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How Can Marketers and Publishers Best Use Medium? Ev Williams Shares His Vision

Ahead of Ad Age's Digital Conference, CEO Talks About Medium's Future and the Spinoff of Matter Studios

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Ev Williams.
Ev Williams. Credit: Helena Price

As the co-founder of Twitter and founder and CEO of Medium, Ev Williams has had an all-access pass to the worlds of media and tech, and witnessed firsthand the ways in which the industries have grown and become increasingly interdependent.

In a preview of his appearance in April at the 10th annual Ad Age Digital Conference in New York, he talks about the evolution of Medium from a publisher-platform hybrid to a network, its soon-to-be-announced monetization opportunities for brands and users, and the spinoff of in-house publication Matter as an independent studio. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Ad Age: Currently, how can brands advertise on Medium?

Ev Williams: We don't have an advertising product right now that people can sign up for. We have a bunch of brands, though, that use Medium as part of their content marketing efforts. And so for any brand who's out there publishing anything -- stories, speaking to their customers or other constituents -- Medium is an option to publish on. Happily, some of them advertise elsewhere and drive traffic to that content just like they would on their own site.

What we've also done in the past is some brands do sponsorship deals -- some of which we've brokered, some of which they've done on their own. And that's basically a "presented by you" model. The thousands of independent publishers on Medium sometimes arrange their own deals with brands.

Ad Age: You've talked in the past about Medium potentially connecting creators and users with brands. Is that capability or service still in development? How far along is it?

Mr. Williams: It's not something we've done at scale, but it's definitely something we've done -- mostly to learn about the needs of both sides. And I think long-term we definitely see ourselves as a marketplace for brands and publishers to find each other in an efficient way and to do things together.

Ad Age: You've also talked about potential opportunities for users to monetize their content on Medium. In this sense, do you expect Medium to eventually compete with Facebook Instant Articles, which has recently been opened up and is similarly monetizable?

Mr. Williams: I think in some ways you could see it as competitive. ... From a general sense, we think Medium offers a different value proposition than Instant Articles. It depends on what publishers' needs are.

You can syndicate into Medium just like you can on Facebook, and eventually you'll be able to make money when you do that on Medium, just like you can on Facebook. And so in that sense there's a similar product offering. For publishers who want to get more advantage from the Medium platform, you can go the other way -- you go from Medium to Facebook.

I wouldn't say they're directly competitive, but I think the way we look at it is, "It's our job to make publishers successful, and Facebook will likely be part of that for some publishers." So, we'll make that work well. And then there's a different audience, and different types of engagement on Medium, so that's a different value proposition.

Ad Age: Medium was recently announced as the home for the forthcoming Bill Simmons publishing venture The Ringer. Do you expect other publications to follow suit? Is this a big part of your roadmap for the company?

Mr. Williams: Yeah, that's really the next phase for Medium -- to empower professional publishers -- and The Ringer is part of that effort. And the reason that we were able to get that deal is, basically, they saw that we were sort of the next generation beyond building or managing an out-of-the-box CMS. They got all of the advantages of that, plus a network that they could tap into. And so we have other professional publishers who are hosted on Medium today and we're building out more features for that user class.

Ad Age: How did The Ringer deal come about?

Mr. Williams: We got introduced by some investors of ours and we just started talking. We basically told them what we were planning to do, and they decided that was a good option.

Ad Age: This week, it was announced the Medium publication Matter will be spun off as an independent media company that co-chief creative officer Mark Lotto called "sort of a studio and sort of an incubator." How long has this plan been in the works?

Mr. Williams: A lot of the ideas around it go back to from when we started publishing Matter on Medium, as well as other influences that both I and Mark had from previous work. For me, it was being involved in some documentaries and other media projects, and thinking that there was probably a better way to do those, especially documentaries.

And then learning from our projects at Matter, where we would do these longform journalism pieces, and they would sort of have this one form, this one life, and whether they resonated with a large audience or whether they didn't, they didn't really evolve. ...

It just felt like there were new forms possible that would be interesting. We started batting around different ideas at the time, but it wasn't really the focus of Matter within Medium. It wasn't Medium's focus. So it didn't make sense to tackle too much of that.

And then early this year we started talking about where Matter goes, and Mark pitched me on this idea of making it its own thing, and I got excited about that.

Ad Age: How will you measure success for Matter Studios? Is it a revenue number or a general sense of impact?

Mr. Williams: It's very, very different than Medium in the sense of Matter Studios doesn't have to be big. It's not expected to be a multibillion-dollar company. The goal is really to do great work, and we're confident that we can make the great work pay for itself. But we really see it as a -- it's really about the work and keeping it small, at least at first, and we'll be happy if we do innovative, cutting-edge things, much in the style, but with a lot more variety, than Matter the publication did. Obviously, it's a business as well, and I don't want to lose money on it, but we really want to tell great stories and innovate.

Ad Age: Is Medium going to continue to operate in-house publications like Backchannel, which covers technology? [Medium's music publication Cuepoint was spun off a few months ago and is now independently published.]

Mr. Williams: The publications were always an opportunity for us to learn more about our platform, as well as to rolemodel what other publications can do, and they've been super helpful in that. In talking to The Ringer and others, having these professional publications on the platform helped a lot in making those deals.

But long-term it's clearer and clearer I think to the world that Medium really is a platform, and there may be flagship publications that we own, but that's not the gist of it. For now, nothing has changed about Backchannel.

Advertising Age: Medium was launched in 2012. Now that it's a few years old, how would you assess your progress with it?

Mr. Williams: I knew when we started that it was a very long path. This wasn't a quick-hit sort of business because what we were taking on was something very large and very entrenched. Thinking about how publishing works and how ideas are shared and propagated was just a huge deal. It involves tons of people and tons of money, and our approach was to build something that was a better system, a comprehensive system.

That said, I'm really happy with where we are now. ... We've created a pretty significant footprint in terms of where people go to publish on the web, and Medium is up there, for many people, as one of the default choices, which I feel very really good about. I feel great about where the product stands today. There's lots more stuff we're excited to build, and that we'll be talking about soon, but both the momentum and the awareness in Medium I think is really high right now. It's never been higher, and the company is on a roll.

Editor's note: Hear more from Ev Williams in person during the Ad Age Digital Conference, April 5-6 in New York City. Details here.

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