Hacking the Medium Partner Program
Lessons from my first $1,000
Medium sent me something really exciting in the mail last week — a tax form, with my name on it, proving they’d paid me $1,019 in 2017.
By Medium’s own admission, I’m in the minority. Last month, 57 percent of writers who posted a members-only article made no money, which means the median writer income was $0.00. (The average for the month was $76.50.)
I find that statistic pretty grim, and it could easily be the basis for a “the program is failing” diatribe. Instead, this 6-minute read will help you break into the profitable 43 percent — and, perhaps, much higher — with the best tools and tactics I’ve discovered across 7 months and 33 member stories.
1. Write frequently, and use the same tags
Ever notice those “Top Writer” badges on your favorite author profiles? They’re a big deal, but not because they’re especially difficult to earn. The algorithm looks for people who write multiple articles with the same tags within a short period of time. Keep it up, and if your posts get a bit of engagement, soon enough you’ll be a Top Writer too. (All posts count toward your Top Writer status, whether they are self-published, in a publication or members-only.)
The effect of Top Writer status is two-fold. First, it’s simply prestigious. Second, you will be featured when people sign up for Medium and express interest in your tags, which boosts your follower numbers and further increases your prestige, putting you in a better position when you start working the algorithm with paid articles.
(Side note: Followers are hugely overrated and largely superficial, especially those who follow you at signup, since many will not even read Medium consistently in the long term. I have 6,300 followers and still get 30 views on some stories. However, they are an important factor in your prestige and have some positive effect on your readership, even if it’s small.)
Struggling to write multiple posts a week? Split your 1,200 word articles into three 400-word ones. Post little idea nuggets when they hit you. It doesn’t have to be epic, it just needs to be enjoyable for your audience and consistent in terms of quantity and frequency. (You can post epics when you write them, too.)
2. Don’t fear the re-post
While it’s great to pump out original content every day, you can also provide value to Medium members (and grow your own audience and income) by re-posting all your existing work as member stories. In fact, if you take only one action from this article, go into your archives and copy every article you have ever written anywhere and schedule one per day to be published for members.
If your stomach doesn’t turn at the idea of re-posting, here’s another idea. After a few months, you can delete all your member articles and post them all over again. (You can’t have two duplicate member articles live at the same time, though.) The way the algorithm works, the best-case-scenario shelf life for most posts is a month; after that, you’re not making any more money and your payout has been transferred to your bank account, so deleting it and starting again gives your post new life. And if you think about your mission and Medium’s mission, this makes sense — it’s such a huge Internet out there, and articles so quickly go stale, that it benefits everyone for a great article to be published multiple times and exposed to a new audience. The chance of the same person seeing it twice (and remembering it, and caring one way or the other) is infinitesimal.
Update: Medium contacted me to clarify that they do not allow re-posting articles, so you should disregard the above advice.
3. Embrace the randomness of the algorithm
You may notice that re-posting your existing stories accomplishes your first goal — writing a lot with similar tags. It also opens you up to the serendipity of the algorithm. The unfortunate reality is that you are going to hear crickets on some articles — but if you keep it up, some will take off. The thing is, you don’t know which one that will be, and it’s not necessarily correlated to your “best” writing. It could be a catchy image or headline, or just a lucky moment in the black box of the algorithm. The more you post, the more opportunities you have for a win.
Here’s another cool example of serendipity. I write mostly about the intersection of technology and journalism, but I also write book reviews. I wrote one about a parenting book I enjoyed a few months back. I self-published it and it got almost no traffic; later, I ran it in The Mission and it was very popular. Then I re-ran it months later as a members article. It didn’t get a ton of traffic, but one of the members who read it was an editor for Scary Mommy, who in turn asked if they could republish it. (They did, much to the delight and surprise of my wife and fellow young-parent friends who are fans of the site.)
The other amazing thing about keeping up the pace is that one successful article tends to send traffic to other recent articles you’ve posted. If you’ve ever had a post take off, you probably noticed that your previous post picked up a lot of traffic in the subsequent days (presumably from the “more by this author” calls to action at the end, or because you were getting new followers who later saw you in their feed). I’ve seen this happen over and over, and it’s only possible if you are publishing enough to get a hit and have other related content for people to explore.
4. Aggressively tweet and share
This was the biggest surprise to me, since I almost never share stuff that’s behind a paywall. I’ve had multiple articles get tweeted by people with large followings and get 1,000+ hits from those social mentions. (Medium has relaxed their paywall a bit to facilitate sharing since the Partner Program launched — but I think metered paywalls are a huge step backward.) Like everything here, it can be hit or miss, but social traffic does appear to be valuable in terms of your payout, which is calculated based on a mix of views, claps and engagement.
5. Build a way to make money on the back-end
If we’re being honest, there’s pretty much no chance you or I will be the outlier who makes $11,000 a month from the Partner Program. I don’t think you need to hit that threshold to be successful, but you probably shouldn’t count on Medium to pay rent, either. That’s why building a business behind your articles is so valuable.
When you hit the end of this article, you’ll see a brief call-out to my newsletter, where you can subscribe, get an awesome free weekly service, and eventually be presented with opportunities to buy related books and subscriptions. That means that every Partner Program reader could be a potential future customer, so even if I made no money off the deal, it would still be worthwhile.
If you don’t have one yet, set up a free newsletter and a quick giveaway (“the 5-step guide to ____”) and pitch it in your bio at the end of each article. You’ll be capturing value with each read, regardless of what Medium pays.
Get out there and start earning. While the Partner Program has its flaws and inconsistencies, it’s one of the few places where you can easily publish beautiful, calm, focused work and (with a bit of luck) get it in front of a significant audience and get paid. It’s not perfect, but it’s a very cool step toward a healthy relationship between writers, readers and the platform.
Rob Howard is the founder and CEO of Howard Development & Consulting, the web development firm that creative agencies trust when every pixel matters. His startups have been featured in Entertainment Weekly and Newsweek, and his clients have included The World Bank, Harvard and MIT.