A Strategy for Building Policy and Advocacy Thought Leadership Networks on Medium

When it comes to digital thought leadership and debate on serious public policy and social issues, we’re doing it wrong.

Think tankers, foundation staff, nonprofit ED’s, research and comms teams — we’re all struggling with how to get noticed and how to get our points of view into the public debate. Pitching op-eds to the few remaining mass-distribution newspapers is a risky gamble, not a strategy. Pitching niche publications after The New York Times passes on your think piece is a niche strategy.

While I’m in favor of optimizing the presentation and distribution of ideas for an increasingly post-literate media world (my ideas on that here), at heart, policy makers, researchers, analysts and executive directors are wonks. We’re all text-based people. We love to write and discuss and debate, and medium/longform text is our preferred way to do so.

Medium can help with that. But it isn’t yet — at least not as much as it could. Because right now there are very few network effects for policy/advocacy/ social conversations on the platform. For every The White House or Gates Foundation on the platform, there are dozens of organizations that are not on the platform — or are using the platform as one more dumping ground for op-eds, rather than treating it as a unique venue to drive conversation and debate. While Medium staff are right now in the process of curating one big debate (on criminal justice), the network effect needs to arise from hundreds — thousands — of smaller scale conversations and arguments, not one big moment. That work can only be done by think tanks, foundations and advocacy organizations themselves.

This article is one piece of a (potential) roadmap describing how think tanks, nonprofits, foundations and advocacy organizations can maximize Medium’s value for thought leadership efforts and, together, build network effects that increase the value of Medium for themselves, and each other. At each step, I try to explain how and why this strategy makes sense for organizations and their staff, and, if we’re lucky, how these efforts can evolve Medium into a legitimate 21st century Public Sphere.

Optimal Structures for Orgs/Ideas/Staff

Think tanks, nonprofits and foundations all face a common problem when planning to engage on Medium: What is the appropriate delineation between the organization, the work streams of the organization, and the individuals who push that work forward? Keeping engagement, debate and the development of network effects as our goals, two principles point the way towards an optimal structure:

  • Readers don’t want to engage with a faceless organization.
  • Staff are people — with unique interests, ideas and incentives to expand their personal brands.

As a reader, I don’t expect a national organization to respond to a comment, or even an in-depth response. Most organizations don’t have enough capacity to truly engage in an interesting way on social, let alone a platform like Medium. And with the brand’s reputation at stake, usually there are far too many stakeholders weighing-in to allow for a timely or interesting response. As a result, there is very little incentive for readers to respond to or engage with writing authored by “the organization.”

Conversely, individual staffers have both the incentive and the time to be extremely responsive to comments/responses on the individual posts they author. After all, doing so extends the reach of their ideas and helps build their personal brands. This is doubly true when it is their colleagues or adversaries in a given policy debate responding to their work.

Traditionally, organizations functions as brands, with all staffers working towards the common mission of the brand. In the interests of generating more robust debate and conversation, I propose that organizations flip that dynamic. On Medium, the organization is the aggregated thought leadership of its individual staff, and it is the role of the organization to promote the individual brands of its staff to further its own collective mission.

Here’s how that structure translates on Medium.

In this model, organizations don’t exist as writers on Medium. While an organizational level account should exist to set up and own the Publication, the organization’s point of view and brand is not expressed through that account, but rather through the content of the publication. The publication itself is managed day-to-day by trusted senior staff (probably a mix of Comms, Policy and Issue Experts, depending on the unique needs and structure of the organization). Writers exist on the platform as themselves — individual accounts set up by each staff member representing their own views and opinions.

Writers produce stories at their own pace and on topics of interest to their work — or anything else they want (maybe your immigration policy expert is also a huge basketball fan and wants to write analysis of the NBA on the side). As staff write content that has relevance or value for the organization, they submit that work for review by editors who decide whether to syndicate that content through the brand publication, and how much organizational support to throw behind the design and promotion of that particular piece (more on that later).

This model has benefits for both the organization and the writers that aren’t realized by traditional blog/op-ed thought leadership strategies.

Benefits for Writers/Staff

  • More control over what they write and a license to write more frequently than might be supported by an organizational comms team (in the form of op-ed pitching/placement or a blog editorial calendar).
  • Greater distribution through the Medium platform in addition to distribution provided the organization’s owned channels.
  • Greater empowerment and incentive to create content and participate in thought leadership activities because they know that their content will reach an audience and build their reputation, even if the organization does not publish it.

Benefits for the Organization

  • Greater wealth of content and potentially higher cadence of publishing with a lower investment overall than a traditional blog (bonus, a Medium publication can double as your org’s blog if you set up the domains correctly).
  • Added distribution through Medium’s platform and newsletter functionality provided to all Medium publications.
  • Decentralization of responsibility for commenting/responding down to staff, allowing for greater responsiveness with fewer investments of staff capacity.
  • Minimized risk associated with implied endorsement of those responses created independently by staff.
  • Ability to pull in content from peers and partner organizations who also have a presence on Medium with just a few clicks.

Under this structure, organizations incentivize staff to conduct their own thought leadership and build their own personal brands in their fields, while reaping the benefits of those efforts through aggregation via an organization-sponsored publication.

None of this is especially original, in fact it is quite intuitive. Nevertheless, many organizations on the platform do not follow this structure. Medium is a new space, and what seems like obvious norms aren’t obvious just yet.

Looking at the think tank space, none of the major think tanks on either side of the aisle — American Progress (CAP), Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute, The Brookings Institution — operates in this fashion. Uptake in the nonprofit space is scattered at best, while in the foundation space, the Gates Foundation and New America Foundation are two of the few that seem to have adopted this model. If this is the optimal model for organizational engagement on the platform, a (very) informal assessment suggests that adoption is still quite low.

Your organizational publication is in place. Staff are primed for participation and have created their accounts on Medium. Editorial processes have been socialized. The next step is getting your ideas out there. Generally, this comes in three forms: one-on-one engagement with influencers/stakeholders, targeted engagement with stakeholders at scale, and organic distribution through Medium and owned channels. Let’s take them one by one.

One-on-One Stakeholder Engagement

Leveraging Medium as a platform for debate and the exchange of ideas implies conversation. Writers can post their content and hope that someone engages, or they can engineer their presence on the platform to build that conversation directly into their strategy. There are two ways to do this.

Plan for Responses When You Write.

Or as I like to say, never write alone. As writers craft specific articles, find hooks to engage other influencers in the conversation and approach those people about engaging before you write. That way, when you are ready to post, both you and your partners can post in sequence as a structured conversation (much like the New York Times Room for Debate series).

Debate partners could include peers that focus on very specific aspects of an issue, direct engagement with influencers on the opposite side of the issue, or even conversation between internal staff. Regardless, by directly engaging each other’s posts, you are demonstrating to other influencers and readers the kind of engagement you want to see, and exposing a wider audience to your ideas through each other’s personal networks.

Be Opportunistic and Respond to Others.

Writers don’t always need a brilliant new idea to write something, and sometimes planning a whole conversation can be burdensome. As an alternative, writers should carefully curate the people, tags and publications they follow on Medium, and take the opportunity to respond to what they are reading. One of the great features of Medium is the elevation of responses above that of a typical blog comment. A response can have all the nuance, design detail and prominence to your followers as an original post, without the need for extensive research or planning before you start writing. If you’re not starting a conversation around your own ideas, take the time to engage with someone else’s ideas, it can be just as valuable.

Influencer Engagement at Scale

One day, Medium may be a platform with self-sustaining, tightly knit networks of stakeholders and influencers interacting around policy issues. It isn’t yet. While Medium (the company) is putting a lot of work into bringing stakeholders onto the platform, right now organizations need a way to manufacture that network. Highly-targeted, paid distribution of content directly to influencers offers a way to do that.

Before putting a single piece of content together, plan for the promotion and distribution of that content by creating custom audiences on Facebook and Twitter (and potentially LinkedIn). These custom audiences can be created in two ways.

Custom Email Audiences

Use your existing email list/CRM to download emails for anyone in your network that could potentially be considered a target for your thought leadership efforts (executive directors, policy, comms and research staff of peer organizations, journalists, bloggers, etc.). These can be uploaded and matched directly to profiles in Facebook or Twitter. Minimum thresholds must be met to make this work, but usually 1,000–1,500 names will make a high enough match to generate a targetable audience.

Tailored Twitter Audiences

Additionally, generate a list of Twitter handles using the same criteria used to narrow your CRM download. A social listening/influencer monitoring service can generate a list of influential twitter handles who are not already on your email list for a few hundred to a thousand dollars (or a you can monopolize a few days of intern time if that one-time cost is prohibitive). Again, upload that list into Twitter as a tailored audience. As long as the list of handles is in the 1,000–1,500 range, you should be able to make enough matches to generate a targetable audience.

Once your audiences are loaded into Facebook and Twitter’s advertising tools, a few hundred dollars promoting your content to those audiences can generate outsized results in terms of traffic to your article and direct engagement with the specific influencers you are targeting.

Organic Distribution on Owned Channels

Lastly, it’s important to maximize distribution through your owned channels. Here’s a quick checklist to make sure you are getting the word out about your piece and driving traffic. The more traffic you can drive, and the more positive signals your readers send through recommends, the bigger boost you’ll get through Medium’s own algorithmic distribution mechanisms (potentially 30% of all traffic to your article, if Medium starts to actively distribute your content).

Owned Channel Distribution Checklist

  • Internal Email: Use your organizational CRM and email system to send high-profile articles to a select subset of your supporter list. If you have a regular newsletter, make it a habit to include a selection of articles in the newsletter.
  • Medium Newsletter: As the owner of a Medium Publication, you’ll have access to internal newsletter functionality to distribute content to your publication’s followers. Develop an editorial calendar and cadence for that email and use it to promote new content (and be sure you promote that newsletter to your most engaged and influential supporters when you first create your publication).
  • List Servs: In my experience, most think tank/foundation/non profit staff are members of private list servs related to their professional work. As appropriate, content authors should use these as venues to highlight their latest work and request comment/engagement from the community.
  • Organizational Social Channels: Distribute links to content on your organization’s Facebook and Twitter channels.
  • Staff Social Channels: Request that relevant staff (influencers in the space) share on social channels that they use for professional reasons (Twitter, LinkedIn, maybe less so Facebook).

A well-coordinated strategy combining one-on-one engagement, targeted paid promotion and organic distribution can drive a quick boost in activity around a post, sparking a conversation in the community as multiple influencers/stakeholders start sharing and weighing-in on a subject concurrently.

The model I’ve outlined suggests a slightly different approach to thought leadership than organizations might normally take. It inverts the role of the brand and staff, centering on the individual efforts and ideas of writers rather than the larger organizational mission and brand. It recognizes the need to think about distribution strategies and invest in content distribution upfront (organizations should not make the same mistake they did on Facebook and Twitter, viewing it as a “free” platform and foregoing the advantages of paid promotion/distribution).

Viewed in isolation, these tactics may seem like risky investments with uncertain reward. But while one organization adopting this model alone is a risk, dozens — hundreds — of organizations adopting this model together is what it will take to generate network effects and realize the vision of Medium as a 21st Century Public Sphere that can benefit the work of us all.

Thanks for reading (10 minutes, you are a champ!). I’m trying to write semi-regularly about how Medium can build a more robust space for public dialogue. Click “Follow” below on my profile and publication, Design the Debate, to get updates when new articles are published.