I don’t think I invented the phrase — I likely read it somewhere and then absorbed it through osmosis — but for several years now I’ve been referring to something called the “mullet strategy” when trying to explain how some platforms and social networks have attempted to attract new users. A Google search reveals that Jonah Peretti, a founder of both BuzzFeed and Huffington Post, used the neologism as early as 2007. As described by Grant McCracken in 2008, with the mullet strategy, “the front page of the website is ‘kept sharp’ by professional editors while the back of the site is given over to the unedited, unsubstantiated ‘venting’ of unpaid visitors.” Or, put another way: “Business in the front. Party in the back.”
The approach was used early on with both Daily Kos and the Huffington Post. In the case of Daily Kos, Markos Moulitsas, the site’s founder, employed professional bloggers to write for the front page of the liberal, grassroots blog, and then anyone who commented on their blog posts had to sign up for an account that also gave them their own blogging platform. Their published blog posts, however, were not automatically promoted on the front page; they were relegated to a subdomain, with their headlines highlighted on a small sidebar on the Daily Kos front page. Whenever a user-generated blog post was particularly well written, however, one of the paid front-page bloggers could pluck it from the ether and promote it on the main blog. This strategy worked so well because it attracted readers with the professional-grade material and then converted them into more engaged users who gladly generated content for Daily Kos for absolutely no pay. Occasionally, when one of these unpaid users consistently produced professional-quality content, Moulitsas would hire him or her to write for the front page.
Huffington Post employed a slightly more selective approach. Though it used thousands of unpaid bloggers, you couldn’t publish to HuffPo unless you happened to know someone who worked there. This way, getting your own HuffPo byline felt like you were being invited into some exclusive club, making it easier to overlook the fact that you were creating content without pay. Arianna Huffington famously would hand out accounts to people she met on her speaking tours. This higher bar of selectivity ensured a better batting average when it came to the quality of content.
The mullet strategy has continued to be adopted and improved upon over the last several years. One of its most interesting iterations was rolled out at Forbes, where chief product officer Lewis DVorkin has recruited over a thousand writers, some salaried staffers, others paid based on traffic generated, and the rest completely unpaid. The strategy paid off, reviving Forbes from a state in which it was barely able to make rent to a profitable entity.
The beauty of the mullet strategy is that it effectively tackles the user acquisition problem. Every new platform that relies on user generated content depends on influential users who make the platform indispensable, thereby attracting larger numbers of users to try it out. But it’s a Catch 22; the platform needs the influencers to make it indispensable, but these users won’t become addicted unless it’s already indispensable. Facebook solved this problem by attracting early adopters from prestigious schools, so that by the time it trickled down to other universities the social network was already populated by their contacts. Twitter similarly had an early adopter advantage, having attracted influential tech enthusiasts very early on. But not every new platform can reach this critical mass, so that’s where the mullet strategy comes in: you’re essentially paying those early influencers to populate your network with content with the hope that the masses will come clamoring to join the club.
Medium has employed what is, in my mind, the most scalable mullet strategy yet. All the other examples I listed, while brilliantly executed, were confined in scope. Daily Kos, while allowing anyone to sign up, only really appeals to those interested in politics, and of those, only people who consider themselves liberal. Forbes and Huffington Post, with their more selective approach, can only manage so many bloggers before quality control becomes impossible. And let’s face it: none of these outlets are technology companies, and so their users aren’t creating content on their platforms because their content management systems are amazing.
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Medium, on the other hand, is a technology company, and it has built a gorgeous, easy-to-use CMS. It also isn’t limited by subject matter. It is therefore just as scalable as any other social network, from Facebook to Twitter to LinkedIn. And it’s solved its user acquisition problem in two brilliant ways.
The first is that it allows you to sign up for Medium using your Twitter account, so that from the very moment your account is live you’re already following people you’re interested in and you also have followers of your own (these are drawn from your twitter followers who have also signed up for the platform). You’re not landing in a ghost town and scrambling to find people to follow.
The second is that very early on Medium hired editors from glossy magazines that specialize in premium, longform content, and gave them substantial editorial budgets to begin recruiting freelance writers. Suddenly, people were landing on Medium before they even knew what it was and before it was even open to new users. This of course attracted the curiosity of journalists, who began penning articles trying to suss out whether Medium was a magazine or a platform. Eventually, our curiosity would get the better of us and we’d set up an account and try it out. Medium has essentially solved the “cool kid” and social graph factors at the same time — first direct users to the site with high quality content, and once they’re there, encourage them to sign up. And then once they have an account, there’s all their friends and followers waiting to consume their content.
It’s a strategy that all future platform creators should pay attention to. In a world where every day a new mobile app or social network promises to crowdsource the solution to some life problem, there are only so many influencers with so much time to invest in a new tool. So when you receive your millions of dollars in investment from venture capitalists, set aside some of that money to pay your early adopters. Because without them, you’re just a night club with no line out the door, in which case you might as well send your DJ home early.
FULL DISCLOSURE: Want to know how I was paid to write this article? I explain it in this video.