Phanfare to Smugmug and…. Back Again?

Last year, after a couple of years using Phanfare to host my family photos, I closed my account and moved it all to Smugmug. I actually opened two accounts at Smugmug, one for my family media and one for this, my personal hobby site.

From the beginning, Phanfare was a great photo hosting site. Although there were some limitations, they absolutely nailed family photo hosting. Gorgeous web galleries, uncluttered by corporate branding. Comprehensive slideshow features. Clean, implicit timeline-based organization. And a cross-platform desktop client, making managing the site painless and streamlined. This is an all-important feature, because if it’s not easy, I simply don’t have time to do it.

So why the switch? Well, as I mentioned there were some limitations for me. For example, the ability to customize the look and feel of the site was virtually nonexistent. Their video support was weak, with a poor player, poor quality video, and 10-minute length restrictions. However, I stuck with Phanfare for what it was: Great, efficient photo hosting. A good example of “doing one thing well”. I hoped some of the weaker areas would improve over time.

Then early last year, Phanfare tripped up a little. The leadership expressed a desire to recast the site as a photo sharing system, as opposed to photo hosting. So rather than add new options, they began dropping features, like CNAME support (no more Where the chunky UI couldn’t afford to lose real estate, they pasted a huge branding banner at the top of all galleries and removed one of the better UI features, an info panel that auto-hides. Now it’s on all the time. Then in a major shift, they began requiring all visitors to have Phanfare accounts. Gone was the ability to host your galleries on the net for all to see, now I had to convince all my family and friends to sign up with Phanfare, and to receive updates out of my control when I made changes to my albums.

For me, the changes were entirely in the wrong direction. Rather than improving a good thing, and letting me be more expressive and creative, Phanfare was suddenly locking me down into a new model that was not in alignment with my needs. And the heavy-handed way in which they handled the changes certainly raised a trust issue.

So I left, reluctantly. Smugmug is a great service in a lot of ways, and I love them, but if you’ll allow me an analogy: Where Phanfare is a tight and rigid Mac, Smugmug is a loose and unrefined Linux box. You can do a lot with it, but it takes some work. While I reveled in the ability to customize the Smugmug site and embed high-def video, I missed the Flash wizardry of Phanfare for browsing photos, the ease of organizational management, and the great cross-platform screen savers.

I was clearly not alone in my feelings about Phanfare’s changes. The reaction in their forums was strong. Interestingly, this vocal minority, these most loyal and engaged of customers, was the very group Phanfare was alienating, prepared to let them walk as they tried to sign up more grandmas and fewer creative publishers.
However, presumably they saw business indications in addition to customers’ ranting, and they gradually brought back some of the missing features like public publishing, and tweaked the new ones to improve the site, based largely on forum feedback it seems. As for me, I still stayed away, but kept an eye on the forums to keep tabs on which way the wind was blowing.

Then, last month they added a “Pro” account level. Finally, a few of my longtime key features were addressed:

  • 20 minutes of video means all of my home movie productions, many of which are 12-15 minutes long, can live there. It’s still SD *[Update: See below], so I’ll keep my Motionbox account for hosting HD, but at least I can hyperlink to my HD versions from the native Phanfare video page. Hopefully video player improvements are on the horizon.
  • The ability to do a little customization of the site (header/footer/colors)
  • CNAME support is back, so I can use my own domain name
  • A new feature, sub-sites, that looks really useful

So I’ve signed back up with Phanfare, and I’m starting the migration of my family stuff. I’m using their built-in Smugmug importer to slurp in my Smugmug site as I write this. I look forward to getting reacquainted with Phanfare and enjoying the service.

Obviously Phanfare needs to make money. I’m delighted to be able to give them a bit more of mine to get the right mix of features and promise. I implore them to continue building trust by listening closely to the user-base, and to consider how much that user-base has invested in Phanfare. Their product has a great foundation, and now after a bit of a derailment they seem to be regaining focus. Their leadership should strive to maintain that focus on their core competencies, and to leverage current trends, but not necessarily implement them themselves. Finally, please don’t reduce features. Expand, charge more if you have to, get creative like you have with Pro. But build on the quality product you’ve got and then get out of the way, so we customers can can run with it and do great things.

[Update 11/7/2009] According to Andrew Erlichson, Phanfare founder, 720p video and fullscreen capability is coming in the next release.

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There are 7 replies to “Phanfare to Smugmug and…. Back Again?

  1. Anonymous

    Those are -exactly- the reasons that reluctny drove me away from phanfare as well.

    Loved the simple flash integration, the great upload tool, etc, but when the removed those functions AND the ability to have passwords on some/all of your accounts – without people having to register, which is a non-starter for my family. Sure – make them register if they want to print, (or do something funky like add comments, a la facebook, etc) fair enough – thats a pull model, users get new functionality if they want it, security focussed customers keep their existing functionalty.

    Heck, make me pay more if you need to, but to -remove- security features is precisely the wrong direction, and it drove alot of loyal customers away – customers whom (like me) are reluctant to trust them with our precious photos again…

    I wanted -more- security options, not less, and Ive still not got back the ability to have per album passwords….so I dont know weither to believe this apparent about face unless its a total commitment – so far its not anyway.

    Not only that, but the manner in which such a personal aspect was changed (forcing my family to register to your site, or forcing me to reveal my photos to the world to anyone with the right URL!) was deeply insulting to its user base…and the responses we got at the time to protesting these changes (its for the best of the business, etc) very insular…

    We want control, not have it taken over by another company’s business changing model/s…

    Prove youve changed that (and the attitude that went with it), and you’ll have me back for life…!

  2. BullyBee

    Hey, great post.

    Just wondering what you think about the “new” Phanfare considering all the recent changes. When they decided to double the price I couldn’t run faster to SmugMug. Now I’m on a 14 day trial of SmugMug and have moved over all my photos (the third-party API stuff is great). It was the clear winner considering bang for the buck … until Phanfares latest round of changes. Phanfare recently added many features back to the Premium accounts ( I guess to compensate for the much higher price). They added CNAME support and Full HD video to name a few.

    All this really has me on the fence as to whether to switch or not.

  3. sebastian Post author

    Hi, thanks for the comment. I continue to use both Phanfare and Smugmug, and I guess my opinion is that they’re good for different things. I use smugmug for this hobby site, but Phanfare is going strong for my family site.

    I continue to dislike Smugmug’s comparatively primitive album management. The overall workflow and management with Smugmug is nowhere near as clean as with Phanfare. As well, Smugmug lags in video. The 20 minute limit at Phanfare is a requirement for me.

    It’s also worth mentioning that overall, it seems like Smugmug is pretty stagnant. New features are slow in coming.

    As I said I still use them for hosting my photos for this site, but for my family archives, Phanfare still wins hands down, even at the current prices.

    Phanfare seems to be on the right track with their changes. Abandoning their unnecessary social media attempt in favor of supporting the ones people already use, and bringing back the notion of pure photo and video hosting. The new video player is pretty good, if flaky on some browsers. They’re clearly trying to get back to their roots and continuously improve the service, while keeping it profitable.

    The advertising-based (or simply loss-based) free-service business models that are so prevalent on the internet have the effect of masking the truth of what things cost to the ‘buyer’. If getting high-quality photo and video hosting services realistically costs $200 a year, I’ll pay that if I can, rather than use some free or cheap service that may go away, has ads, or is otherwise not as invested in the services they provide and in me as a customer.

  4. Graham

    Good to read your experiences, I’ve been with Phanfare for years, like you – changing to Smugmug (maybe) I like it’s simplicity, Phanfare was getting too complicated for me and uploads were very slow.
    Also the current takeover is a worry.

    Not sure which way I will go, but your thoughts were useful.

  5. Monica

    My Phanfare account is coming up for renew in December. I have been a loyal user for years.

    I’m on a 14 day trial with Smug Mug. Its a huge learning curve for me but the prices are a lot less expensive for the middle of the road package.

    With Phanfare I used to have the premium package but now with that cost being so high in price I can no longer afford it. I’m now retired and on a fixed income.

    Not sure if I want to transfer all my photos over to Smug Mug just yet.

  6. Wendy

    I know you posted all this a few years ago, but I found your comments during a search about Phanfare, so I’m going to comment anyway.
    I’ve been a faithful user of Phanfare since almost their beginnings. I am still using Phanfare, partly because I’ve taken and uploaded SO many photos and videos that the thought of moving all of them just isn’t worth the hassle. Yes, there are cheaper options, but I actually like the fact that my photos aren’t all just stored in one spot. They have a number of servers and I feel fairly confident that they’ve got security that is good (as long as I have a good password to my main site, at least).
    I only have one major complaint and that is that uploading my video seems to be painfully slow. It can take me DAYS to upload a few short videos. To me, that is not acceptable, and that is why I went searching for solutions. If anyone has any, I’d love to hear them.


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