You worked hard to create a quality product. You promoted it using every means at your disposal: submitting to hundreds of download sites, soliciting reviews, issuing a press release, improving your web site, creating a compelling shareware version, and utilizing a variety of registration incentives. You thought you covered all the bases, yet somehow, your product just isn’t selling, and you don’t know why. Perhaps you’ve even had the unpleasant experience of seeing your sales decline as you worked harder and harder on promotion. Maybe you’ve even been through this process with more than one product and experienced the same dismal results.
I’ve heard dozens of developers tell this same story, and over time the pattern of causes became clear. The truth is that if you’ve done all the promotional work mentioned above and still aren’t seeing more than a trickle of sales, then you’ve probably overlooked something much more important: basic market research. Upon finishing a new product, many developers face the question, "Now how am I going to sell this?" But this question should have been answered long before the first line of code was ever written. If you didn’t first identify the existence of strong market demand prior to developing your product, then chances are that you’ve created something that no one wants to own. In such a case you were doomed from the start, and your best bet is to cut your losses, abandon the product, and move on to something else.
So what can you do to prevent falling into this same trap with your next product? Here are seven simple steps I recommend to increase the odds that your next product will sell incredibly well:
1. Find hungry customers.
Before you develop any new product, you should first identify where there is a consumer demand for new products and services. There are many ways to do this, but the basic idea is to locate market gaps where there is clear demand that is not being fully satisfied. A simple method I use is to visit several of the largest software download sites and evaluate the top downloaded products from the categories I’m considering targeting. I look for categories where the top twenty programs generate lots of downloads and where the competition is weak in some area. Some categories will generate more than a hundred times as many downloads as others, and certain other categories are already dominated by products that do a great job of serving customers’ needs. So if you target the wrong category, you’ve already stacked the odds against you. Your goal is to find categories where there’s a strong demand (due to the high download count) but where you’re convinced you could do a better job of meeting the customers’ needs than the current offerings.
2. Decide how you’ll reach those hungry customers.
Once you’ve identified several market gaps, you then need to decide if you can reach sufficient quantities of those customers within your marketing budget. How are others reaching those same customers? Do you have any form of exclusive access to those customers? What valuable words or phrases can you dominate in the search engines? What will be so interesting about your press release that editors will choose to print it? If you can’t determine how you’ll reach the customers you need to reach, then don’t create a product for that market. For example, if you’re thinking of designing a product for schools, you’d better decide how you’ll gain access to the software buyers at those schools.
3. Find out who else is feeding those hungry customers.
Conduct a basic competitive analysis. What alternatives do customers have available? Be sure to think broadly enough to identify all the alternatives. For instance, a strong competitor identified by Coke® and Pepsi® is water. As a game publisher, our biggest competitor is probably television.
4. Decide how you’ll convince those hungry customers that you have the best food.
Now that you’ve identified potential competitors, how are you going to beat them? Can you make your product more user-friendly or more full-featured? Can you make it more appealing to a specific market segment, such as women, seniors, or educators? What can you do differently to make your product stand out? Why should someone buy your product instead of the competition’s?
Are your potential customers so skeptical that they won’t believe you can meet their needs? Will you be able to convince them to buy? Create a mock-up of a sales page for your product idea, and run it past some of your potential customers. If they say, "great page" or "nice site," your product will probably fail. But if they start asking you questions about the product, such as what features it will have and when it will be released, you have a potential winner. What friends and family tell you is irrelevant; you need honest feedback from people who might actually buy your software.
5. Determine how you can create the best food for these hungry customers.
Do you have the capability to actually beat the competition? Or are they so entrenched that you can’t hope to compete? There generally isn’t much profit in releasing a me-too product that’s inferior to the competition in every way. If you can’t beat the competition in some dimension, then don’t create the product. Abandon that idea, find another group of hungry customers, and figure out what you could sell to them.
Be honest with yourself, and look past your own hype. Will your product really be worth owning, or are you just deluding yourself? If you feel you must try really hard to get people to buy, you probably don’t have a good product. Strive to reach the point where you really believe in your own product because you feel it offers genuine value to your customers.
6. Determine whether you can afford to feed these hungry customers.
What price are your customers willing to pay for your product? Can you afford to sell your product at that price? A common mistake many developers make, for instance, is creating low-priced products for a very small market. If you create a $20 product for a market that only consists of a few thousand potential customers, you’re not likely to make much money even if you have no competition whatsoever.
Generally speaking, if you have a very small market, then you want a high-priced product. If you have a low-priced product, you want to see a huge market of willing customers. For instance, although the profit on a $20 game is small, the market for games is enormous, amounting to millions of potential customers. If you find you’d have to charge a higher price than customers would be willing to pay, then abandon this market segment and find another.
7. Identify the secret ingredient no one else can copy.
Make your product an expression of the best of yourself. If your product isn’t connecting with customers on the outside, perhaps it’s because you’re not connecting with the types of products you really should be creating on the inside. For instance, when I find a new shareware game I really enjoy, it has a certain soulfulness to it, a piece of the developer’s individuality that no one else can copy. Sometimes it’s the game’s unique quirkiness, the attitude expressed in the text, or the style of the music. Just as a professional chef develops a trademark style, you must find your own secret ingredient that distinguishes all your creative work.
The marketplace is the ultimate revealer, so listen to what it tells you. If your product isn’t selling, then accept the verdict, and try again. Regardless of how hard you worked, there is no entitlement in this industry. If you create a product that no one wants, you aren’t entitled to any sales at all, no matter how much you work on promotion. So stop trying to get people to buy, and start giving people what they really want. What is that product that only you can create — the one locked inside you that’s waiting to come out? Stretch yourself, and you will find it.