that there isn't going to be any clickbait. When you click on a story that's doing well on Medium, you know that it's going to qualitatively improve your life in some way."
After the custom content pieces are published, the stories are distributed on the Medium home page and on its social media channels. The stories themselves carry a label marking them as sponsored, but there is no distinction when people see a link to in the feed of Medium's homepage or social channels.
The company does not presently pay for distribution on channels it does not own, but Purzycki says Medium will likely experiment with paid traffic in the future. If and when it does, Purzycki says that the paid traffic will have to generate meaningful engagement rather than readers who show up for a moment and bounce shortly after.
The company is also planning to roll out a means of monetizing its curated magazines, like the news publication Matter, which it will do by selling sponsorships against editorial series the way a traditional print glossy would.
In the meantime, Purzycki is hoping to work with brands to get more of them to create and use their own free pages on the platform.
This way, they'll be able to discover for themselves Medium's unique ability to help people tell their stories in an engaging, visually appealing manner.
"I think it's time that we held brand narratives to a higher standard, and Medium's storytelling tools can really facilitate that," Purzycki said. "As opposed to standing up a corporate site in the sea of the internet and a lot of other sites, standing one up on Medium where you're immediately connected to an amazing audience makes a lot of sense."