Jacob Gorban founded Apparent Software in 2006 with the release of ImageFramer. Starting with programming as hobby since the age of about 12, on multitude of platforms, he made it a part-time business in 2006, alongside his career in electronics engineering. In early 2009 Jacob partnered with Kosta Rozen to take Apparent Software to the next level. Lately Jacob has left his day job to concentrate fully on Apparent Software. I was able to ask Jacob some questions about how they do marketing; Kosta stepped in as well to answer a couple of questions near the end. Please forgive Jacob for using the term "MicroISV" — I think the term "indie" is much more approachable, but that's just me….
DW: Can you tell us about your marketing activities?
JG: I must admit that I started this business without much real-life knowledge in marketing, as a developer. But I do love reading business books and blogs and listening to podcasts on these subjects to educate myself.
The first couple of years I've done the usual basic set of marketing activities that most mac developers do, such as listing on the software listing sites, SEO, a couple of MacZOT appearances and a little of other stuff such as trying to do some joint ventures with frame manufacturers. Over the time I started to realize that marketing should be done properly, smarter and that more resources should be devoted to it. Otherwise, the business will not grow.
First we decided to take a deeper look into our long term strategy. We soon decided that we wanted to develop a second product. Since choosing a new product is an important decision, we thought to first do some research. Specifically, we decided to look into the various Mac microISVs and see how their offer distribution. Kosta performed this research and we published it on our blog. Following its conclusions, we "played" with several ideas but finally settled on a financial application [Cashculator].
We prepared a marketing plan in advance of the release, trying to apply all that we've learned from my experience with ImageFramer and from other sources. The plan, written as a to-do list on Backpack which we use as our business back-office, is split into pre-release activities and post release ones. We also wrote down major marketing points, which we later used for the web site, the promotional video, in the email etc. We also have longer marketing texts ready, which are good for press releases and for reviews.
Naming the application was important. We wanted both a catchy name that will embody its spirit and something good for SEO. We believe Cashculator hits the mark on both points, and even today, only days after the public release, googling for Cashculator will bring you to us. A more generic name wouldn't have work this way.
Among other things, we've invested in a professionally done promotion video for Cashculator.
Lately we've also created newsletters, one for ImageFramer customers and one for Cashculator's. We've plugged the sign-up form in the download page and all our customers are also on the list. One thing that I didn't expect and I now believe to be very positive is that we see people who subscribe to the newsletters but have not yet paid for the application. Being able to reach them later gives us another opportunity to turn them into customers.
Another important aspect is of course our web site. For three years the site has been running the design that I've done myself in 2006. Although I thought I could feel proud of it, in fact it was very basic and had a lot of weak points to it, such as long textual features lists and amateurish design, in general. So, in parallel to Cashculator and ImageFramer developments and MacGraPhoto we also hired a designer to totally redesign our web site. A new logo from another designer was also waiting. The goal was to have the new shiny site ready before Cashculator's release and before the bundle was live, since this is where our marketing efforts are most focused on right now. I'm glad that it worked according to plan and this turns out to be a very exciting time for us now.
DW: Wow, that's a lot of information! From your experience, which of these are the 'low hanging fruit'— things that are fairly easy to do and are pretty effective, that other indies might want to try?
JG: I think the most "low hanging fruit" is the newsletter. We haven't yet seen the full effect of this yet, as we've only recently started with ours.
Of course, strategical thinking is also important. About a year ago I've done the following exercise. I took a pen and a pad and went to sit on a bench. On the top of the page I wrote: "What can I do to grow Apparent Software"? I then tried to write a list of 20 things that I could do. Lately I looked at it again and found pleasure at looking how much has changed for the better since then. I could check off several of the points I wrote then. Committing time to think about the business aspects, taking off the developer's "hat", putting these things in writing is something that we, as programmers, need to learn to do. One successful marketing operation can sometimes bring more sales than one more feature in your application.
DW: How do you measure success of your various marketing activities?
JG: We've setup a simple spreadsheet on Google Docs. There we track visits to the site, downloads, license sales, income, expenses, conversion ratios. All on monthly basis. We've got Google Analytics code running on the site and I constantly try to improve it (like adding events tracking recently) and to learn from its results.
There's also a daily script that runs on apache logs and extracts referrers, sorts them alphabetically and by visit count. It also counts unique downloads (since those from download sites are direct DMG downloads, so Google Analytics can't track them) and Sparkle RSS downloads as an indicator of usage. A similar script runs once a month to aggregate monthly numbers for downloads.
Of course, the bottom line is the "ultimate" success measure.
DW: What marketing activities have you found were actually not that beneficial?
JG: We’ve had very little success contacting prominent people from the relevant industry for ImageFramer (like photographers) and getting them to review or endorse it. Either we do it wrongly or it just doesn't work this way. We'll see if a similar approach will work with Cashculator.
We'll also have to see whether our bundle offer at MacGraPhoto turns out to be successful enough to cover our investment in it, both in money terms and in our spent time and focus.
DW: How about marketing to the non-English-speaking market?
JG: I've been contacted by a Japanese software distributor … they get exclusive right to distribute ImageFramer in Japan for a period of time. In exchange they handle the translation, hosting Japanese version, marketing it etc. I'm very glad for this deal. After all, I don't sell much directly to Japanese customers myself.
Lately I had success with a French localization. After we got the French version we tipped some french mac related sites and we've got traffic and clients from this. Following this success, we released Cashculator with French localization from version 1.0 and followed the same strategy of writing to French sites. In general they like to write about software getting french localization since it's something that their readers care about. I believe it's similar in other languages as well but we don't have more experience with this.
DW: Kosta, you guys are big into bundles. What's your strategy there?
KR: We have extensive experience with bundles, participaning in a couple of them and now making one of our own. Bundles are good for developers. Our strategy is to agree to participate in almost any bundle. We don't believe it cannibalizes sales, because for most applications there are millions (or at least hundreds of thousands) of potential users, and indies are mainly limited by either their ability to reach them, or by price. A bundle alleviates both of these constraints: it introduces you to a wide audience you weren't exposed to before, and it captures the cluster of customers who were familiar with your application but considered it too expensive to purchase for original price.
By participating in a bundle you expend your user base, and users are the best marketing people for good applications. Some users would never think that they could use or like your application, but after getting it as part of the bundle that become enthusiastic users. Another benefit — a surprising amount of users in the bundle don't even need your application and will never use it, but you're still getting paid for these users.
One known claim against bundles is that increased support load without large financial gain, but we disagree — we see support as an opportunity to get in direct contact with our customers. By doing that we're demonstrating our superb support and responsiveness, often turing an angry user into an evangelist who promotes our application for free or offers insights into what need to be improved in our application or in our marketing.
DW: What are your thought on marketing with coupon codes?
KR: We tried to increase our sales by creating time-limited 30% disocunt coupons and publishing them on various coupon sites (like RetailMeNot or forums). We didn't get much traffic or sales from these sites, therefore we assumed that our potential users don't prowl the net in search of coupons (even googling for coupons for ImageFramer gives many first-page results but apparently most people don't use this option).
There are other cases when coupons were effective in increasing our sales, like publising a short-term coupon directly on our site — it seems to push the visitors into making a "buy" decision as they understand that the decision should be made now and not postponed to some other day. We think that publishing a coupon on the site acts much better then lowering the price and writing "get it for $29 instead of $39", because coupon makes the discout seem more real and anchors the original price at $39.
Additional case when coupons become handly are with hackers — when someone tries to use a recognized cracked version of our application, he gets redirected to a special page, listing the benefits of purchasing ImageFramer and offering a $10 discount coupon to increase the chance that the user will make "buy" decicion at that moment.
Our next plan with coupons is a widely-known technique of asking blogs and review sites to review our applications and publish a discount coupon for their readers. We believe that doing it will increase the perceived value offering of the review and thus the blog/review site will more likely publish the review.
Thanks to both of you for your copious answers! Good luck on your MacGraPhoto bundle which I see is starting this weekend!