Advice for struggling PC software vendors

Summary:If your business is struggling, more and more of the same ol', same ol' isn't going to suddenly give you a lift. You need to make a few changes — and, fortunately, they're not all that hard or costly — or the vicious cycle will continue.

Update and modernize your web site

If there's one universal thing I've noticed in this power tool search, it's the really sorry state of web sites run by PC software vendors. Oh. My. Gosh.

These sites often look like they haven't been updated since 2002 or 2003, like they made a big push to get a product out for XP, but haven't really done much since then. It's clear products have been updated, because the release notes constantly show improvements and point releases every few months, but often the last "news" item in the news section is from 2008.

Often, the online documentation doesn't match the latest version number. The manual says it's for version 11 of the product, but the release notes indicate that version 15 is now out.

If there are video tutorials, they were often created pre-YouTube and are downloadable, low-res files, rather than embedded YouTube videos.

It's terrible. Despite all the work you put in each day holding things together, and the quiet desperation you live with in the dark of the night, it looks to all the world like you don't care about your products and your business. New customers who visit your site will click away almost instantly, because your site looks like one of those old, untouched, ghost town sites that live all over the Internet.

So here's my advice: if you're going to sell software in the Internet-age, you must (must, must, must -- more than anything else -- must) modernize your Web site.

This isn't hard to do. There are thousands of quite fine WordPress templates, hosting providers who can do complete Web site installs for a click of a button, plans that won't cost you more than ten bucks a month, and so forth. If you don't have the graphics design skill, use one of the pre-made templates.

In fact, I'll help you here as well. Here are some of the vendors I've used:

I know this process could take a week or so you don't have, but trust me on this: if you don't do this soon, you'll have all the free weeks you want.

Deal with your forums

You know there's a problem when forums are populated with "Hello, is anyone here?" messages. It's particularly bad when the main web pages point customers to the forums for support, and the forums are populated with complaints that the company doesn't answer or brutal complaints about products, product strategy, updates, etc.

Here's a hint: if you can click into your forums and before you even scroll down, you can see a pile of "this company sucks" messages, you need to deal with your forums.

My advice (and this is my software company owner hat, not my transparency journalism hat) is to shut down those forums. Just kill them. I know there's a lot of knowledge trapped in there, but there's also a lot of bile you just don't want new customers to see.

Besides, your forum software probably also looks like it came from the days when Bill Clinton was President. It, too, probably needs a big face lift.

Many of the theme vendors I've suggested above also offer forum software, and there's also a ton of free downloads. Heck, phpBB might be annoying, but it's free and looks at least like it came from a year with a "2" in it.

My other forum tip is this: check over your forums at least once a week. If you can't scan your forums, find someone (even your kid, your mom, that annoying but very loyal customer ... someone) who can look over the site and let you know when strongly negative posts need to be dealt with.

If you can, solve the problem or make good, don't just sweep those problems under the carpet. But no matter what, if you want to keep selling software, you can't have that sort of activity on your forums. It's the kiss of death.

Scan for old dates

While we're talking about the kiss of death, another sure-fire way to scare away new, prospective customers before you even know they came-and-went is to have lots of old dates on your site.

Seriously, if most dates on your site show 2009 or earlier, you're in trouble. It's okay to have release notes that end in 2013 and start back in 1999, but other than that, you really should make sure no date on your site is older than 2012 -- especially if its your software product.

I found one product in my search for a good media asset manager that listed its last update as 2005. Given the importance (to me, anyway) of my project, I couldn't take a chance on something that hadn't been updated since before Vista.

Keep reading. Tough love is good for you...

Topics: Tech Industry, Developer


In addition to hosting the ZDNet Government and ZDNet DIY-IT blogs, CBS Interactive's Distinguished Lecturer David Gewirtz is an author, U.S. policy advisor and computer scientist. He is featured in The History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets, is one of America's foremost cyber-security experts, and is a top expert on savi... Full Bio

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