Of all the things you can do to increase your sales, one of the highest leverage activities is attempting to increase your products’ registration rate. Increasing your registration rate from 1.0% to 1.5% means that you simply convince one more downloader out of every 200 to make the decision to buy. Yet that same tiny increase will literally increase your sales by a full 50%. If you’re one of those developers who simply slapped the ubiquitous 30-day trial incentive on your shareware products without going any further than that, then I think a 50% increase in your registration rate is a very attainable goal you can achieve if you spend just one full day of concentrated effort on improving your product’s ability to sell. My hope is that this article will get you off to a good start and get you thinking more creatively. And even if you fail, your result might be that you achieve only a 25% or a 10% increase. How much additional money would that represent to you over the next five years of sales?
What influence, if any, did the title of this article have on your decision to read it? If I had titled this article, "Registration Incentives," would you have been more or less likely to read it now? Note that the title expresses a specific and clear benefit to you. It tells you exactly what you can expect to gain by reading it. Effective registration incentives work the same way. They offer clear, specific benefits to the user if a purchase is made.
In order to improve your registration incentives, the first thing you need to do is to adopt some new beliefs that will change your perspective. I’m going to introduce you to what I call the "lies of success" in the shareware industry. These are statements that are not true at all, but if you accept them as true anyway, you’ll achieve far better results than if you don’t.
Rule 1: What you are selling is merely the difference between the shareware and the registered versions, not the registered version itself.
Note that this is not a true statement, but if you accept it as true, you’ll immediately begin to see the weaknesses in your registration incentives. If there are few additional benefits for buying the full version vs. using the shareware version, then you aren’t offering the user strong enough incentives to make the full purchase.
Rule 2: The sole purpose of the shareware version is to close the sale.
This is our second lie of success. Note the emphasis on the word "close." Your shareware version needs to act as a direct sales vehicle. It must be able to take the user all the way to the point of purchase, i.e. your online order form, ideally with nothing more than a few mouse clicks. Anything that detracts from achieving a quick sale is likely to hurt sales.
Rule 3: The customer’s perspective is the only one that matters.
Defy this rule at your peril. Customers don’t care that you spent 2000 hours creating your product. Customers don’t care that you deserve the money for your hard work. Customers don’t care that you need to do certain things to prevent piracy. All that matters to them are their own personal wants and needs. Yes, these are lies of success. Some customers will care, but if you design your registration incentives assuming they only care about their own self-interests, your motivation to buy will be much stronger than if you merely appeal to their sense of honesty, loyalty, or honor. Assume your customers are all asking, "What’s in it for me if I choose to buy? What will I get? How will this help me?" I don’t care if you’re selling to Fortune 500 companies. At some point there will be an individual responsible for causing the purchase to happen, and that individual is going to consider how the purchase will affect him/her personally: "Will this purchase get me fired? Will it make me look good in front of my peers? Will this make my job easier or harder?"
Many shareware developers get caught in the trap of discriminating between honest and dishonest users, believing that honest users will register and dishonest ones won’t. This line of thinking will ultimately get you nowhere, and it violates the third lie of success. When you make a purchase decision, how often do you use honesty as the deciding factor? Do you ever say, "I will buy this because I’m honest?" Or do you consider other more selfish factors first, such as how it will make you feel to purchase the software? The truth is that every user believes s/he is honest, so no user applies the honesty criterion when making a purchase decision. Thinking of your users in terms of honest ones vs. dishonest ones is a complete waste of time because that’s not how users primarily view themselves.
Rule 4: Customers buy on emotion and justify with fact.
If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll see that this is how you make most purchase decisions. Remember the last time you bought a computer. Is it fair to say that you first became emotionally attached to the idea of owning a new machine? For me, it’s the feeling of working faster, owning the latest technology, and being more productive that motivates me to go computer shopping. Once I’ve become emotionally committed, the justifications follow: "It’s been two years since I’ve upgraded, it will pay for itself with the productivity boost I gain, I can easily afford it, I’ve worked hard and I deserve a new machine, etc." You use facts to justify the purchase. Once you understand how purchase decisions are made, you can see that your shareware products need to first get the user emotionally invested in the purchase, and then you give them all the facts they need to justify it.
Now that we’ve gotten these four lies of success out of the way, let’s see how we might apply them to create some compelling registration incentives. Let’s start with Rule 1. What incentives can be spawned from this rule? The common 30-day trial is one obvious derivative. If you are only selling the difference between the shareware and registered versions, then a 30-day trial implies that you are selling unlimited future days of usage of the program after the trial period expires. This is a powerful incentive, and it’s been proven effective for products that users will continue to use month after month. 30-day trials are easy for users to understand, and they’re also easy to implement. You could also experiment with other time periods such as 10 days, 14 days, or 90 days. The only way of truly knowing which will work best for your products is to experiment.
But let’s see if we can move a bit beyond the basic 30-day trial here by mixing in a little of Rule 3. How would the customer perceive a 30-day trial? In most cases 30 days is plenty of time to evaluate a product. But in what situations would a 30-day trial have a negative effect? A good example is when the user downloads, installs, and briefly checks out a product s/he may not have time to evaluate right away. By the time the user gets around to fully evaluating it, the shareware version has already expired, and a sale may be lost as a result. To get around this limitation, many shareware developers have started offering 30 days of actual program usage instead of 30 consecutive days. This allows the user plenty of time to try out the program at his/her convenience. Another possibility would be to limit the number of times the program can be run. The basic idea is that you are giving away limited usage and selling unlimited usage of the program. This incentive definitely works if your product is one that will be used frequently over a long period of time (much longer than the trial period).
The flip side of usage limitation is to offer an additional bonus for buying within a certain period of time. For instance, in my game Dweep, I offer an extra 5 free bonus levels to everyone who buys within the first 10 days. In truth I give the bonus levels to everyone who buys, but the incentive is real from the customer’s point of view. Remember Rule 3 – it doesn’t matter what happens on my end; it only matters what the customer perceives. Any customer that buys after the first 10 days will be delighted anyway to receive a bonus they thought they missed.
So if your product has no time-based incentives at all, this is the first place to start. When would you pay your bills if they were never due, and no interest was charged on late payments? Use time pressure to your advantage, either by disabling features in the shareware version after a certain time or by offering additional bonuses for buying sooner rather than later. If nothing else and if it’s legal in your area, offer a free entry in a random monthly drawing for a small prize, such as one of your other products, for anyone who buys within the first X days.
Another logical derivative of Rule 1 is the concept of feature limitation. On the crippling side, you can start with the registered version and begin disabling functionality to create the shareware version. Disabling printing in a shareware text editor is a common strategy. So is corrupting your program’s output with a simple watermark. For instance, your shareware editor could print every page with your logo in the background. Years ago the Association of Shareware Professionals had a strict policy against crippling, but that policy was abandoned, and crippling has been recognized as an effective registration incentive.
It is certainly possible to apply feature limitation without having it perceived as crippling. This is especially easy for games, which commonly offer a limited number of playable levels in the shareware version with many more levels available only in the registered version. In this situation you offer the user a seemingly complete experience of your product in the shareware version, and you provide additional features on top of that for the registered version.
Time-based incentives and feature-based incentives are perhaps the two most common strategies used by shareware developers for enticing users to buy. Which will work best for you? You will probably see the best results if you use both at the same time. Imagine you’re the end user for a moment. Would you be more likely to buy if you were promised additional features and given a deadline to make the decision? I’ve seen several developers who were using only one of these two strategies increase their registration rates dramatically by applying the second strategy on top of the first. If you only use time-based limitations, how could you apply feature limitation as well? Giving the user more reasons to buy will translate to more sales per download.
One you have both time-based and feature-based incentives to buy, the next step is to address the user’s perceived risk by applying a risk-reversal strategy. Fortunately, the shareware model already reduces the perceived risk of purchasing significantly, since the user is able to try before buying. But let’s go a little further, keeping Rule 3 in mind. What else might be a perceived risk to the user? What if the user reaches the end of the trial period and still isn’t certain the product will do what s/he needs? What if the additional features in the registered version don’t work as the user expects? What can we do to make the decision to purchase safer for the user?
One approach is to offer a money-back guarantee. I’ve been offering a 60-day unconditional money-back guarantee on all my products since January 2000. If someone asks for their money back for any reason, I give them a full refund right away. So what is my return rate? Well, it’s about 8%. Just kidding! Would it surprise you to learn that my return rate at the time of this writing is less than 0.2%? Could you handle two returns out of every 1000 sales? My best estimate is that this one technique increased my sales by 5-10%, and it only took a few minutes to implement. When I suggest this strategy to other shareware developers, the usual reaction is fear. "But everyone would rip me off," is a common response. I suggest trying it for yourself on an experimental basis; a few brave souls have already tried it and are now offering money-back guarantees prominently. Try putting it up on your web site for a while just to convince yourself it works. You can take it down at any time. After a few months, if you’re happy with the results, add the guarantee to your shareware products as well. I haven’t heard of one bad outcome yet from those who’ve tried it.
If you use feature limitation in your shareware products, another important component of risk reversal is to show the user exactly what s/he will get in the full version. In Dweep I give away the first five levels in the demo version, and purchasing the full version gets you 147 more levels. When I thought about this from the customer’s perspective (Rule 3), I realized that a perceived risk is that s/he doesn’t know if the registered version levels will be as fun as the demo levels. So I released a new demo where you can see every level but only play the first five. This lets the customer see all the fun that awaits them. So if you have a feature-limited product, show the customer how the feature will work. For instance, if your shareware version has printing disabled, the customer could be worried that the full version’s print capability won’t work with his/her printer or that the output quality will be poor. A better strategy is to allow printing, but to watermark the output. This way the customer can still test and verify the feature, and it doesn’t take much imagination to realize what the output will look like without the watermark.
Our next step is to consider Rule 2 and include the ability close the sale. It is imperative that you include an "instant gratification" button in your shareware products, so the customer can click to launch their default web browser and go directly to your online order form.
If you already have a "buy now" button in your products, go a step further. A small group of us have been finding that the more liberally these buttons are used, the better. If you only have one or two of these buttons in your shareware program, you should increase the count by at least an order of magnitude. The current Dweep demo now has over 100 of these buttons scattered throughout the menus and dialogs. This makes it extremely easy for the customer to buy, since s/he never has to hunt around for the ordering link.
What should you label these buttons? "Buy now" or "Register now" are popular, so feel free to use one of those. I took a slightly different approach by trying to think like a customer (Rule 3 again). As a customer the word "buy" has a slightly negative association for me. It makes me think of parting with my cash, and it brings up feelings of sacrifice and pressure. The words "buy now" imply that I have to give away something. So instead, I use the words, "Get now." As a customer I feel much better about getting something than buying something, since "getting" brings up only positive associations. This is the psychology I use, but at present, I don’t know of any hard data showing which is better. Unless you have a strong preference, trust your intuition.
Make it as easy as possible for the willing customer to buy. The more methods of payment you accept, the better your sales will be. Allow the customer to click a button to print an order form directly from your program and mail it with a check or money order. On your web order form, include a link to a printable text order form for those who are afraid to use their credit cards online. If you only accept two or three major credit cards, sign up with a registration service to handle orders for those you don’t accept.
So far we’ve given the customer some good incentives to buy, minimized perceived risk, and made it easy to make the purchase. But we haven’t yet gotten the customer emotionally invested in making the purchase decision. That’s where Rule 4 comes in. First, we must recognize the difference between benefits and features. We need to sell the sizzle, not the steak. Features describe your product, while benefits describe what the user will get by using your product. For instance, a personal information manager (PIM) program may have features such as daily, weekly, and monthly views; task and event timers; and a contact database. However, the benefits of the program might be that it helps the user be more organized, earn more money, and enjoy more free time. For a game, the main benefit might be fun. For a nature screensaver, it could be relaxation, beauty appreciation, or peace. Features are logical; benefits are emotional. Logical features are an important part of the sale, but only after we’ve engaged the customer’s emotions.
Many products do a fair job of getting the customer emotionally invested during the trial period. If you have an addictive program or one that’s fun to use, such as a game, you may have an easy time getting the customer emotionally attached to using it because the experience is already emotional in nature. But whatever your product is, you can increase your sales by clearly illustrating the benefits of making the purchase. A good place to do this is in your nag screens. I use nag screens both before and after the program runs to remind the user of the benefits of buying the full version. At the very least, include a nag screen when the customer exits the program, so the last thing s/he sees will be a reminder of the product’s benefits. Take this opportunity to sell the user on the product. Don’t expect features like "customizable colors" to motivate anyone to buy. Paint a picture of what benefits the user will obtain with the full version. Will I save time? Will I have more fun? Will I live longer, save money, or feel better? The simple change from feature-oriented selling to benefit-oriented selling can easily double or triple your sales. Be sure to use this approach on your web site as well if you don’t already. Developers who’ve recently made the switch have been reporting some amazing results.
If you’re drawing a blank when trying to come up with benefits for your products, the best thing you can do is to email some of your old customers and ask them why they bought your program. What did it do for them? I’ve done this and was amazed at the answers I got back. People were buying my games for reasons I’d never anticipated, and that told me which benefits I needed to emphasize in my sales pitch.
The next key is to make your offer irresistible to potential customers. Find ways to offer the customer so much value that it would be harder to say no than to say yes. Take a look at your shareware product as if you were a potential customer who’d never seen it before. Being totally honest with yourself, would you buy this program if someone else had written it? If not, don’t stop here. As a potential customer, what additional benefits or features would put you over the top and convince you to buy? More is always better than less. In the original version of Dweep, I offered ten levels in the demo and thirty in the registered version. Now I offer only five demo levels and 152 in the full version, plus a built-in level editor. Originally, I offered the player twice the value of the demo; now I’m offering over thirty times the value. I also offer free hints and solutions to every level; the benefit here is that it minimizes player frustration. As I keep adding bonuses for purchasing, the offer becomes harder and harder to resist.
What clever bonuses can you throw in for registering? Take the time to watch an infomercial. Notice that there is always at least one "FREE" bonus thrown in. Consider offering a few extra filters for an image editor, ten extra images for a screensaver, or extra levels for a game. What else might appeal to your customers? Be creative. Your bonus doesn’t even have to be software-based. Offer a free report about building site traffic with your HTML editor, include an essay on effective time management with your scheduling program, or throw in a small business success guide with your billing program. If you make such programs, you shouldn’t have too much trouble coming up with a few pages of text that would benefit your customers. Keep working at it until your offer even looks irresistible to you. If all the bonuses you offer can be delivered electronically, how many can you afford to include? If each one only gains one more customer in a thousand (0.1%), would it be worth the effort over the lifetime of your sales?
So how do you know if your registration incentives are strong enough? And how do you know if your product is over-crippled? Where do you draw the line? These are tough issues, but there is a good way to handle them if your product is likely to be used over a long period of time, particularly if it’s used on a daily basis. Simply make your program gradually increase its registration incentives over time. One easy way to do this is with a delay timer on your nag screens that increases each time the program is run. Another approach is to disable certain features at set intervals. You begin by disabling non-critical features and gradually move up to disabling key functionality. The program becomes harder and harder to continue using for free, so the benefits of registering become more and more compelling. Instead of having your program completely disable itself after your trial period, you gradually degrade its usability with additional usage.
This approach can be superior to a strict 30-day trial, since it allows your program to still be used for a while, but after prolonged usage it becomes effectively unusable. However, you don’t simply shock the user by taking away all the benefits s/he has become accustomed to on a particular day. Instead, you begin with a gentle reminder that becomes harder and harder to ignore. There may be times when your 30-day trial shuts off at an inconvenient time for the user, and you may lose a sale as a result. For instance, the user may not have the money at the time, or s/he may be busy at the trial’s end and forget to register. In that case s/he may quickly replace what was lost with a competitor’s trial version. The gradual degradation approach allows the user to continue using your product, but with increasing difficulty over time. Eventually, there is a breaking point where the user either decides to buy or to stop using the program completely, but this can be done within a window of time at the user’s convenience.
Hopefully this article has gotten you thinking creatively about all the overlooked ways you can entice people to buy your shareware products. The most important thing you can do is to begin seeing your products through your customers’ eyes. What additional motivation would convince you to buy? What would represent an irresistible offer to you? There is no limit to how many incentives you can add. Don’t stop at just one or two; instead, give the customer a half dozen or more reasons to buy, and you’ll see your registration rate soar. Is it worth spending a day to do this? I think so.