What started as a joke among friends at Priceless Misc quickly jumped to hyperspace. Here’s the story of how we created Force Block: a simple app to block Star Wars spoilers.
In advance of the premiere of The Force Awakens in 2015, my friend Matt was playing with some tools for blocking spoilers. But they all came up short: the all-purpose blockers took too much effort to fine-tune for Star Wars, and the only other Star-Wars-specific blocker was too sensitive, and had no way of learning from its mistakes.
We decided to make a better one.
Thanks to the pun-filled brain of our friend Erik Button we came up with a bunch of funny quotes, and set the app up to display one at random with each block. Erik kept adding more throughout development, and we found ourselves refreshing pages just to see what funny message would come up next.
No system can be perfect of course, so we erred on the side of caution. What’s 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? Another reason it was important for our block messages to be fun.
We collected a list of spoilers from a friend who attended an early screening. Then we added logic to flag the page based on the severity and quantity of spoiler-rich wording
We also added a whitelist so users could mark sites as being safe to browse and avoid repeat warnings.
After a less than a day’s worth of building, we had a Chrome extension 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.
Upon launch we posted on our socials, shared on Product Hunt (a relatively new site at the time), and messaged some tech and culture bloggers on Twitter.
For the first 24 hours, we waited, watching our stats and continuing to tweet to the long-tail of our media list. By the end of the night we’d tracked a few hundred visitors.
I was up late the next night working on another project and checked Product Hunt to find we were featured on homepage! Then I flipped to Google Analytics and saw that 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, then Telegraph, The Verge, The Next Web, etc. We spent half the morning tracking down referrals.
We climbed the press ladder from there, using our coverage to boost another wave of tweets and a press release 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. A couple personal favorites included a mention at the end of NPR’s Marketplace, and a tweet from Katie Couric.
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
Even though it was a simple app, it was fun to listen and respond to users. We kept a close eye on reviews and support requests via Twitter and 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 enough.
We made a lot of small tweaks based on feedback, and acknowledged concern even when a fix wasn’t practical. This seemed to help keep our ratings high, as potential bad reviews were diffused either by quickly addressing issues, or by the explanations we’d offer in our responses. A couple people even amended their ratings upward after hearing from us!
We updated the app before the other two Star Wars sequels through the end of 2019, but nothing matched the response we got the first time. All said we tracked over 270,000 visitors to our plugin and 130,000 unique installs.
It was a fun project all around, from building it, to seeing it catch fire, and talking to everyone who enjoyed it.
What did I learn?
- It’s possible, with focus: A idea executed simply can take off. We had a lot of extra ideas but refrained from over complicating it to make sure it was fast and reliable.
- Climb the media ladder: We started by posting to Product Hunt, and from there attracted the tech blogs, then leveraged that coverage to go after mainstream press.
- Timing is everything: We knew everyone would be talking about spoilers the week of the release, so it was the perfect time to ride the wave and contribute to the Star Wars zeitgeist. The week of the premiere, searching for “star wars spoilers” in Google returned us on the front page.
The extension is no longer available, but here’s an obscene amount of screenshots we furiously captured as the press rolled in.