I’m writing this piece fully aware that there is no such thing as a generic software company. Most obviously, there is an almost infinite variety of tasks that ‘software’ can help us with.
In addition, the ways in which a customer interacts with those businesses range from the complex multi-year global license agreement that takes 2 years to negotiate, to starting a free trial online in a matter of seconds. And everything in between.
But whilst each individual situation is different (and we would always look at each project with an open mind), it would be foolish to conclude that these businesses have nothing in common.
Many software companies have similar ways of developing new business, and many face similar challenges when it comes to describing what they do and making the right first impression online. So whilst I would not advocate blindly following the suggestions I list below, instead take from them what feels relevant.
If nothing else, I hope this list stops your organisation making the mistakes we see all too often online - and that can have a huge negative impact on the success of the business.
1. Start With a Brand
In any company led by technology the idea of a brand can sometimes be an afterthought. That is almost always a mistake. A brand defines what the business is about, why it exists, and what it stands for. In turn it helps prospects ‘connect’ with a what feels like a real, tangible entity rather than a disembodied product.
In addition, a brand in this sense provides the necessary framework for the creative work behind a visual identity in the first instance and a more extended online presence in the second. It supplies a set of criteria by which to judge creative work, thus avoiding a sense of ‘designing in the dark’.
By making sometimes difficult decisions about what the business is about early on, we greatly simplify decision making later. And our prospects receive a consistent experience - that means something - every time they come back to our site, view online advertising, arrive at a landing page or indeed interact in any conceivable way with the organisation. That makes a huge difference.
2. Optimise For Inbound Lead Generation
Many software companies - particular SaaS companies - have a go-to-market engine fueled by inbound leads: potential customers who fill in a form online, either because they are directly expressing an interest in the product or wish to access some form of content.
If that sounds like your business, make it as easy as possible for your site visitors to complete those forms. Work hard to ensure that every metric that measures the path from initial arrival on site to form completion is optimised.
That means building landing pages, and testing multiple variants of those pages against each other to establish which approach is most effective. It means stripping back forms to the essentials - whilst still collecting enough information to establish real intent on behalf of the prospect (make sure to test competing forms not just on completion rates but on how many of those completions become true opportunities).
It also means ensuring that clear calls to action (CTAs) are present throughout the site. Whenever the prospect is asking ‘what next?’, be there. Click maps can help identify where users are expecting to be able to engage further and are currently frustrated. They can help you position your CTAs to maximum effect.
3. Focus On Benefits
In the software industry in particular, it is of vital importance to separate what a product does from how it does it. End users care about the former alone, and although some individuals within a prospect organisation may have a technical interest in the latter, it is unlikely to be a key element in any purchasing decision.
This sounds obvious, but it can be easy to get carried away with how ‘clever’ something is and in doing so forget the heart of the matter: how it makes the customers life easier.
Look carefully at all copy and work hard to ensure the product is described in terms that relate to the needs and requirements of the customer, rather than the viewpoint of the developer. Again, the latter is a very easy mistake to make in any software company, and particularly in start-ups where everyone is close to the tech (and sometimes a little in love with it).
That’s not to say there isn’t a role for a more detailed technical description of the product. There absolutely is. But don’t let that become the top level message. Think in terms of your wants and needs of the end user, and write and design for them.
4. Design for first impressions
Most software companies are not household names. In the majority of cases prospects come to them without preconceptions and prejudices. In some instances your potential customer has never heard of your business until an inside sales rep made a call or sent an email.
When they put the phone down after that call and visit your website (as they inevitably will), make sure the first impression they get delivers on your brand in the best possible way. You may only get one chance. It is a misconception to imagine that you can come back from a poor first impression, or that you can improve over time without consequences.
Taking short-cuts and looking to do things ‘on the cheap’ at this point in the journey is a mistake. Invest in effective, idiomatic design and enjoy the benefits.
If you have to compromise, compromise on quantity rather than quality. Create something small and beautiful rather than a sprawling mess in which prospects get lost and get a bad impression at the same time.
5. Invest in images (and video)
Software can be hard to explain. Even when we take care to start from the ‘jobs to be done’ our prospect might have: it can still be hard to explain. In many cases we are dealing with abstract concepts and the written word can struggle - even in the most talented hands.
Given this is the case, let compelling imagery carry some of the burden. For many organisations and founders, words tend to come easily (even if ultimately they are the wrong words). Images, on the other hand, are something of a foreign country. One only has to think of the average ‘explanatory’ architecture diagram produced by a software company to realise that.
So both online and offline, it is necessary to be open-minded and creative when it comes to visualising the product. Consider carefully how words and images work together to tell the story and take time to ensure those images are working as hard as possible on your behalf.
Swrve, a Kooba customer, do just this on their product pages. Illustrations, images and (where relevant) video bring the product to life and help show what it delivers. As a result visitors and prospects have a much clearer idea of what the company can deliver for them.
This article was first posted in 2021.