Websites that sell

Written by Dave Collins, SoftwarePromotions Ltd.

The following is a summary of one of the presentations I gave at the European Shareware Conference 2006.

In my line of work, I see new software websites every day. Some are truly awful, some are great to the point of inspirational – but the vast majority are somewhere in between.

I have never seen a site that couldn’t be improved, and most software sites that I have worked with have a had at least a few problems in common. Perhaps it’s the way they look, their navigation, or the actual textual content. In this presentation, I will be looking at some of the common mistakes that websites make, and what you can do to help them become the well-oiled sales machines that they ought to be.

Initial impressions
First impressions count. How many times have you arrived at a website, thought “yuck” and left, within a few seconds? Or perhaps had a quick skim, not really understood what was happening, and left because you didn’t want to waste time.

If you spend a lot of time online, it probably happens most days.

Assuming that people land on your Index page, problems with initial impressions often include:

Amateurish, dated look. If you want to create a professional impression, there’s no excuse for those ancient PaintShopped images and the pixelly logo.

Too text heavy. If you have blocks of text everywhere without a clear path for your visitors to take, you will overwhelm them.

Too many links. Your site has grown over time, and you just keep adding more links. Having 40-something links on your Index page is a bad idea.

Focus on the wrong thing. Visitors want to know how your software can help them, not when your latest update was or where you’re located.

Not up to date. If you include dates on your page, make sure you keep changing them. A Merry Christmas message looks bad in June.

Navigation matters
Of course, you don’t just want your visitors to see the Index page. You want them to venture further into the site, read more about your product, and ultimately download or purchase it. You need to make sure that this process runs as easily and smoothly as possible – so you want to avoid making some of these mistakes:

No clearly marked path. Visitors want to find out more, so make it easy for them to take the next step with a clear “read more” or “more information” link.

Main pages not easy enough to find. Certain pages, such as Home, Download and Purchase, should be only one click away wherever you are.

Lack of links at the bottom of a page. Don’t abandon your visitors when they’ve scrolled down – it’s a great place for text links to the main pages.

Difficult to identify links. You might think that your bold, grey links are obvious, but some people might think they are just highlights.

Links don’t work in all browsers. Just because your fancy scripts work for you, it doesn’t mean they will for everyone. Test them!

Certain pages hidden away. If you create a great new page, make the effort of adding it to the main navigation system – otherwise people won’t find it!

Clear communication
When a visitor lands on your website, you don’t have a lot of time to convince them that they should stay. This is why it’s so important to ensure that they know what you’re selling right away – and I’m not talking about the latest features or a long list of operating systems. What you need to do is explain, in a clear and appealing way, exactly how your product can help them and make their life better/easier. This seems obvious, but the list of mistakes that people make could go on and on.

Not making it clear enough what the product does. To you, it might be obvious – so take a step back and think about what a first time visitor sees.

Not speaking to your target audience. Who are you trying to sell to? Speak directly to them – even if they’re several different groups – with examples, usage ideas and case studies. Let people know they’re in the right place.

Focusing on all the wrong things. Don’t waste valuable Index space on your company’s mission statement, or product history, or latest releases. Mentioning them is fine, but they should not be the first thing a visitor sees.

Misuse of testimonials. Credible, linked-in client quotes can be an incredibly powerful sales tool. If you have them, flaunt them – don’t just cram them all in to a single testimonials page.

Scaring users with tech talk. Some sites make you feel as if you need a specific degree to read them – and after a while, you realise that the product isn’t that complicated after all. Unless you’re selling to other developers, you’d do well to simplify.

Reassurance and security
Yes, it’s true – some users still need reassurance when they’re downloading or buying online. It is your job to make sure that they feel secure enough to click those buttons, because otherwise you could be losing an enormous amount of sales.

Identify yourself. This is the time to provide the information that is superfluous on the Index page. How old is your business and where are you located? If you’re a small business selling to home users, say so – and a photo and some personal information can go a long way to reassure visitors.

Make sure you’re easy to contact. Nobody wants to part with their money if they think you’re a scammer from a faraway shore. Include a postal address, a phone number and a fax number, even if this is not your preferred method of communication.

Keep the site up to date. If you’ve not changed anything, including the copyright notice, since 2003, nobody is going to trust that you’ll be there to answer their questions.

Discuss things such as money back guarantees and paying in different currencies.

Walk your user through the purchasing process. Tell them what to expect when they click on the button – if they’ll be taken to another site, make sure they know it. Don’t assume they recognize the little logos – if you’re using a secure server (which I hope you are!), spell it out.

Make the options clear. Can they get a CD instead of a download version? What about a printed manual or menu?

Your website isn’t for you, it’s for your visitors and potential customers. Just because you love a garish shade of orange, don’t force it on everybody else. Even if you know the technical ins and outs of your software, take a step back and look at it through other people’s eyes.

A website shouldn’t be a glorified feature list with a download button – it should be a persuasive, appealing place where your visitors feel like they’re on the verge of solving a problem they have, be it time management, photo editing or note taking.

Written by Dave Collins, SoftwarePromotions Ltd.