What to Consider When the Platforms Show Up with Money

Over at Nieman Lab, Laura Hazard Owen has written an interesting breakdown of how Medium wooed five different publishers over to its platform, and how it’s going so far. Unfortunately (not Laura’s fault; blame the NDAs!), it’s missing a critical piece of the wooing, which is a financial breakdown of what each of them might have been promised.

It’s a time-tested strategy for social networks to pay influential early adopters to use their service, in the hopes of convincing regular folks to create content on it for free. And this is a volatile time for the media business. If you’re a publisher, and Medium is offering you guaranteed revenue in exchange for sponsored content, or Facebook is paying you to create live videos, or maybe Snapchat is paying you to create some video, why say no to those opportunities? In the case of Facebook’s live videos, for example, it’s great to see more reporting on the actual price tag, and how these content deals actually work. That can empower other publishers as they go into these meetings. It’s not merely about “exposure.”

I’m biased, because I work for Automattic, and Medium now seems to be pitching itself as a replacement for WordPress or WordPress.com. But I think it’s a stretch to suggest a proprietary social network can or should replace one’s website. First, aesthetically, there’s this branding problem:


Second, and more importantly, there’s the question of what happens to the audience you’re building there. Is it your audience, or Medium’s? Can you communicate with them on your own terms, and can you take them with you if you decide to leave?

My own case study, for what it’s worth: I started Longreads on a proprietary social network: Twitter! It resided there exclusively for the first year of its life. The fact is that Longreads could not have taken off without Twitter’s already existing community. But as we grew, I found that we definitely needed our own website — and to put our entire existence under one social network’s control seemed crazy. We wanted to design a more unique experience catering to our readers and add more context to our story recommendations.

We also started an email newsletter, which is the second best thing any small publisher can ever do. With WordPress and something awesome like MailChimp, publishers retain total control, not to mention how and when they communicate with their readers.

Here are just few other considerations for any proprietary platform:

  • Can your content be easily exported from the platform if you decide to stop using it, or if they decide to pivot?
  • Can you collect email subscribers, and can they be easily exported from the platform should you decide to move?
  • Can you syndicate your content, in full, via feeds like RSS?
  • Can you dictate the terms of when your followers see your content, or are you subject to the whims of algorithmic surfacing?
  • When a visitor comes to your site, is your name or brand the hero? Or is it the platform’s brand?
  • Do you have control over the comments section and who gets a voice in your world?

Maybe some of these matter to you, and some don’t matter at all! It really depends on your own goals and why you’re publishing in the first place. But they’re all worth considering, especially if you want to build your own business, versus building someone else’s.