Perhaps the volume of apps we tech bloggers see each day has made us cynical, but I’m not alone in saying I’m tired of photo sharing. Not only did every wantrepreneur and their brother launch a photo sharing app in the wake of Instagram’s $1 billion sale to Facebook, they all seem to be uncreative, offering a tiny little tweak on an existing idea. Photo sharing apps are the definition of FNAC — feature, not a company.
And yet! I never cease to be amazed at the way these things can suddenly take off. The app-loving masses have an insatiable hunger for photo sharing apps, apparently.
All week an app called “A Beautiful Mess,” released by a pair of lifestyle bloggers, has been at the top of the app store rankings, racking up 75,000 photos shared via Instagram after just a few days. In fact, the app’s logo is basically a cartoon version of Instagram’s with some pink and a heart. It’s not even free — it costs 99 cents to download and in-app purchases for virtual goods like fonts and sayings to splash over your photos cost up to $10. Everything about it goes entirely against conventional thinking on how to build and launch a successful app.
Not only is the app’s initial traction proof that you don’t have to be original or have a revolutionary idea to gain traction, it’s proof that people will pay for that not-so-original / revolutionary idea. Beyond that, it’s proof that you don’t have to be a connected Silicon Valley wunderkind with a technical co-founder and a million dollars in seed funding from brand name angel investors to build a successful app. You just need a little business savvy, good marketing skills and a lot of style.
A Beautiful Mess is a lifestyle blog run by a pair of 20-something sisters, Elsie Larson and Emma Chapman in Springfield, Missouri. They’ve got multiple book deals and own a vintage shop / bakery called Red Velvet. Their site reaches 1.5 million monthly uniques because they are very, very good at what they do. Like many savvy lifestyle bloggers their age, they live a Pinterest-perfect life, sharing beautifully photographed recipes, impeccably done DIY projects, tasteful fashion inspiration and home decorating tips.
Followers of lifestyle blogs like A Beautiful Mess get invested, not just in the content the bloggers produce, but in the authors’ lives. The personal connection is intense. While I haven’t encountered A Beautiful Mess before this week, I’ve followed similar blogs for years, to the point where I feel like I know the blogger personally and would consider buying any product she endorsed. When I was reporting this 2011 story on the business of fashion blogging, I heard several anecdotes from campaigns, in which the brand paid a blogger a few thousand bucks to wear their clothing, and the blogger drove half a million dollars in sales.
Bloggers are no longer limited to monetizing their influence with display ad deals negotiated through networks like Federated Media. They’ve become increasingly savvy about their value; the most prominent onces have agents to negotiate endorsement and sponsorship deals. They throw parties with makeup brands and design purses named after themselves in partnership with bag makers. Many of them earn affiliate fees through a press-shy company called rewardStyle. They simply use an rStyle.me link to track the clicks and sales they drive. Now, with A Beautiful Mess, the lifestyle blogging set has proven they can build a successful app that makes money, too. (How many photo sharing apps can you say that about?)
The Beautiful Mess app is well-designed, but its functionality is basically just some on-trend fonts, filters, borders and sayings for you to add to photos before you share them on Instagram and Facebook. The add-on fonts and sayings cost money on top of the 99 cent download price. The one photo I posted using the app and its hashtag got me a bunch of likes from ladies with predictably twee screennames like “bestfriendsforfrosting.”
Elsie and Emma may not be playing by the age-old Silicon Valley playbook of trading venture dollars for ever-escalating eyeballs, but they have a big, fiercely loyal audience. This week they beat out the dozens of other photo sharing apps in the App Store. What app maker doesn’t want that?