Generally speaking, exposure alone can be worth it. The television show Shark Tank provides easy evidence of that. For any not inclined to immediately click out of this post, the linked inc.com article breaks down just how beneficial an appearance on the show can be to a business that has a product to sell directly to consumers, regardless of whether the business hooks a “shark” as an investor. Bombas socks, for instance, got passed on by every investor on the show, but nonetheless saw their sales skyrocket. I even looked into buying a pair, but just can’t bring myself to spend quite that much on socks; even so, I’d have never even known of Bombas if not for the Shark Tank appearance, and the stats evince that the same applies to many other people. 1 More importantly to many other buyers. And that’s just one example of many from the inc.com article. In many of those cases, the owners of the business come out ahead by not getting an offer, since they get an increase in revenue without having to relinquish any of their business interest (at least not since Mark Cuban killed ABC’s previous policy of demanding a percentage of any company’s equity or royalties in return for just appearing on the show).
In this example at least, the data backs up the idea that exposure alone can be very beneficial. Of course, none of the publishers I’ve ever encountered online offering exposure only “compensation” provide any relevant statistics whatsoever regarding how much exposure a writer could actually expect from being published through them.
No, “our site gets x number of page views per day” doesn’t count as a relevant stat. “Each story is seen by ‘x’ unique viewers, who spend an average time of ‘x’ reading the story. The writer’s personal site then sees an average increase of ‘x-to-y’ unique visitors who spend an average time of ‘x’ on their personal site. Their social media followers see an average bump of ‘x.’ Writers also report an average sales increase, or Patreon or donations increase, of ‘x%’ after being published with us.” Those would be relevant statistics.
Of course, even if those stats were available, you still might have problems. For one, typically, any site that could promise a substantial increase in any relevant statistics has to have a substantial number of quality visitors (people who spend time on the site, interact and are relatively common visitors if not flat out regulars) in order to provide said beneficial increases to the writers. And if they have that already, unless they’re completely disinterested in their own revenue for whatever reason, they ought to be earning enough money from their own base to pay at least “token” payments for stories, if not semi-pro rates, if not pro rates.
Secondly, piggybacking off the previous paragraph, payment or exposure is a false dichotomy. You can, of course, have both. All of those relevant stats I referenced above could apply just as easily to a pro-paying market–if not more so–as it could to an “exposure only” market.
Lastly, exposure isn’t a certainty. Even within the link provided at the top of this post, there are examples of exposure’s benefits dying out quickly. You can’t always count on exposure even in the best of circumstances.