Turning Users into Customers
Volume Number: 20 (2004)
Issue Number: 1
Column Tag: Programming
by Dave Wooldridge
Turning Users into Customers
Your Software Should be an Effective Selling Tool
In the last two installments of this column, we explored web site marketing and online publicity, but now it's time to shine the spotlight on your software. Is your product designed to be its own best sales agent or are you doing all the work? This month, we'll take an in-depth look at the benefits of trialware and demoware, the pros and cons of various approaches, and focus on simple strategies that can help your software sell itself!
Embracing a Buyer's Market
Ten years ago, delivery mechanisms for software were primarily limited to online BBS, newsgroups, floppy disk, and CD-ROM. Then the Internet evolved into a world-wide phenomenon, providing both shareware and commercial developers with an unprecedented distribution platform for reaching new customers on a global scale.
The online world has allowed consumers to easily research and educate themselves on the spectrum of products available to solve their software needs. They compare feature sets and prices and are now more equipped to make intelligent purchase decisions. Gone are the days of walking into a local CompUSA and blindly selecting from the choices on the shelf. In this day and age, consumers expect to try software before they buy it. It doesn't matter if your software is priced at $5 or $500. If they cannot test drive your software, but have the opportunity to download and evaluate your competition, then it's probably safe to assume you've just lost a potential sale.
The Internet has proven to be such a vital marketing vehicle for selling software that even the major heavyweights like Adobe, Macromedia, Apple, and Microsoft, who used to only offer boxed retail versions of their commercial software, are now also offering downloadable trial versions. The "try before you buy" revolution has become such a ubiquitous part of the software business that the definition of shareware has blurred beyond the point of recognition. With the Internet flooded with countless software titles vying for consumer attention, who can tell the difference anymore between commercial products and shareware? Lately, it seems like most downloaded software can be unlocked and registered with a purchased serial number and an Internet connection.
So what does this mean to you as a developer? No matter what kind of software you create, if you're making it available to the public, then you need to formulate a way for consumers to try it before they buy. It is an expectation that is hard to avoid. And why would you? Even though it initially creates more development work for you, it also provides a valuable marketing opportunity as well.
While many developers realize that having downloadable trial versions of their software is a necessary sales component, the most frequently asked questions are usually where to start and what approach to adopt? Should the software be offered as a demo with some features disabled or should the software be fully functional with a limit placed on time or usage? Are nag dialog messages effective? Should an installer be used?
A Quality User Experience
Let's start by looking at the overall package. The primary purpose of trialware is not to simply inspire interest, but to make the sale. It should convince users that they don't merely want your software, but that they need your software. Posting a demo on your site, compressed in a Stuffit archive with nothing more than a simple "Read Me" file may not be enough. All too often there is a developer mentality that if consumers are interested in the product, they can just buy it to access all of the bells and whistles, so no need to spend a lot of time on the demo. This is short-sighted thinking because consumers want to see the bells and whistles upfront - they want to be impressed. Your competitors' products have similar feature sets and may even offer them at lower prices. Why should consumers choose your product? Give them a reason.
We've mentioned previously the importance of first impressions. Don't assume that consumers have thoroughly read the product information on your web site prior to downloading your demo. Don't even assume that they've ever visited your site. Your trial version could have been downloaded from VersionTracker.com, MacUpdate.com, a MacAddict CD, or any number of other places. A consumer may not have any idea what your product does, only that it had a cool name that sparked their interest. The first few minutes of exploring your demo will determine whether or not they place it in the trash or purchase a license.
With this in mind, your objective is to build a quality user experience from the second the product is downloaded to their desktop to the moment they select Quit from your application's menu.
For software that does not require an installer, Apple recommends distributing it as a Mac OS X disk image. Ever have customers complain that they downloaded your software, but couldn't remember where they saved it on their hard drive? With Apple's Safari web browser, downloaded disk images are automatically mounted on the desktop, providing an instant, easy access display that is very user friendly. Apple's Disk Copy utility (included with Mac OS X) can create disk images. If the disk image is saved as Read & Write, you can then tweak the window appearance and background graphics from options provided in the Finder's View menu. For software downloads, you probably won't want people messing with your disk image layout, so you'll want to create your disk image as Read Only. As of this writing, you cannot create Read Only disk images with customized background graphics using Disk Copy, but you can with MindVision FileStorm (http://www.mindvision.com/filestorm/).
Figure 1 reflects the kind of custom disk image you can create with MindVision FileStorm. Using our fictional CodeQuiver product as an example, we created a background image that conveys three distinct messages:
Brand Identity. CodeQuiver's name and logo are placed across the top of the disk image window. This not only promotes the product branding, but also gives the disk image a professional, polished look.
Product Description. How many times have you downloaded software, but didn't have time to try it until weeks later, at which point you'd forgotten what it was? Including a brief description or list of key features will remind users what your product does.
Instructions. Don't make users guess what to do next. Frustration will negatively overshadow their user experience. Avoid confusion by including a brief sentence on how to proceed with installing your software (even if it's as easy as dragging the application to the hard drive).
Figure 1. An example disk image for our fictional CodeQuiver. Creative disk image backgrounds allow you to remind users what your product does and how to install it.
If your application requires several support files to be installed in various locations, don't instruct users to do these steps manually. More often than not, consumers will not be bothered with a laborious installation and your download will be deleted. Convenience is the key factor here. You want users to be up and running with your application in a matter of minutes. Automate the installation task by using an installer package.
If you plan to use MindVision FileStorm to create your disk images, you may want to upgrade to their FileStorm Pro edition, which adds the ability to produce royalty-free installers. Like its disk image tools, FileStorm Pro can create installers with custom background images. This is a great way to not only promote brand identity, but it also gives you an opportunity to educate users on your product's benefits and key features while they wait for the installation to finish. Embedded in the background image of our fictional CodeQuiver installer (see Figure 2) we've included a "Did You Know?" section that reveals cool tips that new users may not be aware of. The more knowledgeable consumers are on how to use your product will greatly improve their first time experience running the application.
Figure 2. Educate new users with cool product tips while they wait for the installation to finish.
If your software requires more advanced installation options than what are currently offered in FileStorm Pro, you can check out other solutions such as MindVision Installer VISE (http://www.mindvision.com/), InstallFactory (http://www.installfactory.com/) or Stuffit InstallerMaker (http://www.stuffit.com/mac/installermaker/). To read Apple's Software Distribution FAQ or to download their own installer tools, visit the Apple Developer Connection online at http://developer.apple.com/.
Choosing a Path
After determining how you're going to package your download, the next step is creating the actual trial application. Here's where the road splits for many developers. Shareware fundamentalists believe that downloaded software should be free of restrictions, placing the responsibility on consumers to pay for the software they use. Wary of the increase in software piracy and file-sharing trends, a new breed of Internet-savvy developers believe that the current online environment demands a different approach. It's not that they think consumers are inherently dishonest, but why pay for something if it can be downloaded for free? With so much freeware available online, the Internet has created a scavenger mentality. In the minds of many consumers, not paying for downloaded software is never considered stealing, but saving money. To combat these misconceptions, more and more shareware titles are being released with some kind of restriction, whether it be based on time, usage or locked features, that force users to purchase a serial number to remove those restrictions.
If you depend on your software sales as a primary source of income, then it's in your best interest to find an effective strategy that will motivate users to purchase. As we explore the pros and cons of various concepts, keep in mind that there is no single "magic bullet" solution. You have to take a close look at which strategy will work best for your target audience and your application's feature set. For example, disabling the "Save" feature may work well for multi-featured applications like word processors or graphics editors, but if "Save" is the primary feature, such as in an audio converter utility, then the demo would be too crippled for users to properly evaluate. Your goal is to protect your software without sacrificing the user experience. Sales will not increase if users turn away frustrated.
Trialware is usually defined as an application that grants access to all of its full-functioning features for a limited span of time or number of uses. Where traditional shareware titles simply ask users to purchase a license within 30 days, trialware actually enforces this policy by either locking down the entire program or disabling key features upon expiration.
Pros. The greatest strength of trialware is its ability to introduce users to every aspect of the application without compromise. None of the features are disabled, so for a limited time, users can properly evaluate the software as if it were the full registered version. To determine how many days or uses you should adopt for your trial version, try to calculate the average length of a user session, or if your application is project-based, figure out how long it might take a user to create a project. This should help narrow down an appropriate time frame since you want to give users enough time to adequately test drive your software without giving them so much time that they complete their task without needing to purchase. For example, if your software is a web site editor, a 30-day window may give users ample time to finish building their own web site, leaving little motivation for them to purchase if they consider the job to be done. In that scenario, reducing the time frame to only 10 days or 20 uses, etc. may provide enough evaluation time without "giving away the farm."
Cons. The one disadvantage to tracking a 30-day time limit or number of uses is that it leaves developers with the predicament of how to store this information so that it cannot be modified or hacked by users. A common approach is to save an invisible data file somewhere on the user's system (such as the Preferences folder), but laziness breeds creativity. To prevent a 30-day trial from expiring, many users simply roll back their computer clock to grant themselves more time. And if a developer avoids this situation by placing the restriction on the number of sessions, there are plenty of power users who have figured out how to locate these hidden files and change the data to extend the usage. An effective approach that bypasses these user hacks is to set a time limit on each user session. So instead of limiting the number of uses or the number of days, you simply limit the session length. When a user launches your application, an "unregistered" dialog message indicates that the user has 30 minutes to test drive the application. Developers can program a built-in timer to monitor the session time. The key benefit to this approach is that the internal timer is part of the application, so it bypasses common user hacks since no invisible data file is needed. Of course, users can keep relaunching your software after each time it quits, but after sitting through the initial "unregistered" nag dialog with each successive launch, the continued inconvenience may provide the necessary motivation to purchase a license.
Figure 3. TOP: A typical demo dialog message that appears when a user tries to access a disabled feature. BOTTOM: Provide more information with a call to action, encouraging the user to click the "Purchase" button.
Since many developers are wary of releasing fully-functional trialware, their sales motivators come in the form of disabled features. Demoware is typically fully-functioning except for one or two key features that are specifically disabled. Users are then prompted to purchase a serial number in order to activate those features. For games, usually the demo includes the first 1 to 3 levels with no restrictions on game play. If the user wants access to more levels, then the game must be registered with a serial number in order to unlock the additional levels. Some graphics and printing utilities place "unregistered demo" watermarks on printed and/or on-screen documents - this cripples the features while still leaving them enabled for proper evaluation.
If you display a dialog message when users try to select disabled features, don't waste the opportunity with a passive phrase like "this feature is disabled in the demo" (see Figure 3, Top Example). Extend the message to be more informative, stating exactly what is disabled and what a user would gain from purchasing a license (see Figure 3, Bottom Example). Instead of the usual "Okay" button that dismisses the dialog, include a call to action in your message with "Purchase" as the default button and "Not Now" as the cancel button. This forces the user to make a choice. It also adds another level of convenience since your "Purchase" button could link directly to either your online web store (such as Kagi, eSellerate, RegSoft, DigiBuy or your own custom e-commerce site) or your application's built-in order form (like eSellerate's Integrated eSeller). Avoid using the error or warning icons with these dialog messages since the user did nothing wrong.
Pros. There are two primary advantages that demoware holds over trialware. One is that demoware is much more difficult to hack. And two, demoware never expires. The problem with a 30-day trial is that if a user launches the application once and then doesn't have time to revisit the software until weeks later, the trial may expire before the user has a chance to successfully evaluate it. We're all busy and often find ourselves downloading trialware that sits on our desktop for weeks until we have the time to really give it a good spin. Since demoware's chief deterrent is in crippling key features, users never have to feel pressured for time since demos never expire.
Cons. A major drawback to disabling a feature is that it prevents users from previewing that feature. Choosing the feature that is crippled is often a very difficult task for developers. What if the feature you choose to disable is the very feature that some users want to test drive? If they care most about that one feature, but are unable to try it, you run the risk of losing those sales. You could allow users to select which features are disabled at runtime, but then that essentially exposes your program as fully-functional over the course of several back-to-back sessions, defeating the whole purpose of demoware.
There are old school shareware veterans who still believe in offering unlimited, fully-functional software, relying on a consumer's sense of ethics to register the program if they decide to keep it. It's a traditional honor system at its finest with nothing but the occasional "nag" dialog message to remind consumers to do the right thing. "You've been using Program X for 12,593 days. Click here to register now." Does it work? Is it enough to motivate people to pay? If you're looking to make a full-time living selling software, then nagware is probably not the right vehicle for your products. In the current business climate, most developers find that nagware usually generates only enough sales to buy dinner and a movie on the weekends - affectionately referred to as "fun money." Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. Some products, such as the popular GraphicConverter, have done quite well with nothing more than "nag" dialog messages, but these rare exceptions are typically stellar, award-winning software that would likely excel in any marketing scenario.
Obviously, nagware is not going to net you a lot of sales if your product carries an expensive price tag, but don't assume lower priced software (under $20) is going to fare much better. While price does affect consumer purchase decisions, if there is no deterrent other than the occasional "nag" dialog message, then the defining issue becomes laziness, not price. Why register if they don't have to? If consumers are already using your software for "free," then you're going to have to give them a good reason why they should pay for it.
Successful nagware products (and even trialware) often "dangle carrots" (sales incentives) to motivate users to buy a license. Promise them extra features, free updates, unlimited support... but whatever you do, never treat your users like criminals. It's okay to lay on a little guilt about supporting shareware and future development, but your software's dialog messages and documentation should never make unregistered users feel like thieves.
Lending a Helping Hand
As developers, we know our own software creations so well that we often forget that new users will not be able to navigate through the interfaces with quite the same ease. While including documentation with the download (such as a PDF manual) is much appreciated by consumers, reading it will not be the first thing they do. How often do you read the electronic manual before double-clicking on the application icon? Never? Well, don't expect consumers to act any different. Anxious to try out your software, even well-placed "Read Me" files are generally overlooked. And adding multiple exclamation points with all capital letters may not improve the popularity of your ignored "READ ME!!!" file.
Even if your software includes built-in help (such as Apple Help), consumers typically regard that format as a last resort to solving problems. But you do not want them to struggle with your software until frustration finally leads them to the built-in help. At that point, they are so flustered and impatient that your help pages can't possibly calm their rattled nerves. People do not buy products that add confusion to their already hectic lives.
Good software should be focused not only on offering superior features, but also on providing a superior user experience. An integrated tutorial can be a great time-efficient solution, visually showing users how to operate the software without forcing them to read a lengthy manual. A built-in tutorial can be something as simple as a window with arrow buttons that take the user from screen to screen, illustrating step-by-step how to use the application interface to complete common tasks. Think of it as a digital quick start guide. Your software can automatically display the tutorial upon first launch of the application, and then make it accessible at any time via the Help Menu (see Figure 4).
Figure 4. Don't assume that new users know how to use your software. Beyond traditional online help, include an on-screen tutorial to help them navigate through the interface and key features.
Another helpful method of quickly introducing new users to key features, keyboard shortcuts, and other benefits is through the use of a "tips" window (see Figure 5). As you've seen employed in many popular software products, a tips window is usually displayed as a small floating palette window that utilizes very little screen space. Curious users can cycle through the various tips by clicking the "Next Tip" button. The Preferences window can then provide an option to either enable or disable the tips window from appearing upon application launch.
Figure 5. Including an optional "tips" window with little known facts, hidden features and keyboard shortcuts can greatly enhance a new user's experience.
Yet another helpful resource: examples! If your software creates project-based files or complex documents, then include several sample files to showcase possible uses for specific features. This is especially important if either the "New" or "Save" feature is disabled since users can still open finished files for review. These examples can also demonstrate ways to use the application that consumers may not have originally thought of, increasing the perceived value of your software.
The two fundamental secrets to turning new users into customers are (1) make users happy, and (2) give them a reason to buy. Customized disk images, hassle-free installers, tutorials, tips, and example projects are just a handful of concepts for adding a professional polish to your trialware or demoware, but every application is different. Harness your creativity to develop an effective download solution that protects your product's salability while providing an easy-to-use, intuitive evaluation environment. You may have produced a great software product, but if the first impression of your downloaded trial version does not motivate users to pull out their credit cards, you might never get a second chance to win their love... or money.
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.