Sometimes sitting around the office talking about your favorite things can lead you down a path where you get to make something special. That was our experience with Force Block. We made something we needed that also happened to resonate with people all over the world: a simple app to block Star Wars spoilers.
We’d tried some other tools for blocking spoilers, but they all came up short. The all-purpose blockers took way too much effort to manually setup for Star Wars, and the only other Star-Wars-specific blocker was too sensitive, and had no way of learning from its mistakes. So we knew ease of use was and some kind whitelist function were our top priorities.
We also knew that no matter how specific our pattern matching library was, there would still be a lot of false positives due to the sheer volume of Star Wars content floating around. This meant users would run into our block screen more often than it was preventing real spoilers. So why not make it fun?
Thanks to the pun-filled brain of our editor Erik Button we were able to come up with a bunch of quotes and jokes, and we programmed the plugin to display one at random with each block. He kept adding more throughout the development process, and we found ourselves refreshing pages just to see what funny message would come up next.
Aesthetically, we stuck to the Star Wars standards: a simple black screen, cyan News Gothic text, and a yellow title in the traditional Star Wars logo font.
Force Block was designed to be smarter than your average filter. To do this we built logic that would flag the page based on the severity and quantity of spoiler-rich wording. Some words that register lower on the scale and would take a higher quantity of appearing on a page to activate the blocker; while some words and phrases that we knew were very likely spoilers would block the page instantly.
No system like this can be perfect of course, so we erred on the side of caution. Whats worse for the user, having to click through a few false warnings, or have a plugin that let an important spoiler slip through the cracks? Assuring the user would have have the lowest likelihood of being spoiled was paramount.
After a less than a day’s worth of coding and a bit of testing, we had an app that met all our minimum viable product criteria: it was simple, fast, fun to use, and effective at helping people get to the premiere without getting spoiled.
After we blogged and tweeted about it, one of the first places we went to share our launch was Product Hunt, which is a great source for interesting apps and products, with a strong community of designers, developers, and entrepreneurs. Justin is a Product Hunt beta tester, so he mentioned it in their private Slack team which helped prime the engine.
Now that we had a a finished product that was starting to get users, we knew we needed to add some fuel to the fire. We wrote up a press release and blasted it out to our media contacts. We were fortunate that it resonated with so many different media verticals: tech, film, and general pop culture. We also knew it would be beneficial to talk directly to bloggers via Twitter, so we reached out to a handful of movie reviewers and some of our favorite writers with personal messages explaining why they might like our app.
For the first 24 hours, we waited, watching our stats and continuing to tweet to the long-tail of our press list. By the end of the night we’d tracked a few hundred visitors.
Justin woke up unusually early the next morning, and checked our Product Hunt submission. 25 upvotes, and it was featured on the homepage! This was a landmark accomplishment for us, being such big fans of Product Hunt, and acutely aware of how many submissions never get noticed.
He then flipped over to Google Analytics, where a few hundred viewers had turned into 7,775!
That traffic wasn’t just coming from Product Hunt though. Someone had run the story at Engadget. And then Gizmodo picked it up from there. And then Ars Technica, the Telegraph, The Verge, The Next Web, and other tech blogs. We spent half the morning just tracking down referrals.
Then we climbed the press ladder from there, using our coverage to boost another wave of tweets and press releases targeted at more mainstream media. Pretty soon we were on the front page of BuzzFeed, Business Insider, the Washington Post, Entertainment Weekly, Time, and Popular Science. We even got a mention at the end of NPR’s Marketplace, and a tweet from Katie Couric herself.
All said and done we tracked over 270,000 visitors to our plugin, with over 130,000 installs, and a host of earned press that was a complete thrill to watch unfold.
The app’s quirky phrases also had an unexpected side effect: people were taking screenshots of them and posting their favorites. This helped the plugin spread to people who may not have even been looking for anything but a laugh.
Feedback and refinement
It was exciting to have so many real users in so little time. We took the opportunity to learn as much as we could from them, which was interesting and rewarding, even for such a simple app.
We kept a close eye on reviews and support requests via Twitter, blog comments, and especially Google’s Chrome store. Any app will attract its share of bad reviews, warranted or not. In our case, some people found it too sensitive, others not sensitive enough.
We made sure to reply to every one we could find, to at least acknowledge their concern, and in some cases, take their suggestions to push small refinements to the app. Our rapid improvements, plus engaging with people in this way seemed to help keep our overall app ratings high, as potential bad reviews were diffused either by quickly addressing issues, or by the detailed explanations we’d offer in our public responses. A couple people actually amended their ratings upward after simply hearing from us!
Two days after the release, Justin took one for the team, collecting a list of spoilers from The Force Awakens itself, via a friend who attended an early screening. We updated the app immediately, making it more secure than ever. Ironic, he could save others from spoilers … but not himself.
What we learned
It was a fun project all around, from building it, to seeing it catch fire, and talking to so many people who enjoyed it.
What did we learn?
- It’s possible, with focus. We now know it’s possible to conceive of and release a simple successful app over a weekend. Several folks on our team have attended hackathons like Startup Weekend before, but those concepts never seem to take off, often times because they’re too grand. We kept our scope brutally simple and focused, and this discipline paid off. Our app may have been minimal, but it was solid.
- Climb the media ladder. We started by posting to Product Hunt, and from there we attracted the tech blogs, and then leveraged that coverage to go after mainstream press. And finally, it all came back full-circle, with local media running a few stories, which always feels great.
- Timing is everything. We knew everyone would be talking about spoilers the week of the release, so it was a perfect time to ride the cultural wave and contribute something to the Star Wars zeitgeist. And it worked! In face, the week of the premiere, searching for “star wars spoilers” in Google returned us on the front page!
- Side projects are worth it. Sure, this didn’t make us any money (directly), but it was a nice change of pace for everyone since we don’t usually build Chrome extensions, and it was refreshing to release something in so quick a timeframe, and then be done with it. We learned a lot, and we had a great time doing it.
Altogether we had a blast. It was a great holiday diversion, it taught us a little about building and releasing apps, and it was a nice ego boost to see so many people enjoying our work.