At the recent Ad Age Digital Conference in New York, a shy Ev Williams delivered a first-day keynote announcing a new direction for his third company, Medium. Until now, Medium has been the prettiest content management system in the writers’ world. It was conceived by Ev as “a nice well-lit place for ideas,” because even after he exited from Blogger and Twitter, Ev has not lost his passion for helping people publish their ideas to the world. Looking uncomfortable with what he was about to announce, he talked a lot about “place,” and about how some places were better than others for big ideas.
He said that there had been, in the past fifty years, a population shift to cities, because cities were where the opportunities were. In the last twenty years, the shift had been to “digital cities. He characterized the top three apps on everyone’s cell phones as their digital cities, and remarked that traffic was shifting from the open web to these digital cities. As of 2010, the top ten online sites had 75% of internet traffic, up from 40% in 2006. It is now nigh impossible to get an ordinary web site noticed.
Ev compared a “traditional” web site to a shop in the country. No matter how unique, or worthy, a country store will not have the traffic of one in the city. You want to be where the people are, in the right context, and the easy opportunities are in the digital cities.
When he started Medium in 2012, it was to answer the question “can a new digital city still be built?” The value of Medium is in its editor, its tools, and its responses. From inception, it has been a platform with high engagement. Engagement is the metric by which Williams measures success; if you’ve ever visited Medium, you know it tells you not how many words are in a story, but how many minutes that story will take to “consume.” (The optimum length for a story on Medium is a 7-minute read.)
Talia Jane, the intern from Yelp who wrote a letter to Jeremy Stoppelman, Yelp CEO, complaining about her dead end job and low wages, got ten million minutes of reading time from people who engaged with her rant, including several who responded either by writing their own contradictory rants, or by supporting her.
What Ev had come to AdAge Digital to announce was a new commercial zone: Medium for Publishers, that can be used by both brands and businesses, at no cost for now. The new zone will have support for AMP and Instant Articles, and will contain brandable space that existing publishers can use as a site.
We were wondering how long it would take brands to come to Medium, and this speech answered that question. But it raises a new one: as brands begin publishing what will amount to native ad formats on Medium’s platform, how long will it take “regular” readers and writers to find the exits?