Author's note: We've certainly covered a lot of material so far. Before wrapping up, it's important to keep in mind that a shareware company is just a small, self-contained software company. Shareware authors, just like the big guns of software, face a lot of the same issues we've discussed. Issues like sales strategy, writing the software, testing, shipping, ReadMe files, marketing, and distribution. The model for shareware is the same as it is for larger companies, just miniaturized.
Today we conclude the series with a discussion about press releases, payment processing, user support, a launch checklist, localization, and working from the road.
Anatomy of the Press Release
There are so many facets of press releases that we don't have the time to do anything but provide a quick overview. If you're looking for a detailed description of press releases, be sure to read Hacking the Press, by Adam Engst of TidBits. Adam's article covers the topic of press releases better than just about anybody.
As explained in our previous discussion in this series about the shareware life cycle, press releases should be distributed with each new release of your software. Press releases should be sent not only to the public press venues, but also to all users who have registered your software, as well as to all users who have asked to be informed about any changes to your products.
Don't send press releases for Mac OS software to your Windows users.
Do create a Web form where users can request information when it becomes available.
Do send new product announcements to all of your users. (This shouldn't happen with any great frequency.)
Don't over do it.
Below are the sections you should consider including in your press release:
- Your company's name.
- Your company's URL.
- Your product's URL.
- The name of the product being released.
- A short description of what's new with the release. This description should be kept short to enable the public press venues to easily paraphrase what your release is all about. Press venues will typically paraphrase one or two sentences from your press release as a news item.
- A list of specific changes since the previous version.
- Instructions for existing users on how to upgrade their older version(s) to the latest release.
- A full description of the software that includes a list of key features.
- Instructions to your existing users telling them how to change their addresses for future announcements. A URL to a Web form will help a lot here.
- Instructions to recipients telling them how to remove themselves from your mailing list. (Make sure this works!)
- Some shareware authors like to include the registered users' usernames and registration numbers in this email as well. This requires a little technology, which is described below.
- URLs to download your software directly, including mirrors.
By the time you have a few hundred users, you may find that sending out the release and update emails is too unwieldy with a simple email client. If you don't have access to a Unix server and enterprise level mailing list software, you may think you're out of luck. No worries! There's a wonderful piece of software called eMerge. eMerge, by Galleon Software, can import tab delimited text files with user information (like their registration numbers) and send form-merged emails. Even better, eMerge makes a direct connection from your computer to the recipient's POP server, so no intermediate SMTP server is necessary! eMerge also stores addresses that no longer work, enabling you to remove them easily from future mailings. It's a wonderful package. Unfortunately it's only available for Mac OS 9, although it runs great in the Classic Environment of Mac OS X.
The Do's and Don'ts of Shareware, Part 2
The Do's and Don'ts of Shareware, Part 1
No matter how hard you try to write perfect software, a release will invariably have a bug. Depending on the severity of the problem (crashing the user's machine comes to mind) you may want to release an immediate update. On the other hand, if the problem isn't too severe, you may not want to send out any emails at all and just silently post your update. It's reasonable to send some updates to the public press venues only and not your users, or vice-versa. (I've always wanted to use the term "vice-versa" in an article. :-)
If you have a staff of 200 people, a clean room full of computers, and your own T3 link out onto the Internet, you'll probably create your own payment processing solution. As with so many other facets of the software industry described by this series, most shareware authors have no such luxury. To the rescue are third party companies who have created entire businesses around processing payments for shareware authors. We'll call these companies Payment Processing Providers.
Payment Processing Providers basically take care of the headache of charging a user's credit card in a secure fashion, processing the sale, sending the goods to the user, and sending the payment to the author. This basic functionality is common to all Payment Processing Providers. How each provider allows authors to configure this functionality, and how functionality is provided to the customer are completely different. In addition, each of the three Payment Processing Providers described below is a "Work in Progress". Their systems are constantly evolving to keep up with industry trends and the demands of authors and users alike.
Below is a discussion that compares and contrasts three different Payment Processing Providers. All three providers are run by very honest people. All three providers are intent on providing excellent service to their authors and their authors' customers. Intertwined with the descriptions are my own experiences with each of these three Payment Processing Providers because there's nothing like the personal touch!
Kagi Software. To understand Kagi Software it's important to understand how they got their start. Way back before the Internet became popular, shareware companies distributed their software through America Online's software forums, Info-Mac FTP archives, Dial-up boards, or on shareware distribution disks. To facilitate the collection of funds from users, Kagi provided a special piece of software called "Register". Authors configured "Register" (using a rather obtuse mechanism by today's standards) with their product information and price. Authors would send a "test" payment to Kagi either by fax, email, or postal mail, and Kagi would plop all of the product information into its database. The user uses the same "Register" application to pay for the software. (The "Register" application does not make any kind of connection to the Internet. It's only used for creating paper or email payment messages that are encrypted weakly. "Register" is also not available for Mac OS X natively.)
When the Internet became popular, Kagi basically output its database to a series of Web pages to collect sales from users. Today, the required use of the "Register" application is only optional, but it's still the primary way to add a product to Kagi's system. (As per the first paragraph of Kagi's own FAQ to do just this: "Kagi processes payments for products based upon the product name. The best way for us to add your product name into the database is for you to send us the first test payment so that we can see exactly how the program name is spelled when output from the register program.") In the end, this translates to a complicated mechanism that's wired together in a rather unintuitive fashion and is poorly documented. Kagi has improved its system over the years, however. These days authors can generate sales reports via Kagi's online server, and customize their Web pages. It's Kagi's mix of old and new technologies that leaves many authors very frustrated with Kagi's system. But many authors also swear by Kagi's system, never giving a competitor a second look.
Some cases in point: Most of Kagi's support mechanisms are provided through special email addresses that are handled manually by different Kagi employees. One such email address allows authors to set up Kagi to generate customized registration codes. An email I sent to this Kagi address wasn't answered for 7 months. (Yes, 7 months.) Kagi has also been known to accidentally email viruses to all of its authors. Although no provider is immune from such problems, no other provider in my experience has ever had this problem. A recent email to email@example.com wasn't responded to for 24 hours, and only then the response was an automated message directing me to a different email address! The redirection was fine, but 24 hours? That's a long time for an author who's running an entire shareware company as a part time job! Also, an inordinate number of my users have complained that fax orders can sometimes take over a week for Kagi to process. An email to Kagi about this was answered within five days, and the faxes were processed soon thereafter. Turnaround time on mail orders is even worse, usually resulting in unanswered emails from the Kagi support staff and very frustrated paying customers.
Do remember that it's a really bad idea to frustrate paying customers. Especially before they get their registration numbers!
There are a number of things Kagi does right, however. Without a doubt, Kagi is the King of international sales. At the very core of their service is unending respect for the fact that most of the world does not speak English. And interestingly enough, most of the world does not use credit cards. Kagi handles this quite gracefully by providing all authors with a default sales experience in many different languages and accepts payment from European banks and debit cards not found in the United States. As a shareware author, you should not underestimate the International Marketplace. But don't overestimate it either. (Confusing, isn't it? How you handle this really just depends on your particular product.)
Kagi offers many services. Unfortunately its services are strewn about on their Web site detailed in endless FAQ pages. Just combing through those pages alone can take a half of a life time, and their support staff is slow to respond. But if you look hard enough, the features you may want are probably available, sometimes at a price, in some form or another. And the features will be located for you upon request by Kagi's support staff, hopefully before you die.
DigiBuy. Close your eyes and envision the perfect Web-based sales solution and you're probably seeing DigiBuy. DigiBuy is the shareware subsidiary of the major e-commerce player Digital River. DigiBuy is a ground-up rewrite of a payment processing provider dedicated to shareware. Authors open a DigiBuy account with their own private username and password. Once DigiBuy's setup is complete (setup takes about five minutes and is available 24 hours a day) authors can add products through DigiBuy's Web interface (this takes another five minutes per product). Once finished, you're presented with a URL that you link from your Web site, and you're done. If you don't like DigiBuy's default ordering Web pages (they're about a 6 out of 10 on the universal hideousness scale) you can completely customize the entire ordering experience with DigiBuy's advanced template mechanism. If you can handle writing HTML, you can handle writing Web pages with DigiBuy's template mechanism. There are also loads of features that allow you to have DigiBuy generate registration codes for your products on the fly, and insert them directly into customer receipts. And authors can configure all of this with no human intervention on the part of DigiBuy. For the author, DigiBuy is the most intuitive and automated engine available. Everything is right where you'd expect to find it, and its interwoven documentation helps you every step of the way. DigiBuy's knowledgeable support staff will answer your emails expeditiously too, usually before the end of the current business day.
From the customer's point of view, DigiBuy has a load of features. Using DigiBuy, customers can place their orders via your customized Web pages instantly. Or for added security, DigiBuy can accept orders by fax, phone, mail, and even Purchase Orders. (To handle purchase orders yourself, here's what you'd have to do: customer postal-mails the author a purchase order, author sends customer the product, customer sends author the money, author sends the customer a receipt (optional). It's a four-way handshake.) Unique to DigiBuy, phone orders are handled 24 hours per day by their specialized automated touch-tone system.
Cases in point: DigiBuy's customer support is fast and courteous. DigiBuy's uptime is excellent. Features are added to their Web site on a regular basis, and their programmers respond to bugs very quickly. When I signed up with DigiBuy I asked their programmers to add Macintosh line delimiters (carriage returns) to their machine-readable reporting options. This feature was made available to all of its authors within 18 hours. Now if that's not service, I don't know what is.
But there's a catch. DigiBuy, for all it does right, is very expensive. DigiBuy also lacks fundamental features like the ability to split sales between authors and DigiBuy lacks an International sales experience, so your users will be stuck ordering in English. DigiBuy also has no software-integrated solution.
In the end, DigiBuy takes a hefty percentage of the cost of inexpensive products, and for shareware authors, that's a really big problem: most shareware products are inexpensive. Too bad too, because DigiBuy's Web-based ordering system is superb.
eSellerate. eSellerate is a relative newcomer to the payment processing game, opening its doors about two years ago. eSellerate, although lacking in a few basic features, has some serious power behind it. It also has one of the best deals in the industry for low cost products. Knowing this, let's begin.
eSellerate offers authors three separate options for accepting payments from users. (1) The first option accepts payments via a traditional Web interface. Although not totally configurable, the eSellerate Web interface offers Web based shopping cart technology. Authors can place "buy buttons" on their product pages or use a single page for all "buy buttons" (the default). (2) eSellerate's second option to accept payments is completely unique: an integrated eSeller. An integrated eSeller can actually accept a user's payment right from within your software. That's right, no Web browser necessary. As the shareware author, you'll make a function call to an eSellerate library. This magical library will present windows and fields to collect the user's credit card information and verify the credit card on-the-fly. Here's the best part: if the user's credit card information is valid, the eSellerate servers will return a new registration code right to your software. This is great because this avoids the extra step of instructing the user to enter the registration code which is a relatively large source of customer support emails. (3) For the third option, because eSellerate is made by the same folks that make Installer Vise, it's easy to embed payment technology right into your installers.
eSellerate's back-end is very powerful. Its databases are relational. This allows authors to define a product once, and then reference those products from multiple price points (SKUs). In turn, these SKUs can be referenced from multiple eSeller configurations: either integrated, installer, or Web site. It's a little unwieldy at first, but well worth the configuration effort. What a great idea: only enter your product's information once! This saves a lot of typing and time in the end. And if you get stuck, eSellerate's courteous support staff has the patience of Job. They'll usually respond to emails within hours, and if you get really stuck, they'll talk you through problems on the phone. Expect more support calls with eSellerate than DigiBuy because eSellerate's system simply does more. (eSellerate's integrated technology is Windows and Mac OS compatible (CFM+InterfaceLib, CFM+CarbonLib, or Mach-O compatible). See, I told you you'd need a little support!)
Cases in point: eSellerate's support staff will answer all of your questions expeditiously and thoughtfully. A while back when eSellerate's integrated solution was still in the 1.x stage, there was a slight incompatibility with my software. Their developers were quick to respond and steadfastly worked through the problem until it was solved. Writing a Web interface for sales is hard to get right. But writing an integrated solution that's compatible with so many operating systems and versions is nearly impossible. And eSellerate's actually pulled it off with flying colors.
Although eSellerate doesn't offer simple splits of sales between authors, and lacks total configurability of the Web-based sales experience (its template choices are a five out of ten on the universal hideousness scale, especially with multiple products), they do many things right. Its author back-end for running reports of sales is the most configurable in the business. And the best part: its rates are the lowest in the industry, even for inexpensive products. Percentages of gross product price do add up and you should take percentages seriously. eSellerate's 10 percent fee for low cost products is much lower than their competitors. Be sure to keep in mind that eSellerate's rates will jump up to 15 percent if you make more than $15,000 in any 12 month period.
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