What can Medium’s Creative Exchange bring to native advertising?

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Last week, social publishing company Medium announced the launch of a programme that will allow its writers to partner with brands to create dedicated sponsored content: the Creative Exchange.

The Creative Exchange is by no means Medium’s first foray into native advertising: in the past, it has produced a number of verticals in partnership with different brands, including BMW, Marriott and Samsung. But this is the first time that Medium has opened up native advertising for the wider community to take part in.

In its blog post announcing the new programme, Medium acknowledged that, “One of the things we’ve heard consistently is that our community wants a way to make money from their work on the platform. It takes effort to produce a piece of high-quality content and that effort should be rewarded.”

While this is undoubtedly true, the writers who called for Medium content to be monetised probably wanted the ability to earn money from the independent content they write, rather than to be paid to write sponsored content for a brand.

Still, there are no doubt plenty of others who will welcome the venture. But what can Medium contribute to the field of sponsored content, already crowded with publishers and platforms, that’s particularly new? And what do brands stand to gain?

What can Medium bring to native advertising?

Medium has always been a slightly strange entity, whose exact nature is hard to pin down: it straddles the divide between publisher and network, between social and blogging; giving writers a space for their voice to be heard, but very much on Medium’s terms.

“Medium’s greatest asset is our community of writers and publishers,” the blog post which announced the Creative Exchange began. Clearly this is what Medium intends to be its main selling point as it expands its venture into native advertising: an established network of writers, many with huge followings, and readers who will eagerly consume writing published to the platform regardless of whether it is sponsored or not, as long as it is of the quality and type they have come to expect.

A screenshot of the top of a Medium sponsored piece entitled 'How to Rewrite Your Past, Present and Future'. At the very top of the page are the words 'life well lived' in gold and blue, while underneath the heading the text reads 'Presented by GUARDIAN' with the logo for Guardian life insurance.A piece of sponsored content on Medium, with branding clearly marked

Medium’s blog post cites two past pieces of sponsored content as examples of what writing produced by the Creative Exchange is likely to look like. One is sponsored by Guardian, a life insurance company, the other by Upwork, a freelance marketplace.

Both are well-written and valuable pieces of content which don’t read like advertising or even mention the sponsored brand by name (although they are both clearly marked as sponsored with logos above and below the piece).

Neither of them made me want to buy anything either, but then, the aims of native advertising are usually more subtle than that.

In many ways, Medium is exceedingly well-suited to native advertising, much more than other publishing platforms. For one thing, it’s already heavily branded. Criticisms have been levelled against Medium for taking away creative control from writers who publish to its platform, denying them the ability to choose how their content looks and is offered to readers.

A screenshot of a Medium post by Rebecca Sentance, entitled 'Reflections on Liberating Corporate Data'. The post is laid out in simple, no-frills style, in black serif font with a wide margin either side. The Medium logo in grayscale is present in the top left corner.Publishing to Medium offers writers very little leeway, if any, to impose their own style on the content

The design, the layout, the branding is all very much Medium’s; and so users who are happy with this arrangement are unlikely to object to a further level of branding being applied to their content. It seems unlikely that any devoted writers or readers, if they’re content to use Medium as it is, will abruptly draw a line and say no, this amount of branding is a step too far.

So Medium can offer an engaged community of writers and readers among whom there is already a demand for some kind of monetisation, and an openness to sponsored branding. All points in its favour – but what else is Medium offering to brands in the deal?

How will brands benefit?

At the moment, Medium isn’t opening up the Creative Exchange programme too widely to interested writers and publishers; the programme is currently in “closed beta”, and aspiring participants will need to add their details to a waiting list. But Medium is placing no such restriction on brands who want to take part. This makes sense, since Medium has writers in abundance, but the brands are where the real money lies.

Medium’s approach to content publishing, that it simplifies the process by taking care of the unimportant details that no-one wants to concern themselves with (like design) is also the main thrust of its appeal to brands: it offers an all-in-one deal, “including writing, editing, project management, editorial strategy, publication creation, and publication branding.” In its bid, Medium plays up the fact that it can “manage the entire process for you, including publishing approved content from your brand account.”

A graphic of a brown box with parcel tape across the top, with "this side up" icons on one side in blue, and on the front-facing side, a blue stick figure carrying a house.
Medium’s native advertising aims to offer brands the whole package
Image by OpenclipartVectors on Pixabay, available via CC0

This is likely to be an appealing prospect for brands who are new to native advertising or don’t have the time or the resources to micro-manage every aspect of the project. However, as with writers who publish to the Medium platform, there are drawbacks in the form of ownership and control. Medium is coy about the subject of brands owning the content produced via Creative Exchange, saying only that, “We have several different licenses available. We’ll work with you to meet your needs. Contact us for more information.”

There is a lot to be said for publishing to a platform which, as I covered above, comes with an in-built community of readers eager to consume that content. In many respects it puts Medium ahead of native ad providers like Outbrain and Taboola which have to depend on luring readers away from platforms where they are already reading content, with gimmicky headlines and psychological tricks.

A screenshot from the platform game Fez, featuring floating platforms against a bright blue backdrop, with square green trees on top of them.Brands are already faced with an overabundance of platforms demanding their content
Image via Wikimedia Commons, available via CC BY-SA 3.0

But there’s a drawback to it, too: brands are already faced with an overabundance of platforms to which they could publish content, each with their own appeal. Medium boasts one engaged community of users, but Facebook has another, as does Twitter, and Google, and Snapchat, and every other contender which is throwing its hat into this expanding ring.

No matter how good the offer is, ultimately brands have to make a choice as to how many channels are worth spreading their presence across. And if they are a brand which already has an established presence on Medium, why pay for what they are already getting for free?

To an extent, Medium’s all-in-one approach does solve that problem, by allowing brands to reach an extra audience without having to expend the time and effort that they would normally need to invest in publishing to a new platform: Medium will take care of all of that. But brands will still have to decide whether the exact audience they want to reach is present within Medium’s walled garden, and if it isn’t, they are likely to take their business elsewhere.

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