Businesses are naturally trained to loathe competition, to fear it, to battle it, to conquer it.
Which is of course why businesses should love and embrace competition.
Competition (or is it necessity?) breeds invention. Competition forces companies to be better, smarter, and more humane. It provides users with better options. It makes the world go ‘round.
What does any of this have to do with publishing to Medium?
Well Medium is an intensely competitive platform.
A classic trope in digital marketing is that brands aren’t just competing with each other when it comes to content, they’re competing with any and every publishing platform. Whether it’s Facebook, LinkedIn, Redbull, The New York Times or a fashion blogger in her bedroom, we’re all clamoring for overlapping sets of “eyeballs” or attention. The irony being that producing content at all was once a way to stand out from the competition. Now, with just about every brand practicing content marketing, content is no longer a competitive advantage per se.
Medium is certainly becoming part of this competitive brand ecosystem but for very different reasons…
The competition on Medium has less to do with “eyeballs” and attention and more to do with the salience of ideas. Nowhere is this more clearly evinced than in the post-click metric “Reads” vs. “Views” the platform provides contributors, the better to perpetuate a more engaged dynamic all around: Who has the next great, metamorphic idea? Who is trying to disrupt the status quo? Who is taking risks with thought-leadership rather than buttressing SEO? And are those ideas worth reading all the way through? Do they have resonance? Are they worth Recommending?
This very minute, hundreds of contributors on Medium are making these attempts. Whatever the shared, conventional wisdom on a particular topic, you can be certain to find its antithesis on Medium. Some of them are wrong-headed or a little nutty. But they’re usually inspired, thought-provoking attempts.
And inspired, thought-provoking ideas is where Outbrain wants to be.
We have a lot of theories at Outbrain on how the Internet has shaped our curiosities and desires as human beings, and how our curiosities and desires have shaped the Internet, but we’re not always certain these ideas are at all interesting, salient or correct. Frankly, some of them sound a little nutty too, even to us.
Of course, the very model Outbrain is predicated on was downright puzzling eight years ago. Telling publishers they should use their pages to recommend stories on other sites led to some… challenging meetings in the early days, and convincing brands that they should own those “other sites” similarly presented challenges.
Since then, both content recommendations on publisher site and branded content have become ubiquitous, but with respect to what lies ahead, what the next 5–10 years of publishing, advertising, and content consumption looks like, we’re actively pursuing greater ideas and greater ambitions.
And on Medium, we are not alone. Far from it. We are surrounded — with even more great ideas, great content, great passion. Participating in such an inspired, blossoming environment has furthered our own thinking and helped us clarify in our own minds which of our ideas are truly interesting and what may need more refinement. There’s a sense of dialogue on the platform — not just between contributors but between the stories themselves.
This feedback is invaluable in informing when and where we pursue some ideas in other arenas, from the literal stages on which we speak to the other digital platforms we engage.
This why Medium’s emphasis on post-click engagement matters.
On the surface, this emphasis on substance isn’t always readily apparent. Anyone who has an appreciation for headlines in the age of clickbait might reasonably suspect Medium to be the latest offender in sensational, all-too-clever headlines that betray the content that lies behind the click.
But in our experience, first as passive audience members, and then as contributors, the compelling headlines on Medium are matched by compelling content. When there is a gap between the promise (headline) and the delivery (content), it’s rarely rewarded with engagement and the much-sought-after “recommendation.”
We’ve probably produced over a dozen pieces of content for Medium, some have done OK, some have done rather well. The difference? Hard to say, we’re still learning… For brands in particular, this aspect of the platform can be a little frustrating: “I wrote the most amazing headline and provided the most amazing insight on a relevant topic; why isn’t it performing?”
As marketers, we’re trained to evaluate platforms based on our performance as marketers, which can be problematic: is the problem the platform or the marketer’s approach to everything from the headline to the content itself to the distribution of the content?
What we have observed so far is a correlation between the degree of cognitive dissonance we’ll try to introduce in a piece — how far it strays from conventional wisdom — and performance (and again, we’re more interested in the ratio of “Reads” to “Views” and number of recommendations). Will this always hold true? We have no idea. And in fact some of the pieces where we thought we really had something interesting to say didn’t seem to resonate so much.
And that’s OK. There’s something to be said for having an ideas lab like Medium, a forum, a stage to birth opinions, to try and raise the stakes and get real-time feedback on relevance to the larger conversation about the way we live and the lives we’re building for the future.
So yes, we’re embroiled in daily competition, whether we produce content daily or not, with entrepreneurs, journalists, bloggers, marketers, and Presidents on Medium. But it’s the best kind of competition, the kind that inspires, propels, sharpens, and humbles.
We look forward to what lies ahead in 2015.
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