Startups: how NOT to write your website sales pages

If your startup sells stuff via the internet (you have an online product, service, web-app, etc), this may be the single most important thing to get right (assuming your core idea, team, etc has inherent merit). And yet so many companies spend so much money doing it so wrong.

Why are modern software companies so bad at selling software? Today I was looking at Scrum tools (or Agile if you prefer), and I was struck by how hopeless some of their websites are. With some of these sites, I am sure that I could increase the sales of most of these companies by hundreds or thousands a year, just through basic principles of sales.

(and, obviously, HOWEVER you design your sales page, you should be using A/B testing to increase sales, conversion, etc. But A/B testing is no panacea: you still need the creativity and understanding to make the “big leaps” yourself)

Example: VersionOne

I’m going to pull out one example (by accident, the first I came across). Many others are much the same.
VersionOne.com

Before we go further, let me be clear what “kind” of customer I am. I’m currently looking for solutions for two commercial setups. One is for tiny projects on a case-by-case basis. This would be 5-seat licenses (worth up to $3000 at VersionOne’s current prices). The other is for a company-wide purchase of up to 30 licenses per annum (worth up to $15,000).

But, at the same time, my last full time job was running development for a large development studio. I was the primary reviewer and purchase-maker for software tools that were 50-person per annum immediately, and meant a commitment of up to 150 within 3 years. I’ve done a *lot* of this purchase-review process, on a lot of software.

My negative reactions to VersionOne’s sales are fairly consistent across the 3 profiles (although the reasons behind that are complex)

Landing page, from Google: the “don’t ask questions, you’re too stupid, just buy instead”, and “we love ourselves, we’re awesome” page

Page: http://pm.versionone.com/Trial_ScrumProjects.html?c-aws=trs&gr-tss&v-029abt&gclid=CNGTgsrEoaICFUcA4wod82WOwg

This has a *concealed* URL, so it pretends to be the front page, but actually lies, and redirects you to this page instead:

Ont this page, your website states it’s a commercial product, yet REFUSES to answer the single most important question: how much does this cost?

There aren’t even any LINKS to finding out about the product. It’s just “buy our product, or piss off”.

This page serves one purpose: lock the customer into a product they don’t want. You are “not allowed” to know the cost, you are only “allowed” to “signup now for a 30-day trial” – you have to commit yourself, and they’ll sting you with a price later, when you have no choice.

Word of advice: merely making something “free, for a few minutes, then I charge you” does NOT lower the customer’s barriers to purchase. For an ultra-long-term product like Project Management tools, it often has the *reverse* effect. The MINIMUM trial for a PM tool is “one project”. Most projects – using new tools – will need several months; 2 week to learn the tool, 10 weeks to run + launch + finish the project. The customer knows this; they know that a “30 day trial” is completely dishonest.

So, we use the navbar, and head to the “Product” page:

Product page: the “Want more info? Oh no you don’t! You’re too stupid, you’re just a customer!”

Page: http://www.versionone.com/Product/

I’ll sum up the stupidity and smug self-satisfied attitude of the person who wrote this page with just one quote, their final bullet point in the top-section:

“Accelerate agile adoption”

[hey! Look at that! I’m so clever – three words all beginning with “a”! They’re guaranteed to buy now! I’m so sharp, sometimes I cut myself]

Sigh. Ignoring the “infographic” which has been screen-captured with a font-size of 2pts (i.e. literally physically impossible to read), we try to do something useful with this page: review the product (we’ve given up on pricing, for now – they obviously don’t wany anyone to buy the product, but maybe the product is so good we can force our way past that?)

Product page, part 2: the “we don’t trust you, we’ll spam you with marketing crap”

Page: http://www.versionone.com/Product/

(below the infographic)

Just look at that page. It has literally zero information about the product, yet it’s the “product” page.

Instead, it has paragraphs of marketing crap. There’s no other term for it; let’s look at the first example.

Bullet-point: “Product Planning”

What does this mean? Absolutely nothing. BY DEFINITION, this is a whole website devoted to project-management-planning software used on projects that create products. Why do you repeat this, in such a childish gross genealization, as if it’s a “feature”?

Ah, but … actually, that’s not necessarily true. Scrum is often used on projects that are NOT generating a Product.

So, in fact, this lazy marketing title has already told some of the target-customers: “Don’t use our product. Go away”.

Let’s look at the text underneath the bullet:

“Plan and manage your requirements, epics, stories, and goals across multiple projects, products and teams.”

What is this – Dictionary.com? Why are you patronising me by telling me what you think “Product Planning” means, as an abstract concept? What kind of project manager – or engineer – is so stupid as to not know what it is they do on a day to day basis, and to feel happy that you’re telling them?

I WANT TO BUY YOUR SOFTWARE, NOT LISTEN TO YOUR PHILOSOPHICAL DISCOURSE.

I suspect that the weak marketing person who wrote this copy thought it “looked nicer” to put features into a long sentence. Let’s look at that sentence, from a copy-writing perspective. It has eight separate phrases. EIGHT. The average sentence has 2-4. Concise sentences have 1-2. Waffle has 5 or more. This is a sales page; every sentence should be no more than 3 phrases. EIGHT! NO-ONE is going to pull useful information from that sentence.

Onto another problem with this page, for the customer who comes here: No screenshots. Anywhere.

OK. Take a deep breath. This is a company that, so far:
– wants to deceive us into locking-in to their product
– patronises us intensely
– works hard to hide features (check that “unreadable” infographic)

…but let’s put all that to one side, and drill down into the links from the Product page.

Features (1 of 8): “You can look, but don’t touch AND DON’T LOOK CLOSELY!”

Page: http://www.versionone.com/Product/Product_Planning.asp

Finally, if you follow one of the links from this page, you get to a page that contains some actual, concrete, info about the product. There’s even some screenshots!

Oh. BUT. You are “not allowed” to actually see the screenshots. They’ve been deliberately blurred-out a low-resolution, so that text is literally unreadable and there is NO WAY to judge the product. (NB: this is *after* you’ve clicked on the almost-full-size thumbnails in the page). They are then further blurred (to no purpose except to fit the Web Designer’s fetish for popup images) and embedded in the page.

Overall impression: this company knows it’s own product is not fit for purpose, and will do anything to stop the customer from finding that out until AFTER they’ve paid their money. Whatever you do DO NOT BUY VersionOne’s project-management software.

Final thoughts: First one is free

A decent usability person – or a really good web designer – would make huge sweeping changes to that site.

A flippant starter, something I’d personally try immediately (today): move the “see it; drive it; try it” buttons that hide in top-right of the site to CENTER STAGE, both on the Product page and the Google Landing page.

AND … I’d add a fourth button: “Buy it”.

What? There’s no “buy” link on this site? Yep. I think that eloquently sums up what a poor job this site does of MAKING MONEY FOR THE COMPANY.

(NB: and I *absolutely* would instigate A/B tests to prove – day by day, hour by hour – that my changes were having a noticeable effect on increasing sales to the site. If you don’t do that, then you’re just pissing into the wind. You have no idea, afterwards, whether your changes “worked”. See Sergio Zyman‘s book for more…)

Where do these terrible sites come from?

I believe that these often-amateurish websites come from one of two sources (possibly both):

1. Expensive “Web Design” agency that only cared about making it “beautiful” without understanding a single thing about the reality of sales. In the example I run through below, dead giveaways include: Popup images that are only 15% larger than the thumbnails that trigger them; grey-on-white text; very small font-sizes. All those are characteristic of visual designers who know nothing about product sales.

2. A marketing team that’s worked for big corporates (multinational, public companies) and thinks that the most important thing in their job is to “clone” the website of “a real company – you know, like Microsoft”, and pretend to “be like the big boys”. They have no idea why those websites look the way they do, and don’t bother to ask themselves; they just blindly clone it. In the example below, dead giveaways include: 12 pages to describe a simple product where 3 would have been more than sufficient; hiding information at all costs; never committing to a list of features; using “freeform text” instead of simple “bullet points” to describe the product.

2 thoughts on “Startups: how NOT to write your website sales pages

  1. Adam Feldman - Bright Green

    Hi There,

    Really interesting blog and so relevant for us right now.

    We’re an Agile Tools provider and after about two years with our old website, we’ve updated it along with Version 4 of our product.

    We’ve invested a load of time and money into the site and hope it’s really clear what we do and how potential customers can learn more about our product. This is where we find the majority of our customers.

    I’d appreciate your thoughts on our website and would love you to take a look at our product. Our tool is simple to use, customizable and provides powerful reporting, even on our free plan.

    http://www.brightgreenprojects.com

    Adam

  2. adam Post author

    It looked great. Unfortunately, your signup form is broken. Bad move. You got my interest, but then refused to let me use your software. Sigh.

    (please google “email address”, and print a copy of the RFC for your web team :). Since you’ve decided that “valid” email is a barrier to purchasing your product…)

    PS: I don’t get it; why would you place ANY barrier in front of people buying your product? I’d really like to understand this – it just doesn’t make any sense to me.

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