The curious decline of free photo sharing

Research firms like InfoTrends say the #1 thing that influences consumer choice of photo sharing sites is whether they’re free. Makes sense.

But a curious thing happened during the last few years: while impressive free sites from great companies like Sony, Canon, Microsoft, Epson, & Adobe lost momentum or closed, sites like Flickr, SmugMug and Webshots—who charge—have grown like weeds.

free photo sharing

It’s true: Flickr and Webshots have free versions, but they are very limited. Flickr free accounts let you display just 200 photos.

free photo sharingPhoto sharing sites like PBase and Fotki converted to pay years ago and when they did they joined the 1,000 most trafficked Internet sites.

What unintuitive things are at work here?

Here’s the cycle:

1. Getting a free account is anonymous. Posting gross content is so very easy…

2. So companies hire screeners to view every photo and delete bad stuff. Yet some leaks through.

3. The leaks offend advertisers and partners, who flee.

4. They offend users, who drift away.

5. They cause some corporations and ISPs to block access to the site, frustrating users.

6. They discourage good brands, who don’t want their brands tarnished with offensive content, and don’t want the liability. They quietly de-emphasized the site.

Q. But aren’t Kodak and Snapfish doing well and aren’t they free?

Indeed. But they aren’t about easy public sharing like Flickr and SmugMug. You can’t go there and search for photos. They’re about ordering prints & gifts (which they do well).

It wasn’t easy to understand why Yahoo auctions, which were free, bombed—while eBay auctions, which are pay, thrived. Until you saw the content posted on each. Then it was clear.

There are strong parallels with photo sharing.

Published by

Chris MacAskill

co-founder of SmugMug

8 thoughts on “The curious decline of free photo sharing”

  1. I totally agree with your assessment on the paid vs. free model. At Zoto we get a ton of people uploading content that clearly violates our terms of service, and we have regularly cruise the site to delete/hide it when it gets really bad. You aren’t going to have that when people pay for a service, or at the worst it will be a rare event.

    I bet you a $1 that you guys have *more* paid accounts than Flickr. I also bet that the paid Flickr accounts don’t make a profit for Flickr on the whole. There is simply no way that Flickr would have been as large as they are today without significant financial influx, which would require additional investment an exit path – like being acquired by Yahoo. Same story with Webshots – they were acquired by CNet. It’s great that both were acquired, and still can offer free accounts, but it doesn’t work for the rest of us.

    In November we are moving Zoto to a paid only model because of all of what has been stated here.

    Thanks for the confirmation of what we had already arrived at ourselves!

  2. Oh so true, I hadn’t even considered it like that before. Everyone seems set on tripping over each other to offer free accounts, but they pay in the long run.

  3. The ‘free’ revolution started with the emails and has not stopped since. I am amazed at the proliferation of sites and services that proclaim themselves as ‘Free’ and no wonder we see the demise of several such characters every now and then. The hope (ab initio) of the founders seems to be acquired by a deep-pocketed player rather than be in the run for a long haul!

    Keep up the good work, guys!

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