Successful Shareware, Part 4
Part one of this article (see TidBITS-395) focused on two items from my list of seven "Ps" that shareware authors must consider: Product and Patience. The second installment covered the third P, Polish (see TidBITS-398). After talking about Pay Up and Propagation in the last issue (see TidBITS 400_), it’s time to wrap up with the final two Ps: Promotion and Politics.
The Sixth P: Promotion — "If you build it, they will come." I’m here to tell you they won’t. If you don’t advertise your software, few people will notice it or buy it. Promotion (also called evangelism) is the art of shouting good news about your product and getting other people to shout good news about it, too. It takes time and effort and perhaps a little money, but it’s essential to your success. Here are some ways to start shouting.
Promotion: Advertising — If you have the bucks, you can make people notice your product. Just buy advertising everywhere: in magazines, on Web sites, on TV, in inserts in other people’s commercial products.
The trouble with that idea is that it takes a barrel of bucks. Advertising is hideously expensive, and few shareware authors can afford it. In ten years of selling shareware, I have never paid a penny for advertising. That’s not because I don’t approve of advertising, but because a penny buys precious little ad space and I’ve never had the ton-weight of pennies it would take to buy significant ad. Ads in major magazines, for example, cost thousands of dollars, and even in my dreams I don’t have enough money to consider television ads, which can cost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Lately an alternative has appeared that might be worth considering. Many major Web sites support themselves by selling ad space, and the starting rates are in the low hundreds of dollars: high for anyone on a shoestring, but not out of the question for everyone. I haven’t tried it myself, so I can’t recommend it – maybe it’s worthwhile, maybe not. But all publicity is good, so if you can afford a small Web ad, it might be worth the experiment.
Promotion: Your Web Site — Set up a Web site of your own. This won’t cost you more than $20 or $30 per month from most ISPs, and you may be paying for it already. If not, you should be: this is a case of spending a little money in order to make more. If you can’t hack raw HTML, then invest in any of the good HTML editors that are now available – there are plenty, just pick one.
Your site should offer the same information that’s in your Read Me file. Unlike a Read Me file, however, your site is primarily an advertisement, so organize it differently: put the boring (but important) info near the bottom, and put your brags and puffery near the top. Don’t go wild with huge graphics: many users won’t wait for a big page to load over a slow modem. Do make the page as good-looking and professional as possible (just like your product). You can put big screen shots on separate pages for people who are willing to put up with big downloads. Use smaller screen shots or thumbnails on your main page, along with your company and product logos. In your download area, for a Mac product, offer pointers to selected Info-Mac and UMich mirrors around the world. Redundancy is good, because not all sites are available all the time.
If your product becomes popular, your $20 Web site may not be able to handle the load. When that happens, find a more expensive site that can take the traffic. It’s worth it! When you can afford it, register a domain name of your own with InterNIC for $50 per year. That way your site will be easier to find (www.semicolon.com is all it takes to find mine) and you’ll be able to move your site to another provider without invalidating links and bookmarks to your old one, which can prove invaluable.
Promotion: Other Web Sites — There are a zillion Web sites, and some of them attract people who should be your customers. Some are shareware sites, some are concerned with the work or play that your product offers. Find these sites and send mail to their webmasters. Give them your elevator presentation, ask them to link to your site promise to link back to theirs, and ask them to review your product. Evangelize! Be polite, but get their attention.
Promotion: Usenet News — Usenet is a great, free way to spread the word. But be careful – you will anger many people if you use newsgroups for blatant advertising. Newsgroup readers will generally put up with brief, to-the-point announcements of your new releases; they’ll regard those as public service announcements. But if you post every week with, "Check out this great software!" you will drown in hate mail. Respect Usenet: only post when you have news, and only post in appropriate newsgroups.
Promotion: Press Releases — Use a press release to blow your own horn. News organizations want press releases; it’s one of the major ways they get news about the business world. [If you post a press release on your Web site, make it easy for the press to locate it. Many sites have a press link on the home page, or link from the home page to an "About Us" page that then links to press releases. You might also reference a press release from the page belonging to the product it describes. -Tonya]
The Seventh P: Politics — The last of our Seven P’s is Politics: the art of making nice. You want to make as many friends as you can, for two reasons. First, friends are cool! Second, a good collection of friends adds up to a tremendous amount of goodwill, an asset for any business or person.
Politics: Be Nice — Always be courteous, no matter what the circumstances. Say "please" and "thank you" a lot, just like Mom taught you. Before sending a message, read it, re-read it, and look for ways in which the reader might misunderstand what you’re saying. Many shareware authors are not great writers, and it’s easy to write something that unintentionally gives offense. Your readers can’t see your face or hear your tone of voice, and they may not realize you’re trying to be funny or sarcastic. If you distribute your product via the Internet, it’s especially important to consider that English may not be the first (or principal) language of your readers. Be clear and precise.
Politics: Help Everybody — I made the mistake in my early years of refusing to provide technical support to people who hadn’t paid their shareware fees. One day I refused service to someone whose check I had misplaced. I apologized profusely, but the damage was done: that person will never buy my software again, and will tell others what a lousy person I am. Now, I support everyone, and I don’t ask whether they’ve paid.
Helping everybody has another benefit. Many of your users (the "mouse potatoes" I talked about in part three of this series) won’t pay until they need something from you. Give them a little support and – presto – a check shows up in the mail.
Politics: Make Friends — I mentioned the benefits of making friends already. What kind of friends can you make?
Developers are good friends. They can help solve technical problems, and give advice on selling your products. In return, of course, you help them solve their problems, and share your own good advice.
Artists are good friends. Even if they can’t contribute free artwork, they can offer good advice on graphic design, and perhaps point you to artists within your budget.
Journalists are good friends. They can offer advice on promoting your products, they can tell you about trends in your part of the industry, they may be willing to write reviews, and they will listen in a most flattering manner to any news, gossip, or opinion you can offer in their areas of interest. Plus, they’re fun to listen to: they’re knowledgeable and good with words.
Webmasters are good friends. They can publish links to your site, advise you on site design, and occasionally offer you an interesting opportunity,perhaps an offer of advertising space in return for a few free copies of your product to their raffle winners.
But mostly, friends are good to have. Friends are better than money, better than fame. I’ve met some of my best friends through my shareware business – even though I’ve never seen some of them face to face. So make friends, lots of them! It’s the best advice I can give.
That’s it folks. I’ve given my take on the seven P’s of shareware success. If you’d like to further explore this topic, check out my page of links to more information.
[Rick Holzgrafe has programmed for a number of well-known Silicon Valley firms when he’s not crafting shareware products.]