It’s All About The Subscribers, Medium

January 4, 2017

Ev Williams’ announcement, “Renewing Medium’s Focus”, has taken media-Twitter by storm. Most everyone agrees with the truth of Williams’ pronouncement, “it’s clear that the broken system is ad-driven media on the internet. It simply doesn’t serve people.” Anyone that works in media understands that ad-driven businesses have been forced into all kinds of impossible postures to seek more ad dollars, none of which are also connected to providing a higher quality product.

But the second conversation, What is Ev Williams proposing to do in response? is the real kicker. Williams doesn’t really reveal his plans, but to my eyes, it would seem the only path left to Medium would be to create a product that supports subscriptions.

This would be to be very difficult for Medium, or any other service that proposes to be an intermediary layer for a subscription-based business model. How come?

Subscription-based businesses require close connections to the people receiving the product. Customers expects service from and access to the people making the product. Whether it be to complain about a delivery problem, to suggest a change, or to just talk to some of the people making the product. While everything may go swimmingly for a long while – your newspaper plops on your doorstep reliably every day – as soon as you get a wet paper or you want to cancel delivery for a vacation, you expect direct access to the people who will fix the problem. If you don’t get satisfactory service, you’ll likely quit forever.

Newspaper circulation departments know this: keeping subscribers can be a very shaky business. As soon as they’re unhappy, if that unhappiness isn’t quenched immediately by an authoritative voice, resentment forms, and the subscription gets cancelled, never to return.

Even with a small subscription base of hundreds for The Daily Line, I spend a couple hours every week responding directly to subscribers – and non-subscribers – troubleshooting their delivery and payment issues. It’s a job I expect to never go away. No matter how big The Daily Line ever gets, it’s a job someone will always have to do.

On the positive side, when companies build good, close relationships with subscribers, the subscribers become open to purchasing other things from them, often more expensive with more value-add. The New York Times is doing this with Times Select, Politico does it with Politico Pro, and The Daily Line does it with Daily Line Research. From a business perspective this is an invaluable customer relationship, and from a subscriber perspective, it serves as a natural trust filter.

If Ev Williams intends to make Medium into an intermediary for subscription-based content, I’m looking forward to seeing what new services they can offer to improve things.