Mediumis a publication platform used by everyone from individual bloggers to large companies. The idea is not novel, companies like Blogger have existed before it. In the past, these publication platforms made their revenue by offering extra features to writers or through ads. Medium publicly announced that they were cutting ads since they were not making enough money off of them. Medium has completely turned the business model on its head, and the readers pay for subscriptions instead. News media companies are seeing the same diminishing returns from ads and many are also moving to subscription models. We will dive into how Medium successfully got users to pay to read content and how these learnings translate to traditional digital publications.

The largest issue facing news media right now is that content is everywhere. And it’s free. There are hundreds of news sites writing on the same stories so when a reader hits a paywall they can just move to the next source. Unless of course, they prefer the experience and content on one site, to the experience and content on another.

The Medium Experience

Medium’s paywall is set at 3 articles a month. Meaning that once a user becomes a weekly reader, they must pay 5$ a month to see all premium content. If a reader decides not to pay, there are still many articles that are available to read on the site. This freemium concept is not new (Spotify credits a lot of its success to this idea). It keeps new readers, that are still questioning whether they should pay or not, as potential subscribers. It allows users to continue to dive into the unique content that is offered by Medium. To explore and understand more about what Medium has and wants to offer before they decide that they want the site free of restrictions.

Yes, Medium is a bit different from your traditional news source. Instead of reporting on things that are happening everyday, people from all over the world write insightful articles on topics ranging from artificial intelligence to self motivation. The content is real. It’s relatable. But there are still dozens of sources that offer similar articles.

“It is the experience Medium offers that is getting the site its paid subscribers, not just the content.”

In the digital age, many people get their news through headlines on sources like Facebook and Apple News. The goal after a reader clicks into an article is to get them to move deeper into the content so they return directly to the site instead of through the 3rd party aggregators that pushed them there. Insightful and relatable content is clearly very important in minimizing bounce rate but the layout of the page takes precedence as well.

Many sites that try recommendations to keep the reader on the site often end up pushing them away. They crowd the page with ads and multiple recommended sections in both sidebars and the footer, under headers like “Trending” and “More from this Writer.” It takes the reader’s attention away from the article they came for in the first place. Medium leaves the page very open. With no ads and open sidebars, Medium allows the reader to focus only on the article that brought them there. This allows the reader to move through and experience the article fully. Once the reader is impressed by the article, a perfectly placed “Related Article” section in the footer keeps the reader clicking around for more.

What is in this recommended section is vital. The reader does not want generic suggestions for the most read articles on the topic at hand. In a similar way, they do not want to be siloed into one form of content. The recommendations need to be focused and directed towards interactive and insightful articles without aggressively shoving content at the reader. Medium finds this balance.

The goal of this piece is to increase the amount of articles read per session. It should focus on user value, so that the reader starts to have positive attributions to your content. Whether they signed up to the site, subscribed to a newsletter, or just left, the idea worked if they ever end up returning directly. The user is in the pipeline.

Getting the Reader to Pay

A follow-up visit means the reader likes the content. Now value needs to be proven in the experience. Medium does this extremely well through their homepage and their newsletters.

Medium’s homepage and newsletters are filled with sections like Featured , New from Your Network, Based on Your Reading History, and Popular on Medium. Immediately the reader can feel the balance of Medium’s voice and personal recommendations (even if they do not consciously acknowledge it). The recommended sections are not overwhelming, in fact they follow the voice of the editors. The readers see all of the content Medium is trying to highlight while also getting a dose of their own interests. This gives the site life. It is not just a recommender system flooding each reader with niche content. The reader can feel the human-ness in the product.

So when a reader comes across the paywall they think about the unique experience Medium is providing them. The excellent content backed by the truly human recommendations creates value in the mind of the consumer that is well worth $5 a month.

Finding a Human Balance

This is not an easy balance to find and it is different for each source. Some news sites may want to promote a more serendipitous experience where the recommendations are focused more on discovering content the reader may not have found before. More traditional news sources may want to be direct in their recommendations to get their readers as much relevant information as possible in one visit. Other sites may possess evergreen content that they want to highlight months, even years after it is written to maximize value. And some may require a combination of all of these forms of recommendation.

The key is finding the balance of recommendation and human interaction that fits the voice of the site. Once that is found, the site and its paywall will succeed.

With today’s AI, all of this is possible. Editors can interact with the recommendations to make sure that the site’s voice is still being portrayed to the readers. AI engine’s can be tailored to each news source to create the ideal recommendations for each reader. The system can work alongside the editors to truly personalize each readers experience. This balance will create the value that reader’s need to see in order to pay for the news they can otherwise get for free.

Advanced ML technologies have made it more feasible than ever to integrate effective personalization into media experiences. When a user comes to your site from social media, they should see similar articles that intrigue them. Among the hundreds of articles published each day, loyal readers should receive an email digest including articles they can’t miss. Each site visit should point them to content they’d love based on past site activity.