Questions to ask when your product doesn't sell close

Beth Gladstone
In Apps
15th May 2014
Questions to ask when your product doesn't sell

When you’ve poured your heart, soul and budget into a new digital product, you don’t expect it to fail - it’s difficult to even contemplate the idea.

Unfortunately many products do. Sometimes the launch just never takes off, or often you have a product which initially looks successful, but is really just a product of what Lean Startup guru Eric Ries calls ‘Vanity metrics’; stats which look good to the naked eye but don’t actually show that the product can, or will, make money.

Having worked on several digital products from the initial stages, right through to launch and customer retention, we know firsthand that a product rarely ends up the exact output of what was initially envisioned. To survive, products pivot or change and occasionally they die a necessary death. So when a product isn’t selling, how do you know when it’s time to change direction, carry on or scrap an idea altogether?

We’ve put together 7 questions to ask to help you ensure that you’re giving a product its best chance at success:

1. What is the product value?

The sad truth is, most products fail. Why? Because they neglect to communicate their product value properly. Customers care little about what you do, and more about what you can do for them, yet most websites focus on selling the product rather than its value. To successfully convert customers, you should always aim to sell a solution rather than a product. To take Twilert, our Twitter monitoring tool as an example, it’s very easy to tell visitors about Twilert's functionality, rather than explain what function it could provide for them. Take these two bios as an example:

  1. ‘Twilert is a twitter monitoring tool which sends email alerts when keywords are mentioned on Twitter’

  2. ‘Twilert allows you to receive realtime alerts when someone mentions your brand on Twitter’

The first is a good dictionary definition but fails to answer the question; why will our customers care? The latter effectively says the same thing, but focuses on the customer and the product value for their business. Rewriting your website copy is an essential step in communicating product value and showing customers why the product is worth investing in.

2. Where is your traffic coming from?

In an ideal world, you’d launch a product, get picked up by The Next Web and suddenly have 100K customers. Unfortunately in the real world, getting a product out there and acquiring customers, is a much slower process. To help this along, it’s important to define a strategy specifically for acquiring more traffic. This doesn’t necessarily mean spending a huge amount on advertising; relatively low cost or even free, inbound marketing methods can often work just as well. Popular social media scheduling tool Buffer, claims to have acquired its first 100,000 users through guestblogging, whereas Spotify and Nike+ both gained traction through Facebook integration. Plan and test various methods until you find the ones which generate traffic for your brand.

3. How are you converting that traffic into customers?

One of the biggest product marketing fails is to generate traffic and then not do anything with it. Banners, header images and call to action buttons should be optimised throughout your website and tested until they are successful at transferring customers to the next step in your sales funnel.

Some good examples of sites that have optimised the signup process include:


Simple, call to action headers which show the benefit to the user and give a specific instruction: ‘Sign up. It’s free.’

Google Chrome

Strong call to action download button, optimised against white space.

Pie This

Simple, signup form and secondary Google Apps option.

4. How easy is the onboarding process?

If a sign up process is long or complicated, users will weight the amount of effort it takes to fill in against the amount of value they expect to receive from the product. Often, if the process is complicated or longwinded, they will leave before completion. A good onboarding process should be so seamless, that the user doesn’t even realise they are being taught something. Customers learn by doing and this is reflected in the signup process of some of the most successful products in the world such as Dropbox, Pinterest and LinkedIn. What these products all have in common is a smart onboarding process which leads the user through the experience, teaching them as they go. Also checkout Useronboard which gives a great overview of different onboarding methods used by various web apps.

5. How seamless is the full experience?

We are all becoming increasingly ‘connected’ and as a result, customers expect the products they invest in to integrate with other related systems. A good example is the integration between instant messaging service Hipchat and customer service tools Groove and Helpscout. Both companies recognised that small businesses are relying less on emails and more on instant messaging. This integration means that customer support requests can be dropped straight into team chatrooms and flagged immediately. Similarly, social media products Followerwonk and Buffer have built the perfect partnership so that users can schedule their social media posts (Buffer) for the times when their followers are most online (Followerwonk). The more seamless the experience, the more likely the user is to buy.

6. Do you really know your user?

One thing we’ve learnt from developing digital products is that user testing is an essential part of the product development cycle if you want to really learn about your customer. Speaking to Twilert users has taught us that a 30 day trial is more beneficial than the current 15 days, due to the reporting cycle agencies use. We also learnt, that the stickiest feature was not one of the six we were looking to implement - but actually Geolocation search, something we’d had for years but had never really optimised in the UI. Often you can skip many wasted efforts building new features just by talking to your customers and testing assumptions.

7. Do you have a customer service and social listening plan?

Creating a strategy to manage the ‘always on’ expectations of the modern day customer can be difficult but is essential to securing trust. Outage is sometimes inevitable but this doesn’t have to be a cause for concern if handled in the right manner. The key to good customer service is to respond quickly, honestly and humanely. There is nothing more frustrating for a user than an autorespond tweet or a 3 day wait for an email response. Customers need to feel confident that your team can solve their problems quickly and also protect them from the same mistake occurring twice. Unfortunately, this will extend to times outside of working hours and this is why a good social media listening plan is essential to success. Customers should also be entered into a feedback loop as they hit certain milestones throughout your product, to ensure that you stay in touch with their needs. Retaining customers is critical to growth and it’s much easier to retain an existing customer than it is to gain a new one.

Developing, selling and evolving a digital product is difficult. You only have to look at Microsoft’s Zune against Apple’s iPod, to see that even with large budgets and experienced teams, it’s all too easy for a digital product to fail.The only way to improve your chance of success is to continually assume, test and monitor at each stage of the product cycle and then when you’ve finished, start the process over again. Marketing a digital product is never going to be easy, but when you’re creating something that could potentially solve a problem or make someone’s life better, it’s worth the struggle.