I just made $76 writing for Medium members. Here’s what I learned…

The Partner Program has potential — but suffers many of the same pitfalls for authors as the free platform.

Rob Howard
Sep 11, 2017 · 5 min read

Yes, claps are weird. They’re also an integral part of Medium’s new Partner Program, which pays authors to publish members-only content. Last week, I started kicking the tires. Here’s what I learned.

Medium seems to promote members-only articles more than typical self-published posts

This was a big point of curiosity for me, because I see more value in the opportunity to reach more people (who in turn sign up for my newsletter, helping me grow my business) than in getting paid directly by Medium.

Across five articles, I’ve had one that received 700+ views and another that received 300+. (Read on for more detailed stats.) That’s far more than a typical self-published post (which gets 10–50) and more than some posts in large publications like The Mission. (The minimum for a post in a big publication is around 200, though several of my articles have received 3K-20K after being picked up by social sites and/or the Medium algorithm.)

In short, if you’re optimizing for exposure, a Medium Partner Program post will probably get more views than the same post in public, self-published form. We can assume this is because Medium has an incentive to promote member content, and because there’s less of it overall.

However, you’re still in the dark about the algorithm

One of the biggest challenges and frustrations about writing for Medium is that there is very little logic to explain why some posts are heavily promoted on readers’ feeds and others are not.

Obviously it’s some combination of the number of clicks, comments, outside referrals, reads and claps… but because there’s no way to understand or optimize for the inner workings of the algorithm, you’re shooting in the dark. The result is often that your best writing gets 10 views and some random idea you wrote in 20 minutes gets 10,000.

The same goes for Partner Program articles. Sometimes they catch on, sometimes they don’t, and there’s no quantifiable rhyme or reason why.

You get paid by the clap… but cost-per-clap ranges from $0.01 to $2.19

Medium pays authors based on a weighted cost-per-clap system. For example, let’s say a typical reader’s weekly value is $1. Every time that reader claps, his or her value will be distributed to the author of the article based on the percentage of total claps for the week. If he or she claps 5 times, each clap is worth 20 cents. If he or she claps 100 times, each clap is worth 1 cent.

While I appreciate the logic behind this, it also produces bizarre results. Compare these four articles:

  • 719 views, 303 claps, 39 unique clappers, $4.16 earned, $0.01 per clap
  • 334 views, 130 claps, 14 unique clappers, $60.64 earned, $0.46 per clap
  • 23 views, 5 claps, 1 unique clapper, $3.01 earned, $0.60 per clap
  • 20 views, 4 claps, 2 unique clappers, $8.75 earned, $2.19 per clap

On one hand, this is great! I am making money from writing. On the other hand, what the hell is going on here?!

Maybe the stats will paint a more sensible picture with more time (they seem to refresh weekly, so it’s possible there are outliers in my early numbers). But if the cost-per-clap ranges from 1 cent to $2.19, and if I can earn more from an article with 4 claps than an article with 303 claps, it’s hard for me to consider the program a serious source of income or a sensible way to compensate authors.

Update: In the subsequent weekly report, that first article above ended up making $96.20 from 305 claps (32 cents per clap). It seems like payment stats are a day or so behind live stats, which explains the discrepancy. That said, we’re still seeing a range of 32 cents to $2.19 per clap.

Update #2: Medium confirmed that payment data is published on Wednesdays but only tracks activity up to the preceding Sunday, so everything’s three days behind, making it difficult to run analytics on articles that are getting active traffic. Additionally, they say that payments are “based on share of reading time, engagement and applause from each individual member,” which expands the pay-per-clap a bit and makes it more difficult to boil payments down to an exact formula, since we can’t see all that source data.

The failure of the clap system is that it incentivizes articles that attract ‘low-frequency clappers’

My theory is that these high-value members don’t read a lot and/or don’t clap a lot when they do read. In one case, a single user clapped 5 times and I received $3.01, which is 60 percent of that user’s total monthly payment to Medium. On the most popular of my articles, each of the 39 unique clappers was worth 11 cents.

Should I write things that are popular and get low payments per reader? Should I write off-the-beaten-path stuff and try to attract a paying member who might only read one or two articles this week, and hope I get paid more? If I were running the Medium Partner Program, I’m not sure these are the questions I’d want my authors asking.

The Partner Program has lots of potential, too

Medium members are more engaged readers, which has resulted in higher ratios of people actually finishing the articles I’ve published so far. There’s something to be said for deliberately rejecting the quest for high-quantity, low-quality social media fly-by traffic with the member-centric platform. Switching the script on the monetization of web publishing is a big win, even if there are some early hiccups and counterintuitive analytics along the way.

That said, it also reveals the difficulty of designing a system that can compensate authors, provide a service to readers, and do it without creating perverse incentives or ridiculous performance disparities between comparable articles. I’ll be posting, tracking, analyzing and reporting in more detail as time goes on. For now, I’m taking myself out to a $76 lunch.

If you enjoyed this article, check out my other work on technology and writing…

Rob Howard is the author of Hiatus, a free, weekly current events briefing with no links, no likes and no distractions. In five minutes a week, you get the knowledge you need to be an informed, responsible citizen.

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A network of business & tech podcasts designed to accelerate learning. Selected as “Best of 2018” by Apple. Mission.org