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Turn Your Web Site into a Marketing Machine

Volume Number: 19 (2003)
Issue Number: 11
Column Tag: Marketing

Software Marketing

Turn Your Web Site into a Marketing Machine

by Dave Woolridge

Web Page Essentials for Promoting Your Software

Last month, we kicked off this series with a quick overview on the importance for shareware and commercial developers to see the "big picture" when planning a new product. All of the decisions you make during the development phase directly affect the marketing and lifespan of your product. Establishing a brand identity and positive first impressions for your software are just two of the many crucial elements needed for a successful product line. Another valuable element that was briefly discussed was the presence of a professional web site for your software company. This month, we'll explore several marketing tools and techniques that you can integrate into your web site to help increase awareness and sales for your software.

Pitfalls To Avoid

First, let's review what should NOT be included on your software web site. Photo galleries of your favorite supermodels, dissertations on why Wolverine is the best X-Men character, a web shrine dedicated to U2, and digital pictures of your family trip to Hawaii are just a few examples. These are all highly acceptable forms of self-expression, but by posting them on the same site as your software, you've just slapped a huge scarlet letter "A" for "amateur" on your virtual software company. To some of you, this may seem incredibly obvious, but many shareware developers listed on VersionTracker.com continue to make the mistake of including personal interests on their sites.

To blog or not to blog... While blogging has become one of the Internet's hottest new trends, the very nature of its diary-like "soapbox" can lead to negative reader reactions. And if a potential customer does not agree with your world viewpoint, they may react by choosing not to buy your products. So should your blog reside on your software web site? It depends on how you use it. If you utilize the web blog to inform users on the development status of a particular software project, then blogging may work to your advantage in establishing a close relationship with your customers. But if you post opinionated entries about religion, politics, or even something as innocuous as the software industry, then you run a good chance of offending someone out there and losing a potential sale.

Eleven Web Site Essentials

Last month, several marketing concepts were illustrated through the creation of a fictional software product named CodeQuiver. Figure 1 shows a mock web page for CodeQuiver with numbered arrows pointing to each one of the eleven web site essentials. You'll want your web site's interface to have it's own unique design, but hopefully, this template will serve as a helpful guide when deciding which components and features to include.

1 - Intuitive Site Navigation

Building an easy-to-use menu system for your site will allow your visitors to travel freely through your pages without getting lost. Placing a global menu on every page of your site prevents the need to backtrack to the home page just to visit another section. A user's online experience at your web site should be as painless as possible. If people become frustrated or impatient while exploring your site, their negative mindset may taint their first impression of your software. To keep things running smoothly, maintain a simple and intuitive design. CodeQuiver's site navigation (Figure 1, Item 1) is a very basic tabbed menu. Visitors always know where they are since their current location is marked by a highlighted, yellow tab. Visitors also have access to any other section of the site via the gray tabs.


Figure 1. A fictional web page for CodeQuiver. Items 1-11 represent a handful of essential elements that can help you turn your software company web site into a marketing machine.

Another advantage to a global site menu is to encourage impulse purchases of your other software titles. A consumer may have come to your site to buy a specific product, but with your other products only a single mouse-click away, that person may decide to take a quick look. And if some of your customers walk away with two or three purchases when they only came to buy one, your site navigation has proven itself to be quite effective.

For those of you who feel artistically-challenged, the design of your site interface does not need to be complex or intricate. In Figure 1, the most complicated image on the page is the product logo. The rest of the page uses very little imagery. Some of the most attractive software pages available online are those that appear simple, clean, and most importantly, easy to read. Just look at Apple.com's minimalist design. Its white, uncluttered pages appear very elegant and professional.

If your site currently includes hundreds of web pages, a "drill-down" menu approach to your site hierarchy may still not provide convenient direct access to important pages. For large sites, many developers contemplate the use of a site-wide search engine. Depending on what scripting languages your web server supports, there are dozens of freeware and shareware options available online for Perl, PHP, ASP, JSP, etc.


Figure 2. You can add free, customized Google SiteSearch to your web site in only a matter of minutes.

If your web hosting account does not currently support CGI or server-side scripts or if you have very little experience coding web-based scripting languages, then you may want to check out Google's free SiteSearch service at http://www.google.com/searchcode.html

With only a few lines of HTML code that can be easily pasted into your web pages, Google provides you with a free turn-key site search solution that can be up and running in a matter of minutes.

For the ultimate in customization, you can also sign up for the next level in Google's free SiteSearch service, enabling you to tailor Google's search results page with your own company logo and site colors. To see an example pop-up window of a customized search results page, see Figure 2. To sign up for this advanced free SiteSearch service, visit http://www.google.com/services/free.html

2 - Product Brand Identity

Last month, we covered the importance of establishing a brand identity for your software product - a unique logo or image that is consistently displayed across all visual elements such as your web site, banner ads, print advertising, your application's icon and "About" window, etc. Repeat viewings of this key imagery will help foster consumer recognition, so on every web page related to your application, include your product logo or signature imagery. The logo placement of CodeQuiver in Figure 1, Item 2, is just one of many ways your software can be represented on your site.

3 - Purchase and Download Links

While developers are already aware of the necessity of including purchase and download links on their software web pages, it should be noted that the placement of these two items is critical. Newspaper editors refer to the most valuable real estate as the top half of the page above the fold. To see below the fold forces the reader to flip over the newspaper, which requires a second step. The average consumer is too busy to waste time looking for these links. If you place these two links at the bottom of your web page after your product description, you run the risk that the user may not bother to scroll down beyond the initial screen (below the fold). Also, do not bury these two links within your product description. As silly as it may sound, many consumers scan through sites so quickly that they may not see the links unless they are placed at the top of the page with eye-catching buttons or large bolded text. We used to receive a few e-mails every month from visitors looking for a certain download link that was there on our site, but they just could not "see" it. We moved the link to the top of the page and replaced it with a large button, and now we no longer receive those kinds of e-mail queries. If they can't find it, they can't buy it. Figure 1, Item 3 shows how the download and purchase buttons are prominently displayed on the web page, strategically "framing" the text description in the center.

4 - Text vs. Graphics

When it comes to listing the current version number, price, and other key elements, there are two advantages to displaying this information as plain HTML text and not as graphic images. One is that search engine bots only read text when indexing your site, so it's important that they pick up the appropriate keywords in your web page text for higher search rankings. Secondly, HTML text is a lot easier and quicker to update than having to edit and resave an image file. Many developers include the version number next to the product name in the software logo image. Sure it looks stylish, but it takes that much more time to modify the graphic the next time you release a new version. With the frequency that version numbers, prices, and product descriptions change, an effective web site is not only one that best serves your audience, but also one that best serves your busy schedule. Time equals money, so we'd all rather be programming the next killer app and spending less time updating web pages.

5 - Product Descriptions

When was the last time you read a lengthy product description online in its entirety? Reading long paragraphs of text in a web browser is not only hard on the eyes, but it just feels tedious. Most people don't take the time to read online. Their eyes dart across the screen, looking for keywords and phrases that can quickly summarize what your software product can do to make their life better. And you're lucky if your web page receives fifteen seconds to convince them of that before they move on to the next link. We live in an age where essays have seemingly been replaced with PowerPoint decks and bulleted lists.

Brevity is key. When it comes to editing your product description for the Web, less is more. Be careful to include all of the necessary keywords to improve your placement in the search engines, while whittling down the description to short paragraphs and bullet points. Emphasize the key features that will attract buyers. Save the minutiae for your documentation and help file.

If your software is a complicated application (such as a development environment) with lots of features that need to be mentioned, it's a good idea to break the different sections of your description into several interlinked pages. This way, consumers get a brief overview from reading the main product page and those who are interested in learning more can click on links to view detailed explanations of features, specifications, etc. This modular, "drill-down" approach provides the information in bite-sized, easy-to-digest servings. A side benefit to splitting long descriptions into multiple, interlinked pages is that there are now more pages that can be indexed by search engine bots for ranking placement. Just be careful to maintain a safe balance between sectioned pages and convenience. In Figure 1, Item 5, CodeQuiver's main description is very brief with related links listed in the right column. Most of those links only go one level deep. While you want your pages to be read, you don't want to create too many sublevels of information, making specific details hard to find.

6 - Screenshots vs. Features Tour

First of all, if you don't already include screenshots on your site, then you're missing out on a valuable selling tool. For software with a user interface, people want to see what it looks like. For those who are lazy enough to say that people should just download and try the software if they want to see the interface obviously don't remember that people are lazy enough to walk away rather than take the time to download an unknown application. If someone is seriously interested in your product, they will download the trial version immediately, but many of your site visitors may only be casually browsing. Those are the impulse buyers that you want to hook with enticing screenshots.

Many developers simply post a web page of five or six screenshots with nothing more than one or two word captions like "Main Window" or "Preferences Window." While this does serve the purpose at hand, there is a more effective way to turn mild curiosity into serious interest. In the last section, we discussed the need to keep product descriptions brief and now we see the need to add more descriptive context to screenshots so that consumers truly understand what they are viewing. You can kill two birds with one stone by creating an online "tour" of your application. This concept usually consists of several pages linked in succession with "Previous" and "Next" arrow buttons, so that a consumer can travel effortlessly through the tour, learning more about your product with each new step. In Figure 1, Item 6, the "Features Tour" link would take a reader through CodeQuiver's key features such as adding a code snippet to the database, searching by keyword for specific code snippets, showing CodeQuiver's compact interface working side-by-side with Apple's Project Builder, etc. Each page would include one or two screenshots with a paragraph that explains the illustrated feature.

7 - Testimonials, Awards and Reviews

It may feel awkward to brag about your own creations and achievements, but that's one of the job requirements when selling your software. People want to know about awards and stellar reviews. They want to read comments from their peers. These accolades are important because they establish credibility for your software. Your web site needs to be an effective advertisement for your products, serving as an interactive marketing brochure to help consumers with their buying decision.

If you're shopping for a new text editor and you're trying to decide between the 4-star, award-winning veteran and a cheaper unknown brand, you're probably going to choose the acclaimed, popular one. Even though it's more expensive than the others, it's fairly easy to justify the higher price if that text editor is perceived as a higher quality product.

You need to argue that same case with your software products. If your software has received positive reviews and awards, let your site visitors know about them. It can mean the difference between their purchase of your product or your competition's. Did Tucows.com award your product with a 5-cow rating? Did VersionTracker.com users collectively rate your product with a 4.5-star average? Never assume that site visitors are already aware of these accolades. Figure 1, Item 7 shows an example of a key quote from a leading developer magazine placed prominently on CodeQuiver's web page. If an expert's opinion piques someone's interest enough to read more and even download the trial version, then the "hook" worked.

Make sure your bragging rights are earned and not self-proclaimed. Announcing on your site that your own product is the "best in the world" does not educate consumers - it simply comes off as arrogant. But if a leading magazine awards your product as "best choice" in its category, then that is a badge your site can proudly display.

If your product is brand new and has not yet had the opportunity to garner any acclaim, then posting a dedicated page for customer testimonials and reviews may be a tad premature. Instead, ask fellow developers to beta test a pre-release of your software. If they have positive feedback, then ask for their permission to post their kind words online. A few solid recommendations quoted on your site can really help sell an otherwise unknown product.

But word to the wise, do not fabricate ratings, awards or testimonials. People are smarter than you think and can usually smell a rat. VersionTracker.com users are very adept at spotting fraudulent feedback, so do not pose as an anonymous VersionTracker member waxing poetic on how cool your own software is and why it deserves 5-stars. If suspected, they will pin you to the mat with flaming feedback postings, accusing you of being an unethical amateur - exactly what we're trying to avoid. We want to attract new customers, not drive them away by the truckloads.

8 - Online Support

One of the key elements that factor into a consumer's buying decision is the level of support that comes with a software purchase. Consumers look to your web site as an indication of how you support your products. If your online support consists only of a single e-mail link, then you may not be providing the level of comfort that a potential customer is expecting. Telling customers to e-mail support questions to dave@codequiver.com - which is the same e-mail address listed for sales inquiries - makes your company look like a small operation. If consumers suspect that the same person that develops the software is also swamped answering all sales and support e-mails, they may fear that their support question will go unanswered for days. While this may be an unfair perception since many shareware developers successfully run their own one-person businesses and provide better support than most Fortune 500 companies, it is a common misconception that your web site can help alleviate.

For shareware products, consumers generally do not expect toll-free support phone numbers, but they do expect to find online support forms that allow them to submit details of their problems. There are dozens of freeware "form mail" CGI scripts available online that can be implemented to send web-based form data to your e-mail address. Most web hosting providers include a form mail script for their accounts that is already configured to work with their servers. Not only do online forms add a professional polish to your site, but they also prevent spam bots from harvesting a listed e-mail address. Tech support is busy enough as it is answering customer queries without having to wade through an endless sea of spam.

Your software web site should not only help you make money, but it should also help you save money. Tired of receiving support and sales e-mails with common questions that you've answered a million times? Take a moment to add a web page for frequently asked questions (FAQ) or a searchable online knowledgebase (see Figure 1, Item 8).

Do not rely solely on an Apple Help manual that is accessed from within your software application. If a customer cannot launch your application, then they may not know how to manually find and open its Apple Help files. Instead, they will turn to your web site for assistance. Since Apple Help consists of HTML files, it should be relatively easy to add these pages to the support section of your web site with minimal tweaking.

The extra couple hours it takes to add the additional documentation and support pages will save you countless hours in the future with fewer support e-mails to answer. Not only will the presence of these extra pages instill comfort for those consumers who are evaluating your software and support services, but these web pages will allow your global customers in various time zones to find quick solutions 24 hours a day, 7 days a week - even when you're asleep.

9 - The Art of Upselling

Some of your best customers will be ones that have already purchased one or more of your products. Reward their loyalty with special upgrade offers (see Figure 1, Item 9) and exclusive discounts on new products. Since your satisfied customers are already aware of your development quality, selling them new products does not require as much effort. Be careful not to exploit their loyalty with excessive upgrade fees. These are the people who praise and recommend your software to their friends, family, and co-workers, so they should be appreciated and rewarded accordingly. We'll dive deeper into the art of upselling in a future issue.

10 - E-mail Newsletters

Even though you always post the latest news and release information online, consumers may not remember to revisit your site for new updates. If they're interested in your software, don't throw away the opportunity to continue communicating with them. By offering a free e-mail newsletter service (see Figure 1, Item 10), consumers can sign up to receive monthly software news and special offers from you via e-mail. This gives you a very powerful marketing tool for promoting your software directly to anyone who is interested. Since these site visitors voluntarily "opt-in" as newsletter subscribers, you don't have to worry about spam accusations. These subscribers want to receive e-mail from you (as long as you don't flood their e-mail box with more than one or two messages a month). A proper e-mail newsletter service provides a "unsubscribe" link at the bottom of every delivered message, so that subscribers always retain the ability to "opt-out" if desired.

So how can you add this cool service to your web site? Some web hosting providers offer list servers as an add-on option - that's one approach. Another common technique is to use a web form that saves entries to a flat-file or SQL database. CGI scripts can then be engineered to send a bulk message to the e-mail addresses from that database using the server's mail program. The problem with this approach is it creates a lot of extra work for you as the developer. You may not have to start from scratch as there are a lot of existing scripts available online for Perl, PHP, ASP, etc. Check out ScriptSearch.com and look under the "Mailing List Managers" category. Even if you do find a freeware or shareware set of scripts that suits your needs, you will still have to set-up and configure this web-based system to work with your server.

If that sounds like a royal headache, then there are third-party services that can offer you an automated solution (with many time-saving features) for a minimal fee. Microsoft's bCentral site offers a service called ListBuilder that will manage your newsletter mailing list. Sign up for an account at ListBuilder.com, add a few lines of code to your site, and you've got yourself a full-featured e-mail newsletter service within minutes. You're given a web-based administration panel for customizing your ListBuilder account, sending new messages (as either text or HTML e-mails), and even importing/exporting e-mail addresses. Every newsletter sent through your ListBuilder account includes a convenient "unsubscribe" link at the bottom of the e-mail, automating a task that would otherwise take you hours to develop or manually maintain yourself. Consumers can subscribe and unsubscribe without you having to lift a finger. ListBuilder is not free, but the annual cost may be worth the time it saves you.

11 - Tell-A-Friend

We've all seen the various "Tell -a-Friend" or "Email to a Friend" links on various web sites. This "viral" marketing tool is a very powerful grass-roots method of increasing awareness for your software products by enabling your site visitors to "spread the word." And the best part is that once this feature is set-up on your site, you don't have to do a thing - your site visitors are the ones doing all the work! If someone visits the CodeQuiver web page and wants to tell a co-worker about it, that person can easily recommend the site by clicking on the "Email this Page" link (see Figure 1, Item 11).

Clicking the "Email this Page" link passes the current web page's URL and document title to the Tell-A-Friend page as parameters. The Tell-A-Friend page then dynamically displays a web form with the parameters stored as HTML form values (see Figure 3). The user simply completes and submits the form to send the page recommendation to a friend. This can all be scripted quite easily in either JavaScript, PHP, ASP, etc. with the final form being handled by a CGI form mail script (as discussed earlier in this article). Before you roll up your sleeves and begin coding, check out the "Site Recommendation" category on ScriptSearch.com under your favorite scripting language and you'll find a large collection of existing solutions that you can customize for your own needs.

While this "Tell-A-Friend" component is fairly easy to implement, there are some important factors to consider. Keep the web form brief. Only include the required fields necessary to get the job done (see the example in Figure 3). If the form takes too long to fill out, people won't use it. Also, never record the e-mail addresses that are submitted through the "Tell-A-Friend" script and state this promise on the "Tell-A-Friend" page with a link to your site's Privacy Policy (something that all sites should have in today's world of spam and privacy lawsuits). If visitors are uncertain as to whether e-mail addresses are being recorded or not, they may avoid using the "Tell-A-Friend" feature. The word of mouth achieved will prove to be much more valuable than the e-mail addresses you might be tempted to collect.


Figure 3. Adding a "Tell-A-Friend" feature to your site enables visitors to easily "spread the word" about your software products.

Your Web Site Works for You

As programmers, we understand how user experience can make or break a sale. This should be a major concern not only when developing your software, but also when designing your web site. It serves as a tireless online sales and support representative, promoting your software and aiding your customers round-the-clock. While the web essentials discussed here are only a handful of possible tools, hopefully you'll find some of these ideas helpful in turning your software company's web site into a marketing machine!


Dave Wooldridge is the founder of Electric Butterfly (www.ebutterfly.com), the web design and software company responsible for Stimulus, HelpLogic, UniHelp, and the popular developer site, RBGarage.com.

 
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