The Tumblr for adults: How Medium is trying to improve branded content

Intel lightened up its staid image with a Medium post on the history of the Slinky.
Intel lightened up its staid image with a Medium post on the history of the Slinky.

The blogging platform is already punching above its weight with tech and business influencers

Intel is known for microprocessors, not for whimsy, which is why the company’s recent post on the history of the Slinky stood out.

The post, illustrated by cartoonist Andy Warner, told the story of Richard James, a naval engineer who invented the Slinky and then, suddenly decamped to Bolivia without his family to become a missionary.

What does the Slinky have to do with silicon? Not much, but Intel is eager to get its brand in front of "thought leaders." To achieve this, the brand ran the post on Medium, the hot blogging platform created by Twitter co-founders Ev Williams and Biz Stone. The next day, BoingBoing picked up the post, and writer David Pescovitz (who commissioned Warner to illustrate the series for Intel) urged the site’s 3.7 million or so readers to check out others in the series.

For Intel and others, the Slinky story illustrates what’s attractive to marketers about Medium. It’s a slick-looking platform that’s read by some 20 million unique visitors, many of whom are key influencers in tech and business. Medium’s small editorial team also boasts longtime connections to Wired, giving posts a better-than-average chance of getting traction with the technorati. Steven Levy, a former Wired writer and author of the classic book Hackers, has made Medium’s hosted tech blog, Backchannel, a must-read by scoring exclusives on Google and Snapchat, among others.

Medium’s raw numbers are less than half that of MySpace, but what it lacks in distribution it makes up for in access. President Obama has used it for outreach to Millennials, and Apple — which has snubbed Twitter and Facebook for years — used Medium to announce an environmental initiative in April. In addition, the platform has lured celebs like Elon Musk, Walter Isaacson and Foursquare CEO and Founder Dennis Crowley, among others, to its platform.

Medium is now attempting to capitalize on this appeal by partnering with brands for native advertising. The platform, a sort of Tumblr for adults, is becoming a forum for thought leadership, a subset of branded content that attempts to elevate brands by associating them with big ideas. Medium hopes to reinvent branded content, using its fledgling credibility as an anchor for such messages.

Branded content moves
When it launched three years ago, Medium was ad-free. Last summer, Medium ran its first ads, for BMW, a branded content series about design called Reform that was edited by former Dwell Senior Editor Sarah Rich. Since then, Marriott has launched its own travel vertical, Gone.

In June, during Cannes, Medium announced a six-month exclusive deal with Colloquial, a content-marketing unit recently launched by J. Walter Thompson Company and Group SJR. Under the agreement, Colloquial will get "first looks" at products for agencies and beta testing opportunities on the site, according to a press release about the deal.

Jinal Shah, global digital director at J. Walter Thompson, said the partnership will allow Colloquial to refine its "middleweight content," which she describes as "long-form, brand journalism-type content." Shah says she’s particularly interested in Medium’s ability to let brands introduce topics and foster a conversation. Of course, brands can do this organically, for free and without Medium’s help, but Shah believes brands want access to Medium’s thinking on branded content.

A new medium
Williams and Stone launched Medium in 2012 as either a Twitter-ized version of Williams’ first company, Blogger, or a Blogger-ized iteration of Twitter. If you view it as the latter, it’s basically Twitter without a 140-character limit. Unlike standard blogging platforms, though, Medium boasts a laughably easy interface that, by employing responsive design, also manages to look professional and of-the-moment on any device. In addition, Medium makes it easy to follow people you know on Twitter or Facebook and share stories on those platforms.

While those features are important, it’s really Williams’ and Stone’s imprimatur that makes Medium interesting to Silicon Valley influencers and the media industry. As the name implies, Medium is mostly a distribution vehicle, but the company also oversees some editorial aspects of the site, giving it the awkward sobriquet of "platisher" — part publisher, part platform.

Williams snubbed banner ads at Twitter, and Medium is similarly a banner-free zone. The company is interested in becoming a publisher of glossy branded content, though, and has taken a boutique approach similar to Tumblr, where the ads are intended to be part of the overall experience, not an interruption to it.

Tumblr, which reportedly made just $13 million in ad revenues in 2012, hadn’t reported any financials until last fall, when Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer claimed the unit would make $100 million in ad revenues in 2015 off its 420 million unique readers.

Like Williams, Tumblr CEO and founder David Karp has expressed ambivalence about advertising, but has come around to the idea in the hopes that he can improve it. In Williams’ case, the improvement comes by tracking different metrics. Medium doesn’t care about click-through rates. What’s important there is TTR, total time reading. As Williams told Ad Age: "We pay more attention to time spent reading than number of visitors at Medium because, in a world of infinite content? — ?where there are a million shiny attention-grabbing objects a touch away and notifications coming in constantly? — ?it's meaningful when someone is actually spending time."

Thought leadership
With a fraction of Tumblr’s audience, Medium is a low priority for most major advertisers. And despite what President Obama thinks, it’s not a place to reach Millennials.

It does have a niche for thought leadership, though. Over the past few years, companies in tech have all sought to portray themselves as thought leaders. By positing new ideas, TED-style, the logic goes, brands can become associated with innovative thinking. So the next time a buyer has to fork over $20,000 for ultrasound equipment, she might see the GE name and be inclined to choose the company.

Joe Chernov is vice president of content marketing at HubSpot, the originator of the idea of "pull marketing," which attempts to lure prospects with content. He says he’s seen a lot of interest in Medium, but the platform’s not for everyone. "I think Medium only makes sense for marketers whose goals are limited to awareness and thought leadership," he says. "If the objective is to sell products or generate leads, then a self-hosted blog is still a better bet."

For the past few years, Forbes has taken the lead on thought leadership placements, offering a pay-for-play deal in which business thinkers (and their ghostwriters) can present themselves as Forbes columnists with big, SEO-friendly ideas. More recently, LinkedIn has marketed itself as a forum for thought leadership. So far in the 2016 election cycle, LinkedIn has the edge as candidates Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush have used the social network to distribute ideas.

Medium presents a more tech-focused alternative. Because it’s mostly not pay-for-play, getting a hit on Medium can be quite a coup for a brand in the thought leadership game.

For instance, in April a post by Salesforce’s principal accessibility specialist, Jesse Hausler, wrote one of Medium’s most-read posts, "7 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About Accessibility." In March, Foursquare’s Crowley also had a hit post in which he discussed a recent deal with Twitter and bragged about Foursquare’s trove of data. The threshold for a "hit" on the platform seems to be in the range of 1,000 or more recommendations.

It’s rare for a brand to get traction like that. GE, a big proponent of Medium, hasn’t had a hit like that yet, for instance. Instead, Sam Olstein, director of global innovation, says Medium lets GE explore topics among an intelligent audience that’s open to new ideas. "We have a point of view on a wide range of topics," he says. "It’s less of us pushing a certain brand or message."

David Veneski , Intel director of North America integrated consumer marketing and advertising, says the brand likes Medium for its capacity to tell longform stories about the brand. "It’s hard to tell the Intel story in bits and bytes," he says. For instance, Intel used Backchannel, a Medium-owned online tech blog, as a forum for a cartoon explaining the history of the microprocessor.

Unlike GE, Intel worked with Medium on developing its content, which led to the connection with illustrator Warner. Joe Purzycki, Medium’s head of partnerships, says that’s a great example of what Medium brings to the table: Warner was already a star on the platform. "He got to do pure editorial work, which was then underwritten by Intel. It was collaborative in the sense that Intel had a brand message."

One risk involved in letting brands in on the discussion is that readers will feel manipulated — like the thoughtful post they just spent five minutes reading was actually a veiled sales pitch. Medium’s filter-less platform has also led some to charge that Medium is the place where story pitches go to die. "This blogger took it to Medium when the White House blog said his pitch wasn’t good enough," Business Insider Politics Editor Brett LoGiurato tweeted last October next to a picture of President Obama when Obama blogged on Medium.

Of course, online publishers ranging from the New York Times to the Wall Street Journal on down are taking the same risk that branded content will confuse readers and undermine their other editorial content. In Medium’s case, either the platform will help elevate branded content, or branded content will help sink Medium’s elevated status.

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