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Change is tough. Presidents ride into office on calls for “Change” and are quickly hit with backlash to anything they try to implement.

Sound familiar?

When it comes time to launch a new product feature, change, or redesign, we have just finished selling to our own internal “Congress” of decision makers, making our case with metrics and user feedback, then finally getting that change to development – but that is just the start…

Now it is time to meet the people – the users.

Things can go bad. How bad?

Spotify’s CEO recently made a major public apology after public backlash and Twitter battles over a release. He admitted the insufficient communication with users. They even had to go back and revamp the changes.

Twitter was forced to entirely reverse their unpopular “block” feature change.

Users just don’t like change. As my former Director of Product put it: “People assume that if you just release a new, better feature, that people will use it and like it. But users develop habits. They don’t like to have to change the way they do things. You need to ease them into it. Don’t learn that the hard way.”

So, how do we communicate product changes to maintain positive user relationships?

As any good product person knows, you should understand your toolkit, identify your metrics, then pick the appropriate tools to drive those results.

Let’s frame this around the outcomes we want and definitely do not want:

What DO we want?

  1. Increased engagement and/or revenue from current users
  2. New user growth
  3. Reduced churn to competitor products
  4. Improved brand perception and loyalty
  5. Fewer issues for users and support

What DON’T we want?

  1. Decreased user engagement or revenue
  2. User backlash over removed features
  3. Negative publicity
  4. To be forced to make a public apology
  5. To be forced to go back to the drawing board

Now, let’s take a look at our Top 10 Change Communication Toolkit:

1. Email Announcements

Great reach. Medium engagement. Good for important releases.

How:

Remember, emails are not interactive. Show, don’t tell. If you need to communicate a change in behavior, link to an in-app tour or video.

Campaign Monitor offers a teardown of some effective product announcement emails.

Evernote offers a nice CTA to a video and a rundown of new feature benefits:

Evernote updates their users about new features via CTA

 2. In-App Tours & Tutorial Walkthroughs

Best reach. High engagement.

How?

Tours are in-context and great to re-teach user behavior after a redesign or new feature. They avoid surprising users with missing or moved features.

Smashing covers some tips on good feature tutorials.

This is Facebook’s go-to:

facebook's feature update communication strategy

 

3. Blog & News Post Announcements

Medium to Low reach. Important for transparency.

How?

Appcues lists 3 types of new feature posts.

Tinder knocked their latest big (and sensitive) new feature launch post out of the park

Tinder communicates feature changes to users

LESSON: Crowd out unpopular feature removals with shiny new additions

Notice how Tinder managed this big update. They removed two well-liked features, Tinder Moments & “Last Active” tags.

The brilliant move here was to crowd out those removals by bundling them with 3 highly-requested new features: Smart Profiles, Jobs & Education, and a New Messaging Interface.

4. In-App Change Notification Log

Medium to High visibility. Minor & major releases.
How?

These notifications give users confidence that the product is always improving.

Plus, we are all conditioned to click a “new” notification badge, aren’t we?

Trello’s mascot welcomes me daily with “New Stuff”:

 

how trello communicates change with users

5. Animated GIFs & Videos

Sharable & Press-friendly.
How?

Eye-catching animation improves your pitch to journalists (#6) who prefer dynamic content in their articles.

Provide these in your press kit to journalists who cover releases. Remember to add it to your blog posts, emails, and share it on social.

Airbnb gave TechCrunch a nice sharable GIF to spruce up this feature announcement article:

Airbnb gives TechCrunch availability calendar to share with users

6. Public & Press Relations

Necessary for Big Releases and Privacy change mitigation. Great to attract new users.

How?

The press might cover your changes anyway, so make sure you get your story out first for those big releases

Market Wired provides some tips on good feature vs. regular press releases.

7. In-App announcement Messages & Chat widgets

Great visibility.

Users will see an announcement and can provide instant feedback or questions if you have an in-app messaging widget. This can be particularly useful for Beta testing…

8. Phased Roll-out, Opt-In Period, Feature Gates & Private Betas

Provides user feedback before a widespread release, giving time to adjust and prepare better communications.

How?

Used by Facebook after several instances of release backlash, like the infamous  and now well-liked News Feed.

Facebook and Spotify both use “Feature Gates” or “Feature Toggles” to switch on and off features for different user segments for phasing and damage control.

9. Education

Whether it be account managers walking through changes with clients or marketers  holding educational webinars  , providing users with education on how they can benefit from a new feature will receive better engagement than, “Hey – here is a [frustrating] change [for no apparent reason!]”

10. Community Engagement

Surveys, Town Halls, Forums, Customer Panels – whatever the method, engaging your most valuable (and loudest) users before considering changes will make them feel more comfortable at release time.

How?

Couchsurfing did this wrong – Removing outspoken members & popular tools without sufficient engagement can foster more resentment than growth.

Airbnb does this right – Airbnb Open & the Host Voice survey engage users and ensure every big (and potentially controversial) new feature is framed as an idea “that matters most to the community”.

There are plenty of tools to help you engage, support, and collect feedback from your users (hint hint). Take the time to maintain a close connection. It will also lead to better product decisions in the first place.

(Disclosure: I am both an Airbnb Superhost and a Couchsurfing host.)

Takeaways on Privacy, Removing Legacy Features & More

1. Never underestimate Privacy Concerns with changes to Privacy Policy

Just try to Google “User Backlash.” Almost the entire first page of results are about Privacy Policy changes at Facebook, Google, Spotify, etc.

Communicate and be transparent about any privacy policy changes. Get ahead of criticism with user feedback before release, press relationships, and clear communication.

2. Provide advanced notice

People don’t like surprises. Show your users the product before release. Let users opt-in early to get used to the idea. Facebook has mastered this.

Jared Polivka – former Director of Product at Kapost – has this to say:

In B2B? “Have Account Managers sit down with customers and walk them through the Product Roadmap to come.”

Ran a Beta? Jared recommends giving prior warning to all users before rolling out, even after beta tests: “If you don’t, it is not unheard of to have to roll back a change with a customer and relaunch with a tutorial.”

3. Don’t assume users will read your announcement

Spotify’s CEO tweeted in surprised that people did not read his blog post on the new Privacy Policy changes. If it is important enough, put the communication in the app.

4. Offset removed features with exciting new ones

As Tinder demonstrated with its removal of Moments and introduction of Smart Profiles, excitement can make users forget about nitpicking product changes.

5. Remember Scale

5% of users reacting negatively does not seem like a lot – unless you have 10 million+ users. That is still 500,000 users. Ensure that these users feel engaged in the transition.

It is difficult to over-communicate to users. Yes, you do not want to inundate them with email after email, but follow the guidelines above and you should be able to predict and prevent any negative reaction.

Looking forward to your next big release!

Thanks go out to Jared Polivka – former Director of Product at Kapost, Marlon Misra – Product Manager at Climate Corporation, and Larry Blyth – former Product Manager at MuleSoft, for their input.

 

Colin Lernell

About Colin Lernell

Colin Lernell is a Product Manager at the unicorn online education and career startup Udacity (the opinions expressed in this article are those of Colin alone, and not those of Udacity). He has worked in education technology, on-demand marketplaces, crowdfunding platforms, and mobile applications, including HourlyNerd and Tilt. He specializes in Growth & Analytics, as well as Lean Prototyping & User Research. Outside of work, Colin is a former touring rock musician, startup and Star Wars geek, and goes for runs with his beagle as often as possible.
  • Hunter Hornback

    Not only do a high percentage of users not want to change but are scared to change since what they have associated with “success” is now changing, which means risk. A plan must in place to recognize the steps needed to un-learn previous behaviors and expectations.