Digital Innovation Digital Publishing
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Trends driving digital platforms and media: Medium’s Scott Lamb

Whether it’s launching a podcast for Salon or growing traffic at BuzzFeed, Scott Lamb has been a driving force at some of the world’s most successful digital publishers.

Next on his agenda is expanding the platform-based publications of Medium in his role as the company’s Vice President of Publisher Growth and Strategy. It’s a career path that’s given Lamb unique insights into trends propelling digital platforms and media during a time when the publishing world continues to transform at a rapid, Covid-driven pace.

“My advice to people for a while has been – start your own thing,” he told delegates at the recent FIPP World Media Congress as he shared the lessons he has learnt along the way. “Get out there and start writing and creating stuff because I think it is a good time to be an independent creator.

“If I was coming into the workforce now my options for a staff role would be very limited. It’s tough, but for young people in particular there are opportunities. This total global chaos provides opportunities for people who want to tell stories about what is happening. People want to know things and you can provide a compelling story for them. Over the next five years niche publications and individual creators are going to be thriving.”

They [consumers] want to have a relationship with the places they are consuming media from. This comes from misinformation and a growing distrust in some of the large social media platforms like Facebook.

It’s a matter of trust

According to Lamb, a loss of trust in social media platforms has meant an increasing number of consumers are willing to pay for content produced by independent creators.

“On the consumer side it’s down to feed fatigue – people are growing tired of consuming their news primarily in a disaggregated feed,” he explained. “They want to have a relationship with the places they are consuming media from. This comes from misinformation and a growing distrust in some of the large social media platforms like Facebook. I think people want to have a relationship with the creators directly or a publication in some way so that they know what they are getting, instead of rolling the dice every time you open your feed.

“It also ties into this moment of larger institutional distrust, in the US and globally, which is playing out in a really negative way in our politics. There is a much higher distrust in government agencies, but also in the institutions of journalism. That’s an unfortunate side effect of a lot of different dynamics right now.”

Needs must

Another catalyst behind the increased number of independent creators is the current turmoil in the job market. Simply put – a lot of journalists have no other option but to go it alone.

“The last two years for digital media have been really tough with a lot of lay-offs and that has only accelerated in the era of coronavirus,” said Lamb. “So part of this rise is just practical in that journalists are being forced to a space where going it alone is the best option for them.

“Meanwhile, institutions are losing their cultural cache and financial strength. A lot of the things you would typically want to get from working for a publication – money, distribution to an audience, credibility – those are all the things you can get as an independent creator.”

Those who decide to go it alone will find that it’s easier than ever before to monetise content.

“People are interested in subscribing to a news feed from someone that they know and trust and there are lot more tools now that can help you capture your email list, put out a product and monetise it,” Lamb pointed out. “So I think we are in this moment where the weight is shifting a little bit towards the independent creator – if you want to go down that path there’s a model for you. The dynamics are starting to favour the independent creator more and more.”

The utility we focused on at BuzzFeed was primarily social. At Medium it is much more about how people use content to get better at some aspects of their life.

A happy Medium

With readers increasingly seeking out a closer relationship with content providers, Medium, which allows anyone to publish and monetise their content, finds itself in the right place at the right time.

“We wanted it to be a place where people can reach the readership they want to reach in the way they want to reach them,” said Lamb, who revealed that Medium pays out over USD$2 million a month to writers and editors who use the platform. “Like many start-ups, we have had to be flexible and make changes along the way while looking for product market fit.

“I wouldn’t say that we are there yet but I love the model that Medium has – 100 per cent subscription-based media. There’s a metered paywall but also a lot of work on Medium that is not paywalled. As a writer, when you join our partner programme – by which we allow people to monetise their work – you can choose whether something is free to air or behind the paywall.”

Working for BuzzFeed for more than a decade taught Lamb a lot about what people do with content – how it impacts their lives and what they find useful. It’s an insight into human behaviour that has been invaluable in finding a focus for the copy that appears on Medium.

“The utility we focused on at BuzzFeed was primarily social, “ said Lamb. “At Medium it is much more about how people use content to get better at some aspects of their life.”

This is not a hostile takeover

While Medium might be luring readers away from more traditional digital publishers, they should not be seen as a competitor, but rather a potential partner, said Lamb.

“I don’t see Medium as a threat to publishers. We do a lot of partnerships with US publishers, syndicating a lot of content,” he pointed out. “The pitch to them is we have an audience you can reach and directly monetise and maybe even attract into your funnel and turn into subscribers of your product.

“We want people to feel that they are in the brand experience of the publication they are reading, not that Medium is this intermediary between the two. We see Medium as being additive. We like to make it as easy as possible for anyone – be it an individual blogger, newsletter writer or publication – to get their content onto Medium and for that be an additional flow, the same way social media has been for a lot of folks.”

…Many more consumers are interested in establishing a direct relationship with the media that they consume and are willing to pay for it. That’s an evolution.

A brave new world

For Lamb, the only surprising thing about the evolution of digital media business models is that it hasn’t happened sooner and hasn’t been more comprehensive.

“It’s interesting to me that business models for digital media haven’t evolved more,” he said. ‘It has almost entirely been dominated by one form of advertising or another. That’s interesting because the web is so good at transactions – that’s the core competency of all things digital – and that hasn’t really played out in a huge way for media companies.

“I am excited right now that we have at least moved into an era where many more consumers are interested in establishing a direct relationship with the media that they consume and are willing to pay for it. That’s an evolution.

“It’s a direct response to so many media companies early on being funded by venture capital and the dynamics that come to play between the journalists and the funders of the company they work for. For many journalists the growth in subscriptions is one of the most exciting things happening right now.”

Pierre de Villiers

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