Cute animals sell software

Webpop, a cloud-based content management system and code editor that lets you build websites, recently ran an experiment on the signup link for their 30-day free trial:

A while ago we launched an interesting little test to dig into the effect of emotional engagement. In this case we decided to test the click through rate on our call to action at the bottom of most of our pages where we urge people to give our 30 day free trial a shot.

They put up a picture of a black lab puppy gazing at the signup button; next, they compared the click-rate between the puppy-version and the text-only version. The results were startling:

It turns out, the puppy version had more than double the number of clicks on the signup button than the text only version, with a statistical certainty of more than 99.9% of this being more than just random coincidence.

Double the clicks! That's, frankly, amazing. Seeing that we were probably leaving money on the table, we cast aside our convictions about straightforward marketing and inaugurated an experiment of our own:

Introducing: the Signup Piglet

Not having any puppies around the office, we decided to make use of our ready access to piglets (not that we have piglets running around the office... though, a man can dream, can't he?). So, here she is—the Signup Piglet! Click anywhere on this little straw-covered cutie to go to our signup form, where you can contact us about a demo or subscribe to our newsletter.

We look forward to hearing from you!

signup piglet


Life lessons: the steer

Our company's culture and understanding of itself isn't just determined by what we do within office walls. Sometimes something outside the office proves a perfect metaphor for something within the company or our industry.

For instance, Toby Robinson just bought a yearling Angus steer to put on his three acres of grass just outside of town. One morning, he dropped a note on our group chat:

4-12-13 cow loose

By 10:10 AM, Isaac, Brendan, and Mark had joined Toby, fanning out into the hayfields and tree farms surrounding Toby's place in search of the steer. A mud swath surrounded the adjoining hayfield, some 80 acres of steep Palouse hillside green with the new growth of Spring. Surely the steer had traversed this swath, leaving hoofprints, and had paused somewhere in the rolling green to snack on the tender young grass. Populi is a company of experienced hunters and animal husbandmen; we'd track down this errant animal in no time.

But after circumnavigating hundreds of acres that morning, we found nothing save for a fresh splatter of dung in a field. This 600-pound, sternum-height Angus steer had disappeared without a trace. No hoofprints in the mud. No lowing off in the trees. No torn turf where he'd paused for a bite to eat. Nothing. We reconvened at Toby's house and shook our heads; our hapless QA guy called Animal Control and called  his neighbors to advise them of the loose black steer. Our best guess was that he'd beelined south, back in the direction of the ranch from which Toby had bought him a few days before.

That evening we all received a text from Mark Ackerman:


Mark lives on the ridge up above Toby. Speaking with a neighbor after work he mentioned the steer and asked if she'd seen anything.

"No," she said, "but someone called me earlier to ask if I'd lost a calf..."

The steer had wandered south and then west, traveling up and down the Palouse slopes and the fingers of the forested ridge before wandering onto a small farm some four miles away. Our entire search in the hayfields was focused in the wrong area; our notions of him beelining south were belied by his true course: due west. In short order the steer was returned to Toby's pasture, and all was right on the farm.

This episode really reminded us of some of the bugs we've had to fix.

Most bugs are easy to find. "These credits aren't adding up correctly." "Oh, sorry about that, there was a bug in the calculation. Fixed it!" Others, however, ain't. Permitting me to quote myself, here's what's involved sometimes:

One of our programmers—usually Patrick—simply reads through the code, line-by-line, to find what’s wrong. A few things to keep in mind about this job:

  • Computers and software are very literal; they require extremely precise instructions in order to work.
  • Bugs take several forms. The code might have a syntax problem, or is missing a statement, or has a slash where it should have a bracket (among a zillion other things).
  • Indeed, bugs are usually miniscule, but a tiny error is all it takes to transform a precise instruction into nonsense.***
  • Every part of Populi talks to other parts of Populi. And even those functions that aren’t directly connected are linked together like that Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon**** game from the late ’90′s. A bug in one place can affect a dozen other functions that rely on the broken function to do their own jobs.
  • Populi has about 361,000 lines of code.

Of course, knowing the nature of the problem narrows the needle-in-a-haystack odds in the bug hunt. For instance, if someone’s having trouble in Admissions, we know not to look at the Library codebase. Of course, given Populi’s intra-connectivity, sometimes we do need to look afield for the bug; a problem with Student Billing might trace back to an error in course enrollment, for example.

It's those last ones—those bugs in course enrollment that cause unexpected things to happen in Student Billing—that make us feel like we're tracking a steer through the Palouse hills. And sometimes it takes a chance mention from another user reporting a weird thing on, say, a transcript for us to figure out that the Billing bug actually stems from Academics.

Sometimes we think the bug is off to the south somewhere, when in fact it's due west.

4-12-13 calf

Enhanced Library search

Plus other things we've let loose in the past several weeks...

We just released a pretty smart update to Library that includes much-improved search capabilities. The new search...

  • Includes a number of new operators that let you get more specific with your search
  • Accepts "fuzzier" inputs—that is, it's more tolerant of misspellings; typing "Shakspeer" will now net you that copy of Hamlet you've been looking for...
  • Lets you search for exact matches for title, author, and subject

3-8-13 Library search

You can also now import and export MARC records right within Populi! Browse Resources and Resource Batches let you export MaRC records of your resources, and Add Resources gives you the option of importing a MaRC file to create new resources.

And in case you missed it, about a month ago we also released spine and barcode labels for library resources. Read about them in the Knowledge Base.

A minor refinement of user roles

The Bookstore and Library Staff roles are no longer tied to the Staff role.

When we initially created these user roles, we tied them to Staff so they would be able to access certain personal details for Bookstore customers and Library Patrons. But this arrangement proved a little too liberal—for instance, many Library Staff are student workers for whom Staff access isn't exactly appropriate. So, we de-coupled those roles from the Staff role. If you believe this change may affect your Library and Bookstore users, please see this article.


The Data Slicer now lets you:

  • Add communication plans en masse
  • Retrieve advisor information for students
  • Add any tag as a data column
  • Retrive anticipated completion dates for students' degrees

The Enrollment XLS  report now lets you include additional columns.

Speaking of additional columns, we added several Prospect info fields to the "export helper"—you can now include them as additional columns when you export, say, the Students Table.

We added some new print options to course evaluation reports.

You can now print transcripts in bulk from the Academic Term > Students Table tab; there's also a new getTranscript call in the API.

There's a new specialization type for degrees: Concentration.

We now warn you about ungraded assignments when you're finalizing a course:

3-4-13 Finalize warning

And pop-up notifications now stay onscreen for ten seconds (up from three).

3-14-13 new growl

All this, together with numerous bugfixes, performance tweaks, and minor interface items.

Legal language

We recently announced some upcoming updates to our various legal documents. All in all, the revamped documents are a good step forward for us and our customers: they're better organized and do a better job of defining some key terms and relationships.

But one thing we're not crazy about with the new documents—or our outgoing Terms, for that matter—is the general tone of the language. Legal language, in its quest for absolute clarity, is wont to produce real mouthfuls. Dig this one from Section 4 of our Acceptable Use Policy:

"You hereby grant to Populi a non-exclusive, transferable, sublicenseable, worldwide, royalty-free license to use, copy, modify, create derivative works based upon, distribute, publicly display, publicly perform and distribute your User Content in connection with operating and providing the Services and Content to you and to the Customer where you are or were employed, engaged, enrolled, or applying to be enrolled."

I don't know about you, but my eyes start glazing over about six letters into the word "sublicenseable"—and I'm the guy they pay to read and (re)write stuff like this! But that's the thing about legal language: it has to cover every possible situation. Without the above, a student could sue us for saving his course discussion comment so his professor could read it later. If that happened often enough, we'd have to just fold this thing up and go home.

So, the legal language is there to help us color inside the lines, and it's there so you know exactly what the arrangement is. As the old saw goes, "Good fences make good neighbors."

But... yeah, this stuff, frankly, is a solemn read, and its detail and precision can get in the way of you understanding what we're trying to say. For that reason, we've included brief, plain-English summaries above each main section of the official documents.

1-18-13 this means

Each section is prefaced by a "This means that..." blurb that elucidates the official text that follows. These aren't legally-binding clauses of the policies; if you can think of the policies as fences, then think of these summaries as notes tied to the gateposts saying, "This fence means that that there is yours, and this over here is ours."

For example, the summary of Section 4 of the AUP distills the above-quoted mouthful into this crisp little sentence:  "We make no claims of any kind to your Content, but you give us the right to make that Content useful to you and others at your school." Much better, right?

We got this idea from some other web-based services, including 500px and Shopify. Evernote took a different approach but in the same spirit: it rewrote its Terms as a Q&A in plain-ish language. It's a good notion. Legal language can be dense and intimidating, and while there's some justification for it to be so, we nevertheless wanted to help de-mystify it a bit for our users.

Upcoming changes to our Terms of Service

We'll be making some changes to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy soon, and in the interest of forthrightness and transparency, we wanted to let you know about them ahead of time. You can find them on this preview of our new legal page, where we will soon collect all four of our various official documents. Those documents include the Customer Terms of Service, Acceptable Use Policy, Privacy Policy, and Copyright Policy. The new Terms and Policies will go into effect on April 1, 2013 (and, noooo, this isn't a prank...).

Before we get into the changes, we want to emphasize a couple fundamentals that are not changing—things that are basic to how we do business and serve our customers:

1. Your data is yours

And it always will be. Our business is simply to provide you with a tool to collect, store, manage, and use your information for the benefit of your school, staff, faculty, and students. And should you choose to move on to a different system, we give you the tools to easily take all your data with you. We won't sell or otherwise traffic your information—our mission is to give you a safe, secure way to take care of it yourselves.

2. Pricing works the same way

We're not doing anything new or different here. You'll still pay a monthly base rate and per-student price, together with any extra file storage and SMS fees. These are all still plainly spelled out on our completely public pricing page. If we need to raise prices, we'll still give you 90 days' notice (we reserve the right to keep price drops a surprise!). And implementation, support, updates, etc., are all still included for free.

Okay. So what's new?

Well, for one, all the wording is gonna be different. For the most part, though, it's just a more precise way of saying the same things we were saying before.

That said, our current (soon-to-be-old) TOS had a few gray areas that we wanted to clarify:

Customers and users

First, we wanted to better distinguish between our customers and our users. Customers are the schools that do business with us (i.e., that send us payment every month). Users are the individuals authorized by those schools to make use of Populi—whether staff, faculty, students, or prospects.

Accordingly, we have now divided the Terms into two chief sections: the Customer Terms of Service (CTOS), and the Acceptable Use Policy (AUP). The CTOS defines the business relationship—what we provide with our service, the customer's responsibilities for use and payment, how to set up an account and terminate use, and so on. The AUP defines the rights and responsibilities of users in relation to Populi—rights to content and data, restrictions on use (no hacking or illegal stuff), general responsibilities, and dispute resolution.

Pricing and payment

The only novel element in our new Pricing and Payment section is a change in nomenclature: we're replacing "active student" with "billable student". The problem we would run into is that "active" has a few potential meanings. It could mean "a person with an active Student role" or "a Student who is an active user". Because our services' definition of "active" is somewhat different from that of our Terms, our customers sometimes assumed the wrong meaning.

So, for clarity's sake, we felt that the students we actually charge you for deserved a unique term, one that isn't used anywhere else in Populi: they are now called billable students. Everything else, however, remains the same: billable students are students enrolled in or auditing one or more courses for seven or more calendar days in a given month. Nothing sneaky, no sleight of hand here: we're just changing a word so everyone understands our pricing better.

User-generated content and data

As Populi has developed since the adoption of our Terms of Service some years back, user-generated content has assumed an even greater role than it has before. And given the swirl of concerns regarding copyrights, distribution, piracy, privacy, and so on, we needed to make sure we A) did a better job of defining user content, B) clarified your ownership and rights over it, and C) sought all the proper releases from you to make it available to you via our service. Again, nothing substantial is changing here: you can still use Populi to store, manage, and distribute (within the rights granted to you by any copyright holders) data, files, audio, video, documents, etc.—but now the legal fencing around this part of the service has received a fresh coat of paint and new hinges on the gates.

Dispute resolution

Our outgoing TOS implicitly assumed that any disputes between us and a user or customer would be handled via civil litigation. But the thing about litigation is that it's a very public, time-consuming, and expensive process that can prove incredibly destructive to entities with limited resources—not just us, but also our customers. Our incoming AUP specifies that disputes that come to that point will be handled in arbitration, which is private, less expensive, and swifter than dragging things into the courts. Of course, we hope it never gets to that point with any of our users or customers! But should things go south, we feel this is the best way to enter into a formal dispute both for you and for us.

Revamped Privacy Policy

We also refreshed our Privacy Policy. Just as with our TOS, nothing substantive changed:

  • Your data is still yours
  • We still take every reasonable measure to protect it and back it up (unfortunately, we cannot guarantee the absolute security of any information)
  • You can volunteer personal information confident that we will never sell it or otherwise share it
  • For purposes of customer service, system maintenance, diagnostics, usage patterns, and marketing (i.e. taglines like Now serving over 20,000 students!) we may use non-identifying aspects of your information in aggregate form
  • We share some information with third-parties so they can perform services on our behalf (such as credit card processing)

It's pretty standard stuff, really, but now it's better-organized and explains our policy with greater clarity than before.

The heart of the matter

Think of this as an overhaul of the user interface of the TOS. Yes, some things have moved, some things look totally new, but the substance is the same.

Again, the new policies are slated to go in effect as of April 1, 2013. Before that time, we may make minor tweaks to some of the wording, but we don't anticipate anything major.

And, of course, we welcome your questions and comments.

Feature Spotlight: Payment processing

One of our favorite value-adds in Populi is online payment processing. Schools can link a merchant account or payment gateway account with Populi and start taking online payments for tuition, fees, and Bookstore purchases. Populi Billing already eases the processes connected to charging students, recording their payments, and settling their account balances. Credit card processing takes it even further: it lets your school use Populi to collect actual payments, helping your students pay their bills on time and helping you get money in the door.


Populi directly integrates with Chase Paymentech* merchant accounts, which include everything you need to process credit card payments and channel the funds to your back account. It also works with payment gateway accounts, which serve as a bridge between Populi and your existing merchant account.

To get set up with Populi credit card processing, we put you in touch with Chase Paymentech or send you over to After completing the application process with your choice of provider, we plug your credentials into Populi. On your end, you configure a few settings to make sure credit card payments hit your General Ledger the way you want them to. Then you're good to go!


There's nothing to it. Just invoice your students as normal. When a student logs in, he'll see an alert on his Populi Home page.

Clicking the alert takes him to the Pay Now page. He can pay there, or send a link to the page to someone who wants to pay on his behalf.

You can also go to his Profile's financial dashboard and enter payment information yourself (as well as send a Pay Now link to someone else).

With Bookstore purchases, it comes up as a payment option. If you've set your Bookstore to public, anyone can come shop and place orders with you—and then pay by credit card.


As you probably know, credit card processing ain't free. Your payment processor takes a percentage of every credit card payment you accept. But Populi doesn't take any sort of cut whatsoever—we simply provide this functionality, free of charge, as part of our service to you.


As of this writing, Populi has processed over $15 million worth of credit card payments on behalf of our client schools. Reducing the obstacles for students and parents to pay their tuition and fees is a great way to benefit your bottom line, and we're happy to make that easier on our customers.

* Interested in a Chase Paymentech account? Contact Populi Support and we'll get you started.