So you’ve built what you think is a great application. All your Mac-using friends think it’s cool. Your beta testers tell you that it works. All you’ve got to do now is post it to VersionTracker and Download.com and you can quit your day job, right?
Don’t do it. Not yet, anyway.
You may have an application, and it might be truly useful (rather than a candidate for MacHack), but you don’t necessarily have a product or, more importantly, a solution. What’s the difference? A pencil is a product, but it’s not a solution. Sure, you write with a pencil, but you can’t do anything with that pencil if you don’t have a pencil sharpener and paper. So until those items are in the mix, you don’t have a solution.
As a software developer, you’re probably more comfortable building your software than marketing it. While there’s nothing wrong with creating software to "see what I can do with a Mac," you’ll need a marketing perspective before you’ll successfully sell your application as a solution.
Three Dangerous Assumptions — Developers, like anyone else who creates a product, can be susceptible to dangerous assumptions, which, unless examined closely and continually, can doom the product to failure. Perhaps more than most, developers need to avoid falling into three traps.
Trap #1: The product will sell because the creator thinks it’s a good product. What matters is the customer’s point of view; an application’s cool factor in no way guarantees its success. Keep in mind that there are ways to convince the customer it’s a great product, which we’ll look at in the second part of this article.
Trap #2: Customers will buy a product because it’s technically superior to the competition. You don’t have to go very far to see how this one plays out: Windows has 95 percent of the market. The Mac OS has 5 percent. ‘Nuff said.
Trap #3: Customers will agree with you that the product is great. Maybe, maybe not. You can’t ever assume that.
Taken together, these three assumptions often can lead to equally false beliefs, such as the product being so cool and so great that it will sell itself, or that you somehow will be able to insulate your product from any competition. The history of software is littered with the corpses of applications and companies, big and small, that have perished under such lofty ideas.
Improve Your Odds — So, how can a developer increase the admittedly long odds that a new product will succeed in the marketplace? You need to ask yourself a series of questions and be reasonably sure that you have solid reasons, backed by market research, to believe your answers are real and true.
First, who will buy the product, and what problem will it solve for them? You may think that because you’re developing Mac software that the whole universe of 25 million Mac users is your market. That’s unlikely to be true. For example, I consulted for Sustainable Softworks, a developer of Macintosh networking products and utilities. If you have only a single Mac, you don’t need a networking application. If you don’t have an Internet connection, you don’t need a firewall or software to optimize that connection. Sustainable Softworks’ products were therefore applicable to only a specific galaxy within the Mac universe.
Further, you need to think in terms of your addressable market. What portion of those 25 million Mac users can you actually reach? How will you reach them? Do you have an ad budget? Can you write effective press releases and do you know where and how to distribute them? Also, a significant portion of the Mac market is overseas. Can you communicate to those users in their language(s)? If you can’t do those kinds of things, your addressable market will shrink.
Let’s say you’ve identified a real problem that your software can solve for users. Congratulations! You’ve made a significant step forward. But there are often multiple solutions to any problem, and you need to understand how users are solving that problem today. Are there workarounds that, while inconvenient, may not be sufficiently inconvenient to cause the user to want to spend money on your solution? Always keep in mind that people will tell you what they want, but will spend money only on what they actually need. The toughest part of your job is figuring out what they need.
If you can offer a better, faster, and/or cheaper solution to a problem, you have a good chance of being successful – but you must be able to prove it. For example, email is clearly better, faster, and cheaper than a fax for getting a document into another person’s hands. A fax, while it often was more expensive than using regular postal mail, obviously was faster than the post office.
On the other hand, for years the primary claim of many Mac products was that they would somehow make you more productive. That’s a tough thing to quantify. You need to consider how you will demonstrate to the customer that your solution is better, faster, or cheaper than what they’re doing now.
The next questions to ask yourself relate to how you will sell the product. What will be your distribution method? Will you sell online? Will you do only electronic distribution, which is cheaper, or will you offer the software on CD-ROM, which seems to be favored by more people? Do you need a network of salespeople or resellers? Who is your target market? Consumers, small businesses, network administrators? All of these issues contribute to how you’ll sell your product.
You also might need to consider an ancillary question: Can you survive financially while you build your customer base? The time period during which a market adopts a new product varies with each product, but consider this: Innovators are those who are the first to purchase any new product. Most experts believe the innovators make up about 2.5 percent of the market. Early adopters (about 13.5 percent of the market) are the next to purchase, followed by the early majority (34 percent), late majority (34 percent) and then the laggards (16 percent).
Finally, how will you differentiate your product in the market? Most developers think in terms of features. Fair enough. Many customers say things like, "I wish I could [insert action here]" and developers respond to that. But remember that, while features are important, customers actually respond to the benefits of those features, not to the features themselves.
For example, look at Apple’s Mac OS X box, which touts Aqua, a feature. Aqua’s benefits include being "intuitive for new users", and "powerful and customizable for professionals." The Finder is a feature; its benefits, Apple claims, include helping you "quickly navigate and organize gigabytes" of various types of data. You may or may not agree with that claim, which points to the importance of being able to convince users that what you say about your product is true.
Before you can successfully differentiate your product, you must fully understand your competition. Once you’ve done that research, you can begin to craft your marketing message and value proposition – how your product will benefit the user – to suit your target market(s). That message may vary depending on what stage of the adoption curve – the phases in the process of deciding to make a purchase – the customer is in at the time the message is delivered.
Set Phases on Sell — Every buying decision a customer makes goes through six distinct phases, though some phases may take place simultaneously. The first stage is awareness, where the customer learns about your product. The second is the information stage, during which the customer gathers information about the product and develops an interest in it. The third phase is evaluation: the customer envisions using the product, and also considers alternatives.
The fourth phase is the trial phase, where customers might experiment with the product itself, but also tests it for "social acceptability" – the customer is interested in what others think of the product and what friends and acquaintances might think of her if she buys and uses the product. Phase five is full-scale adoption. The customer has bought it and uses it. The final phase is reinforcement, where the customer is continually reminded that she in fact made a good buying decision.
The process of getting a customer to buy the product includes a combination of appeals to logic and emotion, delivered through either impersonal media (the mass media such as print, broadcast, or the Internet) and personal media, which include friends, experts, opinion leaders, and the like. In the second part of this article, I’ll talk about how you can make those appeals with a good marketing plan, and also include examples of sales successes.
In the meantime, I’d encourage you to check out the following Web resources for more information on marketing software: the Product Development and Management Association; the University of California, Berkeley’s Software Product Marketing page; the Silicon Valley Product Management Association; and the Association of Shareware Professionals
[Mike Diegel is a strategic marketing and public relations consultant specializing in helping small businesses and other organizations use the Web more effectively.]