I’ve been an admirer of Garry Kasparov for a while. First for this chess, then for his insightful analysis of human and computer intelligence and more recently for his brave and principled stand against Putin. Turns out he is pretty good on Twitter as well!
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 hours. Copyblogger 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.
I have been experimenting a bit with promoting my software using promoted tweets. You can target people based on their interests or the Twitter handles they follow. I have chosen the latter approach with the aim of getting people to a) click through to my website and b) retweet (in the hope of more click throughs).
The results haven’t been great, with only 25% of the ‘engagements’ I paid for resulting in clicks through to my website. Here is a direct comparison between traffic from AdWords and Twitter ads to my seating planner software website (data from Google Analytics).
|Av. pages visited||3.10||1.48|
|Av. time on site||1:51||0:40|
Ouch. Then factor in that the Twitter traffic cost me 2.5 times as much per click through as the AdWords traffic. Double ouch. But that’s fine. You have do lots of experiments to find out what works. Most of them won’t be successful. This experiment only cost me £150.
However I was a bit puzzled by the ‘interests’ report from Twitter. Here are the top 10 ‘interests’ of the people that were shown my sponsored tweet, as reported by Twitter ads.
- 72% of them are interested in ‘Politics’.
- 69% of them are interested in ‘Hip hop and rap’.
- 62% of them are interested in ‘NFL football’.
- ‘Weddings’ is way down the list at number 55 with 15%, between ‘Leadership’ and ‘Dogs’.
Hmm, something is a bit fishy here.
I ran some more campaigns to promote my UK training course for people who want to create commercial software products. The ticket price for my course is higher than for my seating planner software, so I thought it was worth persevering a bit more with Twitter ads. Here are the top 10 ‘interests’ for the 3 campaigns I ran.
Bear in mind that this time, I was targeting various Twitter handles related to software development, marketing and entrepreneurship for Twitter users in the UK. We love our comedy in the UK and most of us could stand to lose a few pounds. But I can confidently state that the vast majority of people in the UK know almost nothing about NFL (American) football and care even less. ‘Computer programming’ and ‘Startups’ were waaay down all 3 lists.
We infer interest from a variety of signals, like the accounts users follow and the Tweets they engage with.
I emailed them to point out that the interests seemed to be highly suspect, but I didn’t get a substantive reply.
I can only conclude that either Twitter isn’t doing a very good job of the targeting or (more likely) it really doesn’t understand the interests of its customers and is doing a very poor job at guessing. Consequently I would urge you to be very wary of paying for promoted tweets on the basis of ‘interests’.
I am running a course for people who want to create their own commercial software products. Promoting the course has been a challenge. How do you reach a programmer, sitting in his cubicle, dreaming about making a living from selling his own software? In particular, how do you reach ones who might pay to attend a weekend course in the UK in March? Most of the attendees of the last course came via this blog. But I also want to try to reach people who have never heard of this blog. So I have been experimenting with paid ads via Twitter, LinkedIn and Adwords. Crucially, all 3 of them allow me to restrict my advertising to people in the UK. I thought the initial results were interesting, so I am sharing them here.
Google Adwords allows you to show your ads alongside organic (non-paid) search results when people type relevant phrases. But it is hard to think of phrases my target audience (and only my target audience) might be searching on. Terms such as “software marketing” and “software sales” are too vague. In the end I came up with about 200 phrases, including “sell my software”, “software startup”, “start a software company”, “name software product” and “sell software online”.
But there just aren’t a lot of searches on these phrases. Bidding between £0.25 and £1 per click (depending on relevance) for UK searches over the last 47 days I have managed a meagre:
Looking at the Dimensions>Search terms report to see the phrases typed by the people who clicked, the clicks seem fairly well targeted. And my impression share is >25% for the majority of the adgroups, so I don’t think increasing my bids is going to make a big difference to the amount of traffic. Adwords just doesn’t work that well unless there are unambiguous phrases your potential customers are actively searching on. I haven’t tried display (content) ads, as these have never worked well for me in the past.
I also tried running LinkedIn ads targeted at people who are based in the UK and list programming skills such as “Programming”, “SaaS”, “Subversion”, “Git”, and “C++”. The minimum bid per click is $2.00 (ouch), so I bid $2.05 per click.
The result over 12 days have been:
- Impressions: 133k
- Clicks: 54
- CTR: 0.04%
- CPC: $2.00
- Leads: 2
That is a good number of impressions, but a horrible CTR. Looking at the breakdown of clicks by industry and job function in the reporting, the clicks seem fairly well targeted. A ‘lead’ is where someone expresses an interest and LinkedIn allows you to send them a message. But you don’t get their email address and it appears you can only message them through LinkedIn once.
I paid to put a sponsored tweet in the timeline of Twitter users in the UK, based on who they follow. I picked the Twitter handles of 4 other people who blog about bootstrapping. Note that Twitter claims they won’t show ads to all the followers of these Twitter handles, but to people who are interested in similar things to the people who follow those Twitter handles. That seems a rather hair-splitting distinction, but I guess it allows them to claim they aren’t exploiting the popularity of their customers directly. I bid a maximum of £0.75 per ‘engagement’ (click, retweet or follow). I didn’t include an image with the tweet as I couldn’t really think of anything relevant at the time (a classroom?). The text of the sponsored tweet was:
Sell your own software. Be your own boss! 2 day course, 22/23 March, Wiltshire, England. Full details at: https://successfulsoftware.net/software-business-training-course/
The result of this 1 sponsored tweet over 2 days has been:
- Impressions: 5.8k
- Clicks: 174
- CTR: 3%
- CPC: £0.29
- Favorites: 7
- Retweets: 2
- Follows: 1
Given the small number of favorites, retweets and follows, it is hard to know how well targeted this was. I guess a 3% CTR implies it was fairly targeted. The fact that the CPC was a lot less than my maximum bid may be down to Twitter ads being a relatively new medium, without too much competition (yet).
The reports have left me confused. Twitter report 3,112 impressions and 106 clicks for followers of my own Twitter handle @successfulsw.
- I didn’t tick the Also target your followers check box, as it seems idiotic to be paying for tweeting to people that I can tweet to for free.
- I don’t have 3k Twitter followers.
- I direct messaged a few of my Twitter followers based in the UK and they said they hadn’t seen a sponsored tweet from me.
This was the response when I queried Twitter support:
Thanks for the information. We have investigated this issue and we can see that your handle is in your @handle section of your campaign, this is because implicit targeting was enabled (targeted followers with similar interest as your followers), that is why your handle is showing there. We have confirmed you have a nullcasted Tweet and this Tweet is not showing to your followers. We realize this may be confusing and we’ll work with our product team to improve how this looks on the user interface.
The reporting of the interests of the people that engaged doesn’t make sense either. It says that of the 5.8k impressions, 4.7k were to people interested in “Hip hop and rap” and 4.5k to people interested in “NFL football”. We don’t even play NFL football in the UK!
I understand it’s confusing, and I’ll share this feedback with my team. What you’re seeing is a cumulative total of paid/earned/organic engagements. This total also considers secondary account signals eg a users prime interest is photography, and a secondary interest in baseball. I can assure you that you paid for primary interests only, and organic/earned and secondary engagements were not charged for.
I am still none the wiser about the “NFL football” result. It does make me wonder how accurate their ‘targeting by interest’ option is.
This is obviously only a very small experiment and it is hard to judge exactly what the quality of the traffic was like (I was sending traffic to a wordpress.com page and I am not able to measure detailed analytics, such as bounce rates or time on page). But I even these limited results are still illuminating.
I like Adwords, particularly the fact that it shows your ad to people at the point they are searching for a solution to their problem. It has worked pretty well for my table planner app over the last 9 years, despite bid price inflation. But Adwords is only effective when there are well defined phrases with reasonable search volumes you can target. That doesn’t seem to be the case for my course.
LinkedIn is a good way to target people according to their skills or job function. There are lots of different targeting options and the traffic volume was better than Adwords. But the clicks are very expensive. Given an industry standard 1% conversion rate I can afford to pay $2 per click to promote a £600 course. But forget it if you are selling less expensive products.
Twitter ads seem quite promising. There are lots of targeting options and you can get a lot of traffic quickly for a relatively low price per click [but see update, below]. I could have got a lot more clicks by targeting more Twitter handles and/or increasing my bid. But its not something you can leave running continuously like Adwords or LinkedIn. You have to keep sending new sponsored tweets. Also the reporting is confusing and of dubious veracity. Finally it feels slightly grubby to be targeting the followers of your peers and/or competitors so directly. But I think it shows promise. If you are going to try it, I recommend you do so soon. The law of shitty clickthroughs means that it is sure to be a lot less cost effective in a few years time.
**** Update ****
I noticed that the clickthroughs to the URL in my sponsored Twitter post was only about a third of the clicks reported by Twitter. When I asked Twitter about this they replied:
Twitter Ads measures engagements which we define as “clicks” within the Promoted Tweet Dashboard are defined as follows: clicks on the URL, hashtag, Tweet copy, avatar and username, or the expand button. It’s likely that the other analytics you are seeing are tracking link clicks.
So I am paying for someone to just click the Tweet copy (text)! The cost for a clickthough to my site is actually around 3 times the CPC reported by Twitter. That makes it around £1 per clickthrough, which is much less attractive.
My heart sinks every time I hear a would-be-entrepreneur announcing they have written yet another Twitter client, RSS reader, ToDo list or backup application. Haven’t we got enough of those already? There are more than 1,900 Twitter apps already (possibly a lot more). Somebody probably released another one while I was writing this post. We have passed the Twitter app event horizon, where it is probably quicker to write your own custom app than it is to try and work out if any of the existing apps fulfils your requirements.
Even if you have done something radically new, interesting and different in one of these markets, how are you ever going to get noticed amongst thousands of more established competitors? Wouldn’t it be better to find a market that is currently under-served by software? It may be less fashionable than writing software for other techies, but it will probably contribute more to the sum of human happiness and be a lot more profitable.
There must be thousands of niches where there is a real need for software, but limited competition. You just need to open your eyes to the bigger world around you. It may mean having to learn about an unfamiliar domain. But it is generally much easier for a software developer to learn some domain knowledge about, say, butterfly collecting, than it is for the average butterfly collector to learn to create a software product. Next time you are talking to a non-techie about their job or hobbies, just ask them “Do you use software for that?” and “Is it any good?”. The ideal answers you are looking for are “Yes” (if there are existing software packages, there is probably a market) and “No” (maybe you can do better).
I was recently interviewed by Bob Walsh and Patrick Foley for The Startup Success Podcast, episode 25. We cover a wide ange of topics including: microISVs, conversion ratios, being specific, PerfectTablePlan, usability, the global recession, software award scams, ‘works with vista’ certification, stackoverflow.com and twitter. I wonder how much I have to pay them to edit out the ‘ums’?
It didn’t take long for Twitter to move from hype to backlash (although blaming Twitter for the current recession is perhaps a little unfair). Dave Collins offered a $100 Amazon voucher to anyone who could convince him there was a business case for spending his time on Twitter. None of the responses convinced me it was a good use of my time. My favourite was from Mark Roseman:
I find myself sometimes drifting back towards improving my software, answering email (email! can you believe it?) from customers, or other arcane activities, but I know these are just procrastination techniques, dragging me away from the truly important work of Twittering.
To me the real question isn’t whether Twitter has any value, but whether it is the most useful thing you can be doing with your time. What business value does Twitter have?:
- Updating your customers: What is wrong with a newsletter? I would like to think a lot of my customers love my software, but surely even its most ardent fans don’t need updates several times per day? Only a stalker needs to know what you are doing in real time.
- Following others: I tried using Twitter to follow a few people who write excellent blogs. This experiment only proved that even intelligent and articulate people can’t write anything useful in 140 characters. Following the links posted can be entertaining, but is a black hole for productivity.
- Monitoring conversations: I can set up a search and appear, genie like, every time someone types the relevant phrase. But this sort of 1:1 marketing doesn’t scale very well and it can come across as creepy/spammy.
- Increasing your online presence: Twitter is touted as another way to increase your online ‘foot print’. I can see some value to ‘tweeting’ a link to each post you write for Twitter searches to find, but I doubt it would lead to much additional traffic.
Isn’t Twitter just ICQ for “web 2.0”? How long before Twitter is overrun with spam from bots? Will they ever fix their scaling issues (I saw the ‘fail whale’ a fair number of times in my limited dabblings)? Can Twitter save us from swine flu?
Perhaps the real business value of Twitter is that it distracts your competitors while you get on with improving your product, improving your marketing and giving great support.
I have been having increasing problems reading the captchas that now permeate everything we do on the web. I realise they are supposed to be hard for bots to read, but it is rather defeating the point if humans can’t read them either. Here are two particularly impressive specimens from twitter.com yesterday:
In each case my tired old eyes can just about make out what the first word says, but I haven’t a clue what the second word is. Do you? The above might be slightly lower resolutions than the originals, but not much. Try some more.
In any case, captchas don’t seem to work that well. Most can be cracked by image recognition software and those that can’t can always be beaten by crowdsourcing and free porn. I guess the last hope for captchas is that masturbation really does makes you go blind.