Matt Gemmell

My new book CHANGER is out now!

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Your App's Website Sucks

business, development & software 7 min read

If you have an app available, you probably have an accompanying website for it. As someone who tries and buys a lot of software, I see many such websites during the average week. Some are great, but most make the same few mistakes again and again. I want to share some tips for making software product websites that don’t turn customers away. This is all common sense stuff, but it’s incredible the number of companies that don’t seem to understand these points.

The key to selling anything (and that doesn’t have to mean selling for money; it could just mean making sure your product is seen and considered by people, whether it’s free or not) is to empathise with the customer; try to be the person you’re selling to. Many app websites screw this up, and usually it’s because they haven’t designed with the customer’s priorities in mind. Let’s run through those priorities.

Priority 1: LEARN

The first thing your customer wants to know is what the app does. Again: tell them what it does. That’s your tagline, right below the product’s name (or even above/instead-of the product’s name, right at the top of the page). The customer doesn’t care about your arty background-image or your creative vision; they want to know if this app does the thing they want.

You’ve got about 8 seconds to describe it in a way that confirms it does the thing they want, then they’re gone. Make sure it’s one sentence, and not a paragraph-length one either. This is your single point of failure in marketing; get it right, and make sure it’s seen before anything else.

The second thing your customer wants to know is what the app looks like. Embed a screenshot in your main page, ideally above the fold. Scale it down if you like, but don’t aggressively crop it so that the thumbnail is meaningless. Don’t ever make the customer click through to another page just to get their first glimpse of your app’s UI; you’ll haemorrhage potential sales, and deservedly so.

This is also an appropriate place for some notes regarding video screencasts:

  • A screencast isn't a replacement for an initial embedded screenshot. Customers don't care about your video, and don't have time for it.
  • If a customer kindly loans you 30 seconds (or whatever) of their time to watch a video, they'll hate you if you waste it with your stupid swishy mood-intro, with music you think is energetic and compelling and atmospheric but which sounds like the kind of thing your customer's teenage daughter would listen to. Get to the point; you're on borrowed time and you're building a hate-debt by the second.
  • Either have a professional-sounding voiceover, without pauses and "um"s, with great audio quality, or don't have a voiceover at all. Superimpose explanatory text titles instead. Be honest with yourself about how your voice sounds. If you're the typical male engineer, your voice is probably going to be a major turn-off, and you probably can't do talk-along without pausing, making various noises, and restarting your sentences. Get someone else to do it, or use text.

The third thing your customer wants is a summary of your app’s functionality, in slightly more detail than the punchy description we already discussed. Just be sure not to go overboard with the feature-list; you definitely want a “big deal stuff” versus “lots of little due-diligence, assumed to be present and correct stuff” division. Put the big-deal stuff on the main page, and link to the big pat-on-the-head list.

Your customer probably doesn’t care about trivial things like dock-badges or spellchecking or a customisable toolbar; talk about what’s distinctive, and limit the main page to your actual selling points. Note, however, that the primary selling point will always be user experience rather than actual functionality - if you do something commonplace in a new, better way, then your customer needs to know about it.

Priority 2: TRY

Your “Download” link should be the most obvious link/button on the page. It should be screamingly obvious, and gigantic if need be. It should always be more obvious than the “Buy” link. Your customer isn’t ready to buy; they want to try it first (and yes, on the iPhone/iPad App Store these actions are one and the same, and it’s terrible, and we hope it will change in the future, etc). If you make it easier to find the Buy link than the Download link, you’re throwing money away.

Never, ever make people sign up just so they can download your app (unless it’s dependent on an account for a service); they won’t bother. Best case, they really need to download it, so they’ll probably sign up with false details, and will definitely hate you. Starting off with hatred isn’t a sound business policy, Adobe.

Don’t make them give an email address. Don’t pre-check the “subscribe to newsletter” box. Don’t pretend that you need to “prepare” their app for download, so you can show them some marketing; just let them click to download the thing, then go away and try it. Seriously, what’s wrong with you?

Priority 3: BUY

Congratulations, they actually want to buy your app. Why are they even back at your website trying to find your online store? You should have linked them there directly from within the app. If you didn’t, go back and fix that now. I’ll wait.

Of course, some customers looking to buy will just come back to your product page anyway, so we do need to cater to them. The Buy link should be the next most obvious thing after the Download link. It’s not difficult to see why an obscure “Buy” link (such as having to first find and click a “Store” link elsewhere on the page, perhaps in a navigation bar) is going to immediately irritate and disenchant customers. Don’t be stupid; make your Buy link obvious.

While you’re at it, make the price obvious. You know those restaurants with no prices on the menu? Or stores with no price-labels, or (even worse) “please ask/call”? Your customer sees those, and they think “the prices must be outrageously expensive, and the company is ashamed of them”. Brilliant business strategy.

Be honest about your price: the app is either worth that price to your customer or it’s not, and that’s true whether or not they have to fight to actually see it. Set a fair price, and put it on the main page.

Priority 4: COMMUNICATE

Your customer may want to get in touch with you for some reason; maybe they want to ask a question, or report a bug, or suggest a feature. Communication is good, even if it’s a complaint or bug-report. People don’t bother talking if they don’t care. Being angry is a kind of caring, and is a fantastic opportunity to make someone happy again (indeed, making an angry person happy results in a far greater happiness than the kind you feel when nothing went wrong in the first place).

Make it easy for your customer to get in touch with you. Have a contact form, at the very least. A forum or FAQ or online support system is great, but it’s not a substitute for being able to send a free-form message. Never force your customer down a blind alley where they can only choose one of your pre-conceived support messages. There should always be a “just send us a message about something” option. It should be readily available, perhaps after just a single basic attempt at filtering their query or redirecting them to your online help.

Life tip: hiding from people makes them not trust you.

Priority 5: ENHANCE

If your app can be extended or enhanced in some way (themes/skins, levels, icon sets, plugins), you’ll want to link those enhancements from the product page. Don’t squirrel them away in the Support section, but put them in their proper place priority-wise.

It would probably also be nice to link to them directly from within the app, in the theme chooser or plugins manager or whatever you have.

Priority a billion: EVERYTHING YOU CARE ABOUT

Your customer doesn’t care about any of the other crap that you want to throw onto the product page. Get rid of it; put it elsewhere. Here are a few examples I see most often:

  • Your app's or company's Press Kit. Couldn't care less. Do your marketing elsewhere; the customer is already on your site. Link your kit from your press releases, and maybe also from the contact page. Get it out of the customer's face - unless every last one of your customers is a journalist, in which case you probably have larger problems.
  • Buttons and Badges. We all like the idea of our customers promoting and marketing our apps for us, and thankfully that's what actually happens too. The key point is that they do it when they want to. Get your "Made with CoolApp" buttons off the main page; include them with the app, or link them from somewhere. Putting them on the main product page looks needy and desperate.
  • Customer testimonials. These should be at the very bottom of the main page, if they're there at all. Your customers aren't idiots; they know that reviews on your own site are cherry-picked and thus overall are hugely biased. You're trying to sell them something; don't make yourself seem any more slimy than the raw fact of commerce requires. Unless the review is from a well-known or authoritative third party, it's just not representative or trustworthy. You might as well have your mother's opinion up there.
  • Your other products (unless very closely related). Your customer isn't a groupie; they're probably not looking at this app just because you made it. They're considering it because it might do something they currently want. Your other stuff is irrelevant; get it off the page and keep it behind your navbar's "Software" or "Products" link where it belongs.

Conclusions

Your customer (or potential customer) is doing you a favour by even looking at your app’s website. You’ve got one chance to sell them something, and a hundred chances to fail; stack the odds in your favour by using some common sense, and remembering what it’s like all the thousands of times that you were the customer.

Be straightforward, have some self-respect, and don’t be needy. Don’t try to emulate big-shot, billion-dollar companies’ marketing either, for two reasons: (1) you’re not a big shot, you’re a small fry; and (2) the big-shots’ marketing is mostly awful anyway.

Next time you’re investigating an app (which if you’re at all like me will always be sometime within the next 24 hours), take note of what aspects of its website irritate you. There will almost always be at least a handful of annoyances. Then go and take a look at your own app’s site.

See anything familiar? I bet you will.