How did Exposure crack the photosharing code? By charging its users

By Erin Griffith , written on December 10, 2013

From The News Desk

Over the weekend, Exposure, the latest in a what feels like a never-ending parade of doomed photosharing apps, did something rather shocking: It racked up a ton of users in a short period of time. More than 10,000 to be exact. The photos they shared have been viewed half a million times.

What's more interesting is the fact that these are paid users, or at least a number of them are. Several hundred of Exposure's sign-ups have opted for a $9 per month subscription without even triggering the app's freemium threshold.

Exposure's architects attribute the site's rapid adoption, when so many other photosharing apps have failed to gain traction, to one major thing: the way they talk about their product. "We didn't try to say we were a ubiquitous tool for storytelling with photos," says Luke Beard, who built the app in just a few months alongside his partner Kyle Bragger. "We just wanted to be a tool for photos," Beard added. There is no social network aspect to Exposure, and it's not a mobile app.

Exposure's early popularity is helped by it's slick design, of course. At launch, The Verge said the site looks a bit like Medium for photos. Exposure offers "exquisite combinations of text narration and photography."

But I think there is more to it than messaging or pretty pixels. I believe Exposure is gaining traction because it is charging money. Hear me out.

Charging for an app is basically unheard of. But the alternative -- launching a free service and hoping it gains enough traction to sell ads or make money with in-app purchases -- requires a lot of scale to work. It requires more scale than the vast majority of services ever achieve.

The Web services that do hit tens of millions of users usually face angry backlash when they finally try to monetize. It's hard to make a strong argument that Facebook, or Instagram, or Twitter or Pinterest or Tumblr owes you anything when you get to use their services for free, but a shocking number of people do nonetheless. The most common response that startups give to users who don't like being "monetized" by advertising, or don't like unexpected changes to the NewsFeed, or just flat-out don't trust Mark Zuckerberg with their data, is that they can take their status updates elsewhere.

Many people did just that with, the social network which costs $36 a year. (At last count, it had crossed the 100,000 user mark.) And plenty did with services like EyeEm and Backspaces, when a fake privacy outrage erupted last year over Instagram's terms of service. (Users thought Instagram was asking permission to use their photos in ads.)

Of course, neither of these reported exoduses have really hurt the services. As Sarah Lacy wrote during Instagram's latest user kerfuffle, they rarely amount to much of anything, and they pass. There have already been new rumblings of a user backlash with Instagram's early forays into advertising.

By charging its users a fee, Exposure sends a different message. There's a little psychology game at play. Exposure isn't going after the iPhoneographer crowd, meaning, the people who suddenly started snapping arty pics of every sunset they see after they joined Instagram. Rather, Exposure is for the photographer hobbyists who probably own a DSLR camera or two.

Incidentally, these hobbyists and semi-pro photographers are the ones most likely to start the backlash any time a platform they use makes a change they don't like. Regardless of whether it's a reasonable argument, these users feel betrayed. It was their early adoption and time investment which helped Instagram, and before that, Flickr, to become photosharing juggernauts.

The $9 per month cost to use Exposure is like a guarantee that the company won't advertise, or start changing things around just to make more money.

"We don't understand why companies get started with no business model to sustain themselves," Beard says. "We would never want to throw sponsored content or advertisements in front of someone's content that they spend a lot of time crafting in our tool."

Further, any user who might be scared of a Flickr situation, where the company sells to a large corporate parent (in Flickr's case Yahoo) and deteriorates in quality, can be comforted by Exposure's parent company: The site was developed within Elepath, an incubator, which was founded by Jake Lodwick. You might remember Lodwick's popular guest column for PandoDaily, titled, An acquisition is always a failure.

With its subscription model, Exposure will probably never have the 150 million users of Instagram, but its loyal subscribers will have the comfort of knowing that Exposure will never sell ads or sell out.

[Image via Exposure]