Going Viral

Well, that was exciting.

So, you probably all saw my little marketing effort for PCalc at the beginning of the month.

It started out as a conversation a while back with some of the usual suspects at the monthly Glasgow MacMacDev developer meeting. We were discussing the recently introduced age ratings in the App Store, and whether a 17+ rating on your app would actually boost sales rather than hurt them. All the Twitter clients (bar one) had just been given a high rating because they could connect to the treacherous unfiltered internet.

How could PCalc benefit from this marketing tactic? How do you make an excellent but otherwise boring scientific calculator get a 17+ rating? Calculator words were mentioned, with the thought of displaying appropriate pictures. But the idea came about to go in the other direction entirely, and actually censor any bad calculator words when the iPhone was held upside down. We were, of course, joking.

But it was funny, and extremely easy to implement. I thought it would make for an interesting easter egg, destined to remain undiscovered except by the occasional well-off bored teenager with an iPhone. So I spent an afternoon on it, and showed it at the next meeting. People were amused. I submitted it to the App Store and, as per the guidelines, documented the easter egg for the Apple reviewers. I don’t know whether the reviewers themselves were amused or not, but 9 days later it was approved.

I hadn’t done a PCalc release on the iPhone for a while, and the 1.8 version I was working on was a little dull to be honest, as far as new features went. The main thing I actually wanted to introduce wasn’t really a new feature, but a discount coupon code in the full iPhone app which was worth $9 off PCalc for Mac OS X. This was an idea that came from Sanford Selznick who had done something similar with his Password Wallet application.

I thought it would be good to give a discount to people who were buying both, and since Apple doesn’t have a mechanism for coupons or discounts in the App Store yet, this was the only way that worked. But also, since PCalc sales on the iPhone are much higher than the Mac version, it wouldn’t hurt to give people an incentive to buy both. As it turns out, this has been a big success, generating a lot of extra sales on the Mac side.

But again, it’s not much of a marketing hook. I’ve talked before about the problems of getting press coverage for iPhone app updates. They are usually smaller and more frequent than desktop updates, and so there isn’t much of a story  just writing about a few extra features. The coupon code is nice for users (and indeed for us), but it’s not exactly headline news.

There have been a number of high profile App Store rejections that were considered to be censorship on the part of Apple, so the thought occurred to me that the hook for this release could actually be the easter egg itself. I quickly wrote up what I considered to be a clearly satirical press release and sent it out to the world. I figured it would give some of the journalists I know a little chuckle, and that would be it. I try and make my press releases at least interesting, so they hopefully stand out a little bit from the crowd.

Initially, it had exactly the desired effect. In the first day, a couple of sites like Rene Ritchie’s iPhone Blog ran some small tongue-in-cheek stories, there was much tweeting, and we had a modest sales bump. Nothing spectacular, but in line with an update of this size. The coupon did prove popular as expected. Job done.

In the immortal words of Dr Sam Beckett, “Oh boy…”.

The next day, something strange happened. I started to get comments on the blog, and quite a few emails, denouncing me for capitulating to censorship. I thought, “Well, they are just playing along with the joke.”. Then, after a few more, I wasn’t exactly sure anymore…

A typical excerpt:

I was unfamiliar with your product, and would have been thrilled to know about it until I today when I read that you’re including a profanity filter. How absurd! This type of calculator is unlikely to even be used by young children. You’ve provided censorship where none is needed. Not only will I NEVER BUY YOUR SOFTWARE, I will actively campaign against its use. Censorship has no place in academia.

And also:

It only censors when you flip the iPhone, but doesn’t censor when you have someone on the other side of the table looking at those numbers when it is lying on a flat surface!!! This shows the ridiculous effort of applying censorship.
This kind of behavior does not in any way diminish my appreciation for the app, but it does so for the makers of it, including the folks responsible at Apple for overseeing the “application process” at the App Store and not realizing the futility of their efforts in view of my previous comment above

It only censors when you flip the iPhone, but doesn’t censor when you have someone on the other side of the table looking at those numbers when it is lying on a flat surface!!! This shows the ridiculous effort of applying censorship. This kind of behavior does not in any way diminish my appreciation for the app, but it does so for the makers of it, including the folks responsible at Apple for overseeing the “application process” at the App Store and not realizing the futility of their efforts in view of my previous comment above.

It should be said that in both of these cases, when I explained it was intended as satire and pointed them towards my original blog post, they were embarrassedly apologetic. But then the serious press stories started to appear, outside of the cosy bubble of iPhone and Mac news. First up, we had NBC News:

Perhaps out of fear of turning into the next Google Voice in Apple’s eyes, the people behind the PCalc scientific calculator for the iPhone installed a profanity filter on the latest verion of the app that blocks out anything even mildly offensive.

Now instead of getting a smut word when you type “5318008″ and flip your iPhone upside down, you will get a great big “Censored!” message bold enough to make even George Orwell shudder in his grave.

And our own reliable Daily Mirror:

Yep, you read that right. Slap in the correct digits, flip your iPhone around and the PCalc will block the word with a “Censored” image. Not only does that mean no more pranking about when bored to tears at work, it takes App developer paranoia to whole new levels.

By this point, traffic on the blog was spiking to the point where my server couldn’t handle the load. We had indeed gone viral. Most people seemed to get the joke though. Craig Grannell wrote a nice article saying:

This is a smart, funny, satirical swipe at the recent trend towards over-zealous censorship. Unless you’re, say, Sajid Farooq of NBC, who, inexplicably takes Thomson’s joke seriously (and, sadly, he’s not alone) and states PCalc’s change would “make even George Orwell shudder in his grave”. I’m thinking Orwell would be more likely to laugh his CENSORED off.

Austin Modine at The Register gets the award for this piece, which even had explanatory graphics:

The twisted path that led you to becoming the horrible person you are today probably began when your adolescent mind first realized you could spell “BOOBIES” on an upside-down calculator.

Anyway, for the next few days, articles kept popping up, the tweets continued, and many people weren’t quite sure if I was serious or not. I do suspect that some of the articles were written based purely on reading other articles, rather than reading the original. Certainly a lot of things were written without actually emailing me to check what the real story was.

The lesson here is that not everybody will get the joke, even if you think it’s obvious. Perhaps it was a little too close for comfort to reality, and people wanted to believe it. Apple got a lot of heat for forcing this horrible change on me, even though I’d never actually said that. Things were getting to the point where I was vaguely expecting a late night call from Phil Schiller…

But, they say there’s no such thing as bad publicity. So, bottom line, what did it do for sales? Are we millionaires off the back of this publicity stunt? Or have we been blacklisted across the free world and embraced by everybody else?

To be completely honest, it didn’t actually do a whole lot.

Sales of the full PCalc tripled on the first day and have slowly now returned to normal just over a week later. Downloads of the free version increased more than tenfold, and are similarly tailing off, although not as quickly (and some of them might turn into full sales later on). That’s actually slightly worse in terms of numbers than what happened with the release of PCalc 1.7, which was just a normal release with a lot of good features, and no huge fanfare. Certainly, it wasn’t proportionate to the level of noise and hysteria involved. I think many people who read the stories didn’t even have iPhones.

I certainly got a lot of publicity. I’m no longer “that Twitkitteh guy”, I’m now instead “that boobies guy”. I’m not sure this is particularly conducive to selling copies of a serious product, but it doesn’t seem to have hurt us either. Lots of people know the name of PCalc when they didn’t before, and if they are looking to buy an iPhone calculator, perhaps the name recognition will help.

The final irony is that I spent most of the additional profits generated by this whole affair on an expensive office chair to help with occasional back problems I’ve been having. And after a few days sitting properly upright in it, my back is absolutely killing me… So, all those people who said I was a terrible person can take some solace in that.

I discovered a small bug with the button tracking in 1.8, so a small update has been submitted to the App Store already to fix it – but yes, it does also significantly improve the profanity filter. Should I mention that in the press release?

I’m kind of thinking not…

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