Talking tech since 2003

By now you have likely seen the announcement that Medium will be using it’s new “Claps” feature as way to determine how much money it should pay authors for their content. As a long time content creator myself as well as someone who has built products to help digital media companies and creators, I have a lot of thoughts on this latest approach by Medium to help improve content quality on the web while making sure creators are being compensated. Before I get into it though, first let me say that I applaud Medium and anyone who attempts to solve this problem–it’s an extremely difficult one and at risk of sounding like Trump, believe me, I know.

Some additional context: it’s important to note that only claps by Medium paying subscribers count towards earnings for creators, so non-paying Medium users who clap have no impact on earnings for creators. That being said, non-paying users who clap still can impact whether or not Medium surfaces up content for more people. Additionally, creators will only be able to earn money on “locked/metered” content–essentially, content that is behind the Medium paywall. Lastly, Medium is not doing an even division of earnings between articles, instead it will weight payments toward whichever articles a subscriber gives the most claps to.

Ok, so last night I went on a bit of tweet storm on this topic (tweets embedded below). As I mention in the first tweet, we tried a similar approach at KYA with Shout. Originally, we developed a [Shout] button that content creators could embed on their site within the content itself. Quickly we learned that people didn’t want to add yet another button to their site (this part isn’t a problem for Medium because the content is housed inside Medium itself), but perhaps, even more importantly, we learned that publishers weren’t keen on the idea of having to teach their audience “new tricks,” and things to do on their sites even if it meant better data for them in the end. Ultimately this realization is what led us to build the Shout app for iOS and Google Chrome — it was an attempt to normalize the Shout button/functionality across the web without content creators having to do anything.

The problems with Medium claps

The first real problem with Medium’s approach is that it appears based on everything I’ve read is that there’s too much weight being given to claps in this calculation. The fact is, by relying so heavily on claps to determine engagement Medium is adding a significant amount of friction to the product–getting someone to actively do something on a website is hard, especially if there’s no value added back to the end-user (Medium subscriber). So you expect me to click the clap button because I know it means that the creator will get more money? I mean, that may work sometimes, but at the end of the day I think claps will start being looked at as more of a burden than anything else. This is why when we built the Shout app we made sure to provide value back to end-user in addition to the site where the content was Shouted.

The second real problem with Medium’s latest approach is that they simply don’t have the scale yet to make it work or make it worthwhile. In order for creators to make real money, Medium would need millions of subscribers paying $5/month and while I don’t have any inside information on this, I doubt they anywhere near one million subscribers currently. Creators might be lucky enough to in the current state of things to earn some extra beer money. And for what it’s worth, I still haven’t subscribed to Medium, I just don’t think I’d currently be getting enough value for my money.

Another issue, granted it’s more of a separate discussion for another time, is that with this push to increase subscribers and drive higher clap counts, non-subscribers will be locked out more frequently from quality content and those who are in favor of an open internet will argue makes Medium look very much like a walled garden.

Some possible solutions for Medium

You can measure real audience engagement in a more frictionless way. That’s what I spent the past three years building at KYA. We developed new metrics that identified the number of people who read a piece of content in its entirety using a combination of data points. Using the same techniques we were also able to score how engaged audiences were with a piece of content. Medium should leverage more of its data to make smart and transparent decisions around author earnings. Look at time spent (you could also look at word count or reading time in relation to time spent), look at scroll depth (especially when paired with time spent), look at click through rate–did the reader go to another page on Medium (also consider tracking how long they spent on the page before clicking to another)?

I’m not saying get rid of claps, it’s a fine feature, but you cannot use them as the most heavily weighted data point when determining author earnings. They certainly can (and should) be included in the calculation but I think relying on them as the main factor is a mistake and one that will result in more frustration amongst people who publish on Medium. There are absolutely better ways to do what Medium is attempting to do here. Let me know what you think–tweet me or leave a comment.

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