Thanks for the info, Danny. I think the idea of the images is a good one. One of my favorite writers here, Emma Austin, uses similar images in all of her articles (they're paid images from Shutterstock) and it's catchy. When I'm on the home page, I can always tell which articles are hers without even looking for her name. They all have bright colored backgrounds. So personally, I wouldn't stop with that form of branding.
I think others have the right idea. There's just been too many changes with Medium itself over the last couple of months to know if all these experiments are actually failing or if it's just the changes.
You'll always get more views (in my experience) by publishing in a larger pub whenever you can.