Your Follower Count is Now a Vanity Metric
Medium is encouraging us to build a fanbase, not a follower count
The people behind the numbers are human beings. It’s easy to lose sight of that when you obsess over the stats.
Follower counts seem to have a waning influence on how Medium posts perform. That’s probably for good reason. As the platform evolves, the metrics writers need to pay attention to surely change.
In fact, the more simplistic metrics could fade out of relevance, which is beneficial for writers who really care about their readership.
What has really confused (and annoyed) popular writers on this platform is that they’re seeing declining reads even while their follower count is rising fast.
When I had half the followers a couple of years ago, I had double the views. Many writers have had the same experience and vented a lot of frustration. That’s understandable.
If Medium is serious about its new “relational” model, which is all about writers having a relationship with their readers, surely our articles should be put in front of our readers, right?
Well, no. What’s important here is the psychology of following and the nuances hidden behind that number. People typically follow lots of writers and simply don’t have time to read everything they’ve subscribed to.
Many writers expect Medium to be like Twitter or Instagram, where you get all those impressions and likes in proportion to your follower count. I certainly did. But Medium articles demand minutes, not seconds, of people’s time.
All the stories on your app or homepage fall into two categories — loyalty and discovery. Medium has to strike a delicate balance. They need to ensure that writers are given the chance to be discovered, while at the same time serving readers the writers they follow.
Most media outlets — like, say, The Economist or Vice — serve readers. Medium is different. It’s a platform, and, as such, it serves both readers and writers.
To serve writers, Medium needs to ensure that they get the chance to be read and the chance to build their platform.
This all means that your followers are simply not going to be spoon-fed your work. You could be one of the hundreds of writers they follow, and, on top of that, you need to compete with the stories being recommended from those writers the reader doesn’t follow.
Instead, from the writer’s perspective, there are followers and there are… well, super followers — what we’d call fans. I follow more than 200 writers and pubs. I doubt I read more than 5% of their stories in a given month. But those that I do read I come back to again and again.
When I see stories by writers I really like pop up, I just know I’ll love what I’m about to read. I’m a “super follower” of these writers.
This is what Ev Williams probably had in mind when he wrote about the “relational” direction for Medium. It’s not about the people who casually hit the “follow” button because they might be curious about you’re writing in future, it’s the people that you really strike a chord with, who’ll seek you out.
With the ratio of writers to readers now much higher than it was pre-pandemic, writers need to do more heavy lifting with their own marketing, rather than relying on an algorithm to do all the work.
Medium have started to educate writers about marketing on the platform and have added functions like the blog roll, the email subscription button, and the newly announced referral program. All this is geared towards converting “followers” into “fans”.
In this new paradigm, Twitter-like follower counts, er… count for less. I have a substantial “following”, that’s for sure, and I’m in no way suggesting I’m being dismissive about people following me. (I really, really appreciate the interest!). But the brutal, honest truth is this: I have a high follower count because I was an early adopter of the Medium Partner Program. My story is 75% luck, 25% work.
What is that story? Well, I jumped on the chance to make some money from blogging back in 2018, when I posted an article called “The Problem with Stoicism”, it got some interest, but not much. But unlike the blogging platform I used previously, this post actually made me some money. I thought “wow”.
Then I posted “The Painting That Shocked The World”, a post that got a huge amount of interest because it was shared by a celebrity on Twitter. It had everything going for it — it had a catchy title, and it was an interesting story. It was about a high-brow subject — a painting by Géricault — but wasn’t like art writing, it was written like a magazine feature story, with a beginning, middle and end.
The most important thing to realize is this — had the post not been popular, I would have probably not invested so much time into Medium. I would not have the following or the presence I have now. I was lucky.
I soon realized that telling the story behind a big or complicated idea, and doing so in an accessible and simple way, was what my growing audience enjoyed. I came up with a writing motto: “simplicity is poetry” — I was to be the blogger who makes complicated ideas simple and useful.
Follower counts snowball as soon as you become a top writer in topics and that rising number starts to signal what marketers call “social proof” (when people are assured of your product by the validation of other customers).
Things peaked in 2019. I was making a substantial amount of money by blogging about philosophy. That still blows my mind. I was still on a lucky run.
But relational Medium took hold in late 2020 and my reads plummeted, just like many other writers. The point is this: it’s no longer about luck. Medium pulled the “lucky” rug from under my feet.
My follower count is rising fast — perhaps faster now than ever. That’s probably because I’m still a “top writer” in some categories. But it doesn’t matter as much now. For all the above reasons, it’s best now to think of followers as “leads” — those who are interested, but not yet engaged.
There are writers with far fewer followers than I have who are getting far more engagement. Why? Because they are really better at converting mere followers into fans.
They are doing so for many different reasons — their content may be more practically useful to their readers, or they write more (I average about three articles a month, some writers churn out a post every day), or they are working in a more engaged subject area like personal finance or relationships. Or they are just better writers. I can live with that.
So how do we generate fandom?
Firstly, it’s key for writers to find a niche and stick with it. When I say “niche” I don’t mean you write only about pet rabbits, lipstick, or vintage cars. I mean combine a topic area and a distinct voice.
Hone your knowledge and skill in this area and write in a voice that your audience will appreciate. The broader the topic is, the more distinctive your style should be.
One mistake people make is writing about lots of different subjects, hoping that if you throw spaghetti at the wall, some of it will stick.
Only gifted writers can pull off this strategy. They write about lots of different subjects, but — importantly — they do so with an utterly unique and quirky take. Their pen oozes charisma. Sean Kernan is the master of this. He’s a very talented writer, a one-in-a-million. Sure, you can get there, but you should start with a niche and then branch out… slowly.
It’s also more important now to find your audience outside the platform. Go to social media platforms and also real-life groups that would be interested in the knowledge you impart. I follow writers from the Stoic philosophy community who do this, they have a super-platform of many combined platforms. This doesn’t just mean Facebook and Twitter, it means Quora, LinkedIn, Substack and Slack too.
Engage with your Medium community. I personally love reading the comments on my posts and I respond as much as possible. I’ve learned a great deal from my commenters. And, yes — I like constructive critical comments as much as positive comments.
There’s also a bunch of writers who read and comment on each other’s work on Medium. If a writer makes their contact details public, tell them you like their work or even (respectfully) why you think they are wrong. Who knows? You may end up collaborating some day.
Take advantage of the opportunities that your Medium platform gives you. That includes the opportunity to simply connect. It’s a little arrogant when popular Medium writers complain about new writers asking for their help. I get emails all the time, and I’m thrilled to help people.
To save time, I wrote a bunch of posts about writing that I think can help new readers (I’ll add this post to that list). Rather than repeat myself over email, I point those writers to those posts. If they don’t have a subscription, I send them a friend link. I will not sell you a course, I will help you for free.
That segues to another point — that you can’t buy success, and anybody selling you the promise of an income from writing cannot be trusted. They are preying on your hopes. Ev Williams himself put it more eloquently here. There’s plenty of free resources — including Medium’s own guides — to help you get started building an audience.
Take advantage of the tools that the Medium platform gives you. As mentioned, there’s two powerful new tools that will help you make build a fanbase from your follower count.
First, there’s the subscribe button — this allows readers to sign-up for e-newsletters direct from the platform. When you post, they get an email. An email follower is a big level up.
Secondly, a new and exciting feature just announced is that if readers sign up to Medium through your personalized referral link, you will get a 50% share of their subscription.
That’s a huge bonus for writers in two ways: it will incentivize writers to grow the platform following as a whole, meaning more funds in the Payment Program pot for all writers. It will also of course mean more money for you to support your writing habit. Readers new to the platform may well choose who they want to reward, and that really is an act of fandom.
It’s time to stop scratching our heads and wondering where all our readers have gone. The truth is, they are still out there, but they now need a compelling reason to read our work. Our task is to compel them.