Rethink Commerce Blog

Why Hammers Sell Better Than Your Software

Posted on August 19th, 2009 by

Hammers Sell Better Than Software
Hammers Sell Better Than Software

Back in April my friend and fellow microISV Andy Brice conducted a software vendor survey that highlighted something that doesn’t get the attention it should: while about a third of the people that visit your site download your trial version, only 1% end up buying.

Why is that? Now maybe the 92 respondents to the survey were atypical, but I don’t think so: I’ve heard that “only 1% buy” adage for years.

Here’s a related factoid Andy’s survey unearthed: the average Mac product conversion ratio is more than 4 times higher than the Windows product conversion ratio.

Now maybe Mac owners are four times richer than Windows users, or maybe because there’s four times less software to choose from. But as a Windows developer who switched two years ago, I haven’t noticed four times more money in my bank account or not found a decent range of software to accessorize my MacBook Pro with. In fact, I’ve noticed – and so has my spouse – I’m much more likely to buy a Mac app I trial than I was likely to buy as a Windows guy.

Try 100 and Buy One?

Something else to think about regarding that abysmal 1% visit to sale ratio: it’s way out of whack compared to other things we buy like books and clothes (low end price range) and consumer electronics (business software). Ever try on 100 shirts and buy only one? Me neither.

The more I pondered the above, the more I realized that there had to be something else, something uniquely broken, in the process of buying software to cause such a huge failure rate. I think what’s broken is that unlike nearly everything else we buy, we don’t know how to use an application until we learn at least the basics of that application- or the vendor teaches us. And that’s where most software vendors, especially Windows desktop software vendors, drop the ball.

A good, well-made hammer costs more than most consumer software applications. Imagine yourself in a hardware store where you pick up a hammer. You know immediately how to use it: you don’t have to read the manual or guess what it can do – you know.

There’s two things going on here – intellectually you know how to use a hammer (even if you don’t know the subtle technique differences between using a claw framing hammer as opposed to a brick layer’s hammer). Secondly, you feel emotionally empowered – you know you can hammer in a nail in three whacks where before all you could do is rip open a finger trying to push it in – and that’s a positive feeling

Knowledge and Empowerment Sell.

Now compare that with how you reacted to the last app you downloaded a trial version of. Do you remember the frustration of an empty screen? Of not knowing what you could do, or where to start? I don’t – the Mac product I last added had a quick, professional screencast that showed me exactly how to use it. And the product before that had a really good screenshot that told me enough of how to use the product in one glance than many of the 50-page manuals I read in years past when I bought Windows software. Call it the Steve Jobs effect, but Mac vendors go out of their way to make their software easy to adopt and start using – and it pays off.

There’s a gap, a chasm, a divide that separates the nearly a third of site visitors who download trial versions from the measly 1% who actually buy, and it’s your responsibility as a software vendor to bridge that gap. Interestingly enough, there was one respondent to Andy’s survey who had a whopping 13.94% sales:visits ratio – and I’ll bet that vendor has engineered an excellent “out of the box” customer experience for their product.

Here’s three techniques software vendors have employed to get me across the threshold and in turn have gotten my money:

  • A really good screencast. A professionally made short screencast helps the viewer understand what you are selling and what they will get for their money. And note the professionally part of that – I recently had a professional screencaster create the first screencast for, the training/productivity community for startups and microISVs I’m launching soon. I could have spent a year at the job and it would never have been as compelling, comprehensible and well made as the 3 minute video Ian created.
  • A really good screenshot. Like I said, this one screenshot sold me on this task management application. This technique of magnifying the few key points you want to stand out is a really good technique and something anybody can do: just follow this, this or this tutorial.
  • Sample data. How did MoneyWell beat out a company at least a thousand times bigger for my 50 bucks? The trial version came with a sample data file that let me get a feel for the app in seconds, and that I could play with to my heart’s content without screwing up my real financial data. It made a huge difference in how I felt about the idea of not just changing software vendors but changing my mental model of how personal financial software worked.

I would submit to you that focusing on how to get your prospective customers immediately comfortable with your software, helping them through those first few minutes of uncertainty, doubt and confusion, helping them in essence to imagine themselves using your software will definitely improve your startup’s or microISV’s overall conversion rate. Now imagine how you would feel if your visit to sale ratio went from the 1% to something like 14% percent.

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Bob Walsh

Author, Blogger, Founder

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Comments (8)

  • Ian Ozsvald says: August 20th, 2009 at 6:01 pm

    Hi Bob, thanks for the lovely comment about our screencast for you. Worth mentioning also is that we’re writing the book on the subject so MicroISVs (and everyone!) can create their own screencasts:

    I’m discussing tools (like Camtasia, Jing and Screenflow), techniques and approaches along with guides and checklists so anyone can quickly get on with making whatever kind of screencast they need.


  • Anne says: September 8th, 2009 at 11:57 am

    I run a Micro ISV with the similar 1% conversion rate. However, I probably think that’s less terrible than you do. Before ISVing, I was Head of IT for a very successful online clothing retailer in the UK. The average conversion rate for a first time vistor to an online store of any kind across the UK is said to be ~2.5% (our retailing site did better, but we were very successful). The key point is “first time visitor” rather than “repeat customer”. You generally double the conversion rate for a repeat customer. With ISVs, one problem is that customers often only buy once, because we don’t have that many products when we start.

    Amazon apparently have one of the best conversion rates in the online business at closer to 20%, but they do have huge brand recognition and an enormous product range. Brand recognition really matters, but it’s usually whoppingly expensive to get.

    Having said that, you make an excellent point about screenshots and the Mac numbers are fascinating. I will go back and look at our screenshots!

    I would be interested in knowing how length of trial affects conversion.

  • Andrew Gibson says: September 9th, 2009 at 11:30 pm

    If you want an easy way of creating the magnifying glass effect on your screen shot and don’t want to use photoshop, then there is another way. 4neurons Software supply a free magnifying glass that you can run over your application. Once you’ve set it up correctly, just press the PrtScn Key and paste the image into your favourite image editing application:

  • Anne says: September 10th, 2009 at 11:59 am

    That’s useful. A nice free tool for capturing print screens is gadwin printscreen ( I find it handy when grabbing lots of images for a document because you can do some basic editing as part of the capture.

  • Pretty sells - does it relate to screenshots? | Association of Shareware Professionals says: September 21st, 2009 at 9:39 pm

    […] Walsh in his “Why Hammers Sell Better Than Your Software” article wrote “A really good screenshot… this one screenshot sold me on this […]

  • Manny says: November 13th, 2009 at 12:41 pm

    Magnifying Glass in Powerpoint – Another easy way to create the magnifying
    glass is in powerpoint. Perform a standard Print Screen, paste into power
    point, enlarge to the size you need, crop the image to the area you want,
    Whilst in croping mode select Picture Shape and select the circle. You know
    can play with shadow, Picture border or even Picture Effect. Have a look at

  • Johan says: January 21st, 2010 at 12:35 am

    We also had ~1% buy rate on our software site until we added live chat. Users were more likely to buy when they knew they could reach us on the site if they had any issues, and the additional customer service made our relationship with them stronger.

    There’s a bunch of these live chat modules out there, we’ve been happy with

  • Web Design says: August 2nd, 2011 at 2:45 pm

    Why people usually try 100 software apps before buying one – and how to increase this conversion rate as a software vendor