Category Archives: marketing

Deciding what features to implement

This is a guest post from roving software entrepreneur, Steve McLeod.

Each feature you add to your software product takes time to implement, adds ongoing complexity, and is hard to get rid of later. So you need to choose wisely when adding new features.

Here are some tips on choosing which features to implement.

Does your product really need new features?

This question might be surprising, but it is an important one to ask yourself. A software product is never completely finished. There is always scope for improvement. This makes it hard to know when to stop working on it.

If your product is mature and has stable revenue, there might not be much opportunity to increase sales. Adding new features would please some customers, but would not be a good use of your time.

Products that should be considered “done” can still have a large backlog. Don’t be fooled into thinking that your product will only be done once all existing feature requests are done.

Your product might have great potential to grow, but not by adding new features. Perhaps you need to improve your sales and marketing efforts. Don’t use your feature request backlog as an excuse to neglect the other important parts of running your product.

It’s okay to ignore your backlog

Feature request backlogs seem to never shrink. Implementing improvements leads to even more feature requests.

Looking at your backlog can be overwhelming. You’ll see feature requests that are years old. There are others that you intended to implement, but never did. It is okay to ignore these.

Don’t feel that the entire backlog consists of promises that must be kept. Some requests are no longer relevant. Some are from customers who no longer need your product. Some are simply not worth the substantial effort.

Keep your grand vision in mind

Prefer to implement highly requested features. But before you do, make sure each feature fits your long-term plans. Ask yourself:

  • who is your ideal customer? Is the feature relevant to them? For example, your enterprise customers might be asking for “single sign-on”, whereas you are more interested in working with small businesses.
  • will this be an ongoing cost- and time-sink? For example, a particular feature could require HIPAA (a US health industry regulation) compliance, while you have no interest in the extra workload and costs of HIPAA compliance.
  • does this proposed feature agree with your marketing angle?

Each new feature has ongoing costs

Remember that each additional feature comes with ongoing costs in support and complexity. Each new feature is an additional place for bugs to hide, adding to your future workload. Take these future costs into account when deciding if a feature should be added.

Features interact with each other, sometimes in unexpected ways. Even one additional checkbox in a settings panel can lead to ongoing confusion.

Be wary in particular of features that require integration with third party products. For example, many a product owner was burned when Twitter turned off some parts of their public API. Another example is my own experience adding support for connecting to customers’ email inboxes. I then found myself supporting not just my own product’s problems, but those caused by customers’ email service provider.

Sales-blockers are high priority

Not all feature requests are equal. Requests for feature A might come only from long time customers of your product, while feature B is requested only by your trial customers. It sounds ruthless, but you should prioritise the feature requested by trial customers.

When running a business, you do need to care for financial concerns. Take into consideration that:

  • A trial customer is likely to report a showstopper (for them). When you implement features requested by several trial customers, you are likely to increase revenue.
  • An existing customer is likely to report an inconvenience. You probably won’t lose the customer by delaying the improvement they asked for.
  • You need new customers to keep your business healthy.

It is important, of course, to care for existing customers. Don’t take this as an argument to ignore existing customers altogether in favour of potential customers.

Identifying and fixing sales blockers as a matter of priority is especially important for new products. It takes time to find the right balance of features a new product needs to meet the demands of the market.

Prefer the easy things, but not always

Let’s say you are deciding which of two features to implement next. Both feature A and feature B have been requested dozens of times. Feature A will take a week’s worth of work, and feature B will take a month’s work. Which one do you do?

Feature A, right? Maybe not.

Feature A is usually the correct choice. But you’ll be repeating this scenario over and over. Your product will gradually gain many relatively trivial features, while never getting the important features you need to create a compelling product.

Sometimes you need to do the hard work to add the features that are difficult to implement.

Listen to your customers…

Your customers are a great source of ideas for improvements to your product. As they use your product they discover what’s missing and what’s poorly implemented.

Therefore make it exceedingly easy for your customers to get suggestions to you. Consider adding a “Suggest an Improvement” link to your support page and to your help menu, if applicable. This makes it clear to your customers that you are actively seeking suggestions. My experience has been that customers notice these links and use them.

A “Suggest an Improvement” link can be as simple as a “mailto” link. A basic dialog or web form also works well. If you are seeking inspiration on how to do this, look at the “Report an Issue” form linked from the Google Chrome’s Help menu.

Another way to get customer suggestions is by asking them via a survey. This is okay, but it requires people to imagine back to when they last used your product. Us humans tend to be pretty poor at recalling things. It is much better to encourage customers to send suggestions as they encounter difficulties, while it is foremost in their mind.

I found collecting and organizing feedback for my own product, Poker Copilot, to be a pain. So I launched a new product to help manage feature requests. It allows your customers to suggest and upvote improvements for your product.

…and not your competitors

You’ve probably already heard that you should “listen to your customers, not your competitors.” I’m repeating it, because forgetting this can be deadly to your business.

Feature-envy leads us to believe we have to add every feature our competitors offer. Like regular envy, it is best to ignore it.

When your competitor announces a new feature, it can be demoralising. You feel you are falling behind and unable to compete. If the feature looks impressive, you’ll be tempted to add it to your product as soon as you can.

But wait. Have any of your customers actually requested this feature that your competitor added? If not, it is probably because it is not all that useful to your customers.

Your competitor might eventually regret adding that feature, as it turns out that only a small but demanding percentage of their customers use it. By not adding it, you could be giving yourself an advantage.

I’ve discovered that customers often learn about the good features my competitors have. They then tell me that they want these features. Only then do I start considering adding them.

Small tweaks versus major features

I just recommended listening to customers. But be careful of only using customer requests as a source for improvements.

Your customers tend to ask for incremental improvements. Customers are more likely to ask for an additional option in a drop-down menu than they are for a innovative new way to view their data.

If you rely on customer suggestions alone, you’ll never get the innovative new features that can make your product something much grander.

Make sure you balance your customer-contributed requests with your own innovative improvements.

Beware of preferring “pet” features

I just argued in favour of choosing innovative improvements. However this comes with a warning. Innovation can be used to justify poor choices. When you are in charge of decisions for your product, you are in danger of choosing improvements that you find interesting instead of those that have a strong business case.

Be careful. You could spend months working on a feature that is not very helpful to your business.

This is the type of feature that only one customer requested, but because it sounds more interesting to you than anything else in your massive backlog of feature requests, you immediately start working on it.

My own experience with this: I added scripting to a product even though no-one had asked for it and my target customer was not the type of person who would be interested in custom scripting. When I announced the scripting feature, not a single person seemed to use it. I eventually got rid of it.

How do you decide?

The tips I’ve offered you in this article come from my own experience. Do you have tips of your own for deciding which features to implement? If so, please add them in the comments below. I’d love to read them!

Steve McLeod runs a small software company in Barcelona, Spain. His products are Poker Copilot, a desktop analytics app for online poker players, and Feature Upvote, a web app that allows your customers to openly suggest and upvote features they want to see in your product.

Bundlefox review

I have been using bundles and 1-day sales as a useful way to increase the exposure for my visual planning software. I have had positive experiences with BitsDuJour, Macupdate and BundleHunt. Once you put your software in one bundle you inevitably get approached by people who run other bundle promotions. I was approached by Bundlefox and agreed to put Hyper Plan in their Mac software bundle. I wish I hadn’t. It has been a pretty miserable experience from start to finish. In brief:

  • I never knew when the promotion was going to start or end. I was told it was going to start on 27th February, but it eventually started on 20th April. It was supposed to run for 3 weeks, but actually ran for 6 weeks. This is a problem, because it means you can’t put your software in other sale or bundle that require an exclusive discount.
  • Communication was poor. They generally took several days to reply to emails.
  • The number of licenses sold was very low, especially compared with sales of Hyper Plan on BundleHunt.
  • Worst of all, they only paid me 60% of what I was expecting per license. When I queried this they emailed me back “It’s **% revenue share after fees, most of the sales came in through affiliates and we had to pay them off before sharing the revenue”. I went back through their emails and their ‘Vendor Manual’ and there is no mention of affiliate fees being subtracted. It just says “You would receive a percentage of the total payments received for the bundle minus PayPal fees”. In fact I had emailed them “So if you sell 2000 bundles for $12 of which 500 choose Hyper Plan, I get **% of $12×500 = $***?” and they replied “Your calculation is correct”. I feel deceived.
  • The low number of licenses sold and the low payout per license means that it wasn’t worth the effort to setup.

I don’t know what Bundlefox are like to deal with as buyer, but I recommend vendors give them a wide berth.

It’s OK not to have a social media strategy (really)

I have heard various product owners beating themselves up about how they don’t have enough of a social media presence. Well, I have been running a profitable one-man software company for the last 12 years and I am here to tell you that neither of my products have a social strategy worthy of the name – and that’s OK.

My seating planner software, PerfectTablePlan, has a Facebook page and a Google+ page. Whenever I publish a newsletter for PerfectTablePlan I publish a link to the newsletter on these sites (which is a few times per year). That’s pretty much it. My visual planning software, Hyper Plan, has an even smaller social media presence than PerfectTablePlan. To be honest the small amount I do on social media is intended mostly for the benefit of the mighty Google.

My forays into social media have not been encouraging:

  • I once sent out a newsletter to over 3000 opted-in subscribers and encouraged them to follow a newly created PerfectTablePlan Twitter page. Exactly 0 of them did.
  • I created a Pinterest page for PerfectTablePlan and paid someone to post to it for a few weeks. It generated a bit of traffic of questionable quality, but the traffic dried up as soon as they stopped posting.
  • I have tried paid ads on Facebook and Twitter and the results were miserable.
  • The PerfectTablePlan Google+ page has just 14 followers.
  • The PerfectTablePlan Facebook page got a miserable 4 views last week.

The question isn’t whether social media can bring you traffic, but whether that traffic will convert to sales and is social media the best use of your limited time? Social media is a productivity black hole and the opportunity costs of noodling around on Twitter should not be underestimated. Also various studies show that email still out-performs social media by quite a margin.

“E-mail remains a significantly more effective way to acquire customers than social media—nearly 40 times that of Facebook and Twitter combined.” McKinsey

People go on social media to chat to their friends and look at cat videos. Not to buy things. They use search, Amazon and Ebay for that. When is the last time you even looked at an ad in the Facebook sidebar? Or clicked on a sponsored post in Twitter? Exactly.

Making an impact on social media is hard. 90% of tweets are not retweeted. And even the followers that are real humans may only be interested in discounts:

“The IBM Institute for Business Value found that 60-65% of business leaders who believe that consumers follow their brands on social media sites because they want to be a part of a community. Only 25-30% of consumers agree. The top reason consumers follow a brand? To get discounts – not exactly ideal for a company’s bottom line.” Forbes

A lot of the ‘engagement’ on social media is fake. You can buy 1000 Twitter followers for less than £10. The BBC advertised a fake business with “no products and no interesting content” as an experiment on Facebook and got 1,600 highly suspicious ‘likes’ within 24 hoursCopyblogger deleted their facebook page due to the amount of fake followers and the low level of engagement.

A thread I started on the Business of Software forum showed that many other small software product companies had tried and failed with social media. Why do you think you will fare better? Most software products just aren’t inherently social. There is a limit to how much you can usefully say, day after day, about seating planning. I could try and create a social media presence talking about the latest wedding and catering trends and try to sneak in some references to seating plans. But I would rather commit suicide with a cheese grater.

As a rule of thumb it might be worth putting serious effort into social media if yours is the sort of product people are likely to talk to their friends about down the pub. In that case social media may be able to usefully enhance your visibility and reach. But for the vast majority of software that doesn’t fit this description, you are trying to hammer a square peg into a round hole. At the time of writing the pop star Taylor Swift has 74,638,154 Facebook likes. While Intuit, one of the world’s largest software companies, has 221,130 likes.

Next time somebody tells you that you must have a social media campaign ask yourself:

  • Is your product a good fit for social media?
  • Do they have an agenda, e.g. a social media tool, ebook or consultancy to push? Or an article quota to fill?
  • Have they produced any real evidence that a social media campaign translated into actual sales?
  • Is social media the best thing you could be doing with your valuable time?

Ignore any vague waffling about ‘engagement’. Nobody ever paid their mortgage with engagement.

Choosing a market for your software

The efficient market hypothesis states that “asset prices fully reflect all available information”. If the efficient market hypothesis is true, then you would expect actively managed funds (where fund managers pick the stocks) to do no better than index funds. That does seem to be the case:

“Numerous studies have shown that index funds, with their low costs and ability to closely mimic the returns of markets both broad and narrow, steadily outperform the returns of most actively managed funds.” Wall Street Journal

Unless you have some sort of insider knowledge (which it might be illegal to exploit), you might as well invest in index funds or get your cat to pick your stocks as pay someone else to do it.

But I am interested in a different sort of market efficiency. If you have to pick a vertical market to start a software business in, does it matter which vertical market you pick? If the market is perfectly efficient for businesses, then each vertical will have a level of competition proportional to the size of the market. In that case you should have an equal chance of success whether you decide to write a game, a developer tool, an anti-virus product or a CRM system.

From lots of reading and talking to other software business owners I have come to the conclusion that the market is highly inefficient for businesses. The market vertical you pick has a big effect on your chances of success. It seems to me that the three worst verticals are: games, developer tools and consumer mobile apps.

Games are fun! Writing a game sounds like a blast. Much more exciting than writing software for boring businesses. It has also been getting easier to write games due to the ever improving tools. Consequently, the market for games is totally saturated. The outlook for independent games developers looks grim. Today on the Steam platform there are 12,971 games listed. Even some of the big and famous games developers only seem to survive by forcing their staff to work vast amounts of unpaid overtime.

Pretty much every software entrepreneur has considered creating a software development tool at some point. I know I have. It is a market that we all understand (or think we do). But consequently it is saturated. Software developers are also pretty horrible customers. They are used to using lots of free software. And that tool you spent years developing? They think they can write something better over a weekend.

“Thousands of people used RethinkDB, often in business contexts, but most were willing to pay less for the lifetime of usage than the price of a single Starbucks coffee (which is to say, they weren’t willing to pay anything at all). … Developers love building developer tools, often for free. So while there is massive demand, the supply vastly outstrips it. This drives the number of alternatives up, and the prices down to zero.” Why RethinkDB failed

I wrote back in 2010 what a horrible market the iPhone app store is for developers. Since then the number of apps has increased tenfold to 2.2 million, the average paid app price is a measly $1.01 ($0.48 for games) and some 90%+ of apps are free or freemium.

You should be wary of markets with no competition. But the really high levels of competition in these three markets drives down prices and makes it very hard to get noticed. Obviously not everyone in these 3 markets is failing. It is possible to create a product in one of these markets and be wildly successful (Indie game developer Notch of Minecraft fame springs to mind). But I think the odds are very much stacked against you.

So what market should you pick to maximize your chances of commercial success? Aside from the obvious factors (e.g. something you are interested in and knowledgeable about, something that solves a real problem etc) I suggest avoiding anything considered ‘sexy’ by other developers.

Here is a radical idea – create a software product aimed at women. The vast majority of software is written by men and consequently it tends to cater for men. 50% of the world’s population are women and they buy software too!

Just because a product is not in a ‘sexy’ market doesn’t mean that it has to be boring to create. I have found plenty of interesting usability, optimization and visualization problems to solve while developing my own seating planning and visual planning software products.

Here is a thought experiment. Imagine you are talking to another software guy at a conference and explaining what you product does. If your imaginary software guy says “that sounds cool”, then it’s probably a tough market to create a commercial product in. But if they look a bit surprised or their eyes glaze over, then you might be on to something.

Promoting your software through 1-day sales and bundles

Hyper Plan, my visual planning software for Windows and Mac, has now been for sale for a bit less than 2 years. Given that I am (by choice) doing all the development, marketing and support for both Hyper Plan and my other product, PerfectTablePlan, I have had a limited amount of time to promote Hyper Plan. But Hyper Plan is in a  competitive market, where it is hard to get noticed using traditional promotional techniques such as SEO and PPC. So I have been experimenting with promotion via 1-day sales sites and bundles.

I did several promotions through both bitsdujour.com and macupdate.com promo. These were 50%-off sales for 1 day (sometimes extended for another day). The site takes 50% commission on the sale, so I only got $10 of my normal $40 ticket price. But I also got exposure to a whole new audience I wouldn’t normally reach.

I also included Hyper Plan in bundlehunt.com and macupdate.com software bundles. In these bundles customers purchased some 10 items of software at a big discount. The promotions lasted for a few weeks each. I am not at liberty to divulge how much I got for each licence, but a quick calculation based on the price of the bundles and the number of items in the bundle tells you that it was a lot less than $10!

My hopes related to sales sites and bundles were:

  1. A worthwhile amount additional sales revenue.
  2. Increased feedback, giving me more insight for improving the product.
  3. Making money further down the line from major upgrades (e.g. v1 to v2).
  4. That I wouldn’t be swamped in support emails from people who were paying me a lot less than the standard price.
  5. More word-of-mouth sales after the discount has finished.

On analysing the results, the first 4 turned out to be true.

I had previously tried promoting my PerfectTablePlan table planning software on bitsdujour.com, but the results were disappointing. It just wasn’t a good match for their audience. However Hyper Plan is a more general tool and it did a lot better. The bundles also sold in impressive volumes. The source of Hyper Plan sales revenues to date after commission (but not including upgrades) is show below.

sales-revenue-source

So the extra sales were certainly significant from a revenue point of view, bearing in mind that Hyper Plan is a relatively young and unknown product.

I also got some very useful feedback from the bitsdujour comments section.

I released v2 of Hyper Plan in March 2016. I have crunched the numbers to see how many v1 customers to date have paid for upgrades to v2.

percentage upgrades

I expected that the 1-day sale customers who had paid $20 for the initial licence would be less likely to pay $16 to upgrade to v2 than those who had hadn’t purchased at a heavy discount. I was surprised that the opposite turned out to be true. I don’t have a good theory why.

I don’t have any figures for bundle customer upgrades, as the bundles happened after v2 was released. Given that bundle purchasers probably only wanted a subset of the software in the bundle, I expect the upgrade percentages to be a lot lower than above.

I wasn’t swamped in support emails. In fact things were surprisingly quiet during the bundles, which makes me wonder how many people who purchased the bundle were interested in Hyper Plan.

There were no sustained jumps in traffic or sales after the 1-day sales or bundles ended.

Best of all, the 1-day sales and bundles don’t cost anything, apart from a modest amount of time to set-up.

I know some vendors promote these 1-day sales and bundles to existing customers. But I don’t understand why you would do that. The whole point of these channels is to reach new audiences. Also you risk annoying customers who have paid list price. If you already have an audience you can promote a sale to, then you don’t need 1-day sales sites or bundles. Just email them a discount voucher.

I had one complaint from an existing customer on a forum who had paid full price and then saw Hyper Plan in a 1-day sale. I offered to refund the difference back to them, but they didn’t take me up on it.

In conclusion, the sales and bundle sites brought in useful spikes of additional sales (especially when you include upgrades later on) and feedback, without a big jump in support burden. But they didn’t lead to a noticeable long-term increase in traffic or sales. Obviously every product is different. But if you have a product that needs exposure, isn’t too niche and doesn’t require a lot of support, it may be worth giving 1-day sales and bundles a try.

Google CPA bidding goes wild

I have been using Google’s AdWords Cost Per Action (CPA) bidding for a number of years. I set the maximum I was prepared to pay for a conversion  (e.g. a successful install of my software). AdWords then set the bid price to try and get me conversions at that price or less. It worked pretty well for a number years and it saved me a lot of time tweaking bid prices. But Google recently phased out Maximum CPA bidding and forced me to switch to Target CPA bidding. From this point I could only specify the average price I was prepared to pay per conversion. This is where it all started to go wrong.

AdWords started to bid crazy prices. Check out the screenshot below. You can see that in each case the average Cost Per Click (CPC) is more than the CPA price. For example, in the first row I have set £0.50 as the price I am prepared to pay for conversions from the ‘seating charts’ ad group. Typically about 10% of people who click on one of my Adwords ads will install the software and trigger a conversion (which is fairly standard). So a £0.50 CPA means that AdWords should be bidding somewhere around £0.05 per click. Google knows this, because they have vast amounts of data from my AdWords account (11 years worth). But the average price for the last 3 clicks was £1.17 per click. WTF Google – that’s my money!

Given that the base version of my software costs £19.95 (one time fee) there is no way I can make a profit at £1.17 per click. Not all the bids are this crazy. But there are enough crazy bids to put my whole AdWords campaign into a tailspin. So I have been forced to switch back to manual CPC bidding. If you have also been forced to switch from Maximum CPA to Target CPA bidding, then I suggest you keep a careful eye on your cost per click.

Updating the PerfectTablePlan website

I created the website for PerfectTablePlan back in 2005, using a dreadfully buggy piece of software called NetObjects Fusion (NOF). The sorry story of why I ended up using NOF is told here.

Until recently the front page looked like this.

old-website-design

I had done a fair amount of A/B test tweaking and it converted visitors to downloads and sales relatively well compared to other downloadable product websites. But it had that ‘designed by a programmer’ look and it wasn’t responsive, so it didn’t work on well on mobile devices. My software only runs on Windows and Mac, but I still want to appear in mobile searches. The HTML generated by NOF was also pretty horrible. Frankly, I was a bit embarrassed by it when I looked at websites for other products. I kept on meaning to update it, but there was always something more urgent or (to be honest) more interesting to do. I finally bit the bullet and had it redesigned in 2015. The front page now looks like this:

new-website-design

The process was:

  1. I wrote a specification for the new design.
  2. I ran a 99Designs.com competition to design a new home page based on the spec.
  3. I selected the winning designer and paid them to design 3 additional pages in the same style.
  4. I paid pixelcrayons.com to code up the 4 pages in responsive CSS/HTML.
  5. I poured all the old content into the new design. Being careful to maintain the existing page names, titles, text and images etc, so as not to lose existing organic traffic.

The whole process didn’t cost a great deal (somewhere around $2k), but it took quite a lot of my time, spread over 5 months. Especially the final step. This wasn’t helped by the size (some 128 pages were converted) and general cruftiness of the old website, and my lack of knowledge of CSS and responsive design.

I didn’t want to be locked in to a CMS, so I used Mac static website generator Hammer4Mac to generate the HTML. It goes without saying that I wrote a program to help me pull all the content out of the old website and into Hammer4Mac! While Hammer4Mac isn’t without flaws, I found it a vast improvement over NOF and the new website is now much easier to update and maintain than the old one.

The new website went live on 16-Dec-2015.

So how much difference did the redesign make? Here are the changes based on comparing 25 weeks of data before the change and 25 weeks of data after the change:

bounce rate +1.5%
time on page +16.0%
traffic +6.5%
        desktop traffic -2.2%
        mobile & tablet traffic +40.0%
completed installs +1.4%
sales transactions +11.4%
total sales value +21.8%
visit to sale conversion ratio +4.6%
average order value +9.4%

The increase in mobile traffic as a proportion of total traffic is pretty clear from analytics (the dip in December is seasonal):

traffic

I believe  a 21.8% improvement in sales is a lot more than I would have got by spending the same amount of time and money improving the product itself, which is pretty mature after 11 years of work.

Overall it looks pretty positive. But, as analytics data is fairly dirty (e.g. due to analytics spam) and I didn’t run a split test, I can’t definitely say that the changes above were due to the website changes. I wasn’t able to compare all the above data with the same time period for the previous year due to some missing analytics data. But the sales data for 25 weeks before and after 16-Dec in the previous year was:

sales transactions -9.9%
total sales value -2.7%
average order value +8.1%

Which implies that the sales changes are unlikely to be due to seasonal factors.

Best of all, I never have to use NetObjects Fusion again!