If you launch a feature and you don’t tell anyone, did you really launch it?
Okay, maybe the “tree falls in a forest” analogy isn’t perfect, but you probably get the point: you need to tell your customers when you make improvements.
But how do you do it in a way that customers will care?
I’ve seen dozens of ways for people to do product updates over the years, including these common ones:
- Popping up in app to tell them (think Intercom-style, or a product tour)
- Posting on your company blog
- Emailing to everyone who has an account
- Passing it to sales or account management to tell customers
- Updating a change log that lists all updates over time
- Praying they stumble upon the changes
Of all of those, my favorite is the semi-regular email to customers.
I like it for a few reasons:
- Flexible medium: I can write and include images and gifs to clearly show what’s new.
- Non-interruptive: Unlike pop ups in app, they can read this when they have time, instead of dismissing it when they’re in the middle of something in your product.
- Reminder we exist: People get busy. You are not the center of their universe. An email about product improvements can get people back into your product they haven’t logged into in a while because they see you in their inbox.
For the past nearly 10 years, I’ve been sending product updates at the SaaS companies I’ve worked at and founded. Because of the structure I follow, I’ve seen it help build stronger relationships with customers, reduce churn, and help everyone feel more product momentum.
Today, I’ll show you my process so you can experience those benefits with your customers, too.
How to Write Product Updates that Delight Customers & Reduce Churn
First and foremost, credit where credit is due. There is an AWESOME Tweetstorm from Steven Sinofsky on this subject you should go read now:
Okay, so now that you read his 20 tweets, you understand why this is important, and the pitfalls to avoid. Now, let’s talk about how to actually write one.
A few assumptions:
- You talk to customers: If you talk to customers, all of this is easy to do. If you don’t, not only is this very hard to do, but you are a disgrace to product managers everywhere. Worst of all, your designers and engineers are rolling their eyes at you. Jump here on my blog to reform your ways if you need to start doing so.
- You’re data informed: Quantitative numbers are not everything, but they’re very important. They help you understand how many people are affected by a problem, the total addressable audience for a feature, and measure the impact of a change. Having these numbers is key for both internal buy in and explaining things to your customers.
- You have buy-in: The bigger your company, the more stakeholders you need to manage. It’s good to get things done, and it’s also good to keep people in the loop who also interact with customers or care about this. Use your best judgment on who may want to see what you’re doing. If you get resistance, try to get support for an experiment of doing them.
If you’ve done those 3 things, you’re ready to apply these tactics to make an awesome product / feature update.
1) Start with a “Thank You”
Every product update I take the time to write out a list of thank yous to customers that took time to report bugs, share feedback, answer questions, or do customer development interviews.
This costs you *nothing*, but can mean a lot.
First, you’re letting people know you were really listening. It reminds them that their input matters and the time they took out of their day to email you, hop on a call, or beta test a feature was worth it.
It also creates a reinforcing loop:
- You thank someone for feedback.
- Others see that you thanked people for feedback and it gets them thinking about giving feedback.
- Coworkers see their colleague’s name and talk about it, think about using the product more, and consider giving feedback as well.
- Next month, the list grows, and you have more people to thank.
Immediately after I give thank you shout outs, I also then remind people just how easy it is to give us feedback, so I teach more customers what to do:
Remember: You want a product people LOVE or HATE.
Silence is your enemy.
Make more people care by letting them know you’re listening. The feedback and problems they share help you build a better product, and improve adoption throughout a company or network.
2) Tell your story
Every product has a mission and vision. As a product manager, you need to understand and lead that vision. It should impact everything you do, including what you write in your product updates.
The best way to manage expectations with customers is to guide them on the journey of your product.
Ask yourself questions like:
- Where is our product heading? What is the big picture?
- Why are we heading in that direction?
- How does our direction help our customers be more awesome?
- What won’t we be doing? Why not those things?
As you explain each update and change, you should keep those questions in mind. Make sure what you tell people aligns with that goal.
For example, with Lighthouse, our focus is on making managers great. We know they’re busy, so things like speed and performance in our product is as important as a new, shiny feature. We need to work reliably for them.
That meant that when we had a product outage due to Mandrill failing, we decide to switch providers to Postmark. Here’s how we framed that:
Obviously, this is a very simple version of a story. For new, big features, there’s *a lot* more I would speak to explaining how we think it fits their workflow, why it matters, and how it fits into everything they do.
3) Explain your reasoning
While telling your story is important, it’s also helpful to have a rational side to it. What was the motivation for this decision?
If you’re doing product management right, you already wrote a product spec or product thesis that explains to your internal team why you’re choosing to work on this feature next. You should translate that same quantitative and qualitative data to a version that makes sense to share with your customers.
As Sinofsky points out, if you don’t give people a reason, they’ll make one up. So plan to give them a good one.
A feature can be commonly requested, but you don’t build it because it doesn’t fit your vision and mission. A feature can also be less commonly requested, but only because people can’t use your product until you build an integration they would need.
Either way, you would want to explain your decision. Tell people why you chose this of all the things you could do.
Maybe you have a Slack integration, and with all the hype and press around Microsoft Teams, you realize it makes sense to allow MS Teams users to do what you already allow in Slack.
Or maybe your company is moving up market and that means building some permissioning, and security is now more important. Your SMB customers may not be as excited, but if you can help paint the picture that, “one day your business may grow and you’ll want to use these, too” can give them a better feeling about it. Explaining the upmarket move can then also signal to your handful of current, big customers that you are investing more in what matters to them.
If you just say, “We built some new security features” with a list of bullets, you give your customers no idea why. Do better than that.
4) Paint a picture of the future
Your product update is a snapshot in time. It’s one step in an endless journey towards (or keeping) product-market fit.
As important as it is to explain what you built and launched this time, you also should paint a picture for the future. Help people understand and anticipate what is coming.
The key here is to strike a balance. You do *not* want to publish your whole roadmap; it can change too much, and you want to give yourself some flexibility.
At the same time, if people know how you’re thinking and what you’re working towards, they can help you in a variety of ways:
- Volunteer to give feedback: If they know you’re building things they’d like, they’re more likely to reach out.
- Good customers stay: Most people hate switching products. If they feel like you’re heading in the right direction, they’ll give you time to fix problems and get there.
- Tell their friends/colleagues: When a product “just gets me”, you’re much more likely to rave to friends about it. By telling your story for features and where you’re heading, it builds excitement and anticipation for your best fit customers.
Strike the right balance on what you share
Giving just the right amount of detail on the future is definitely a learned skill. However, as a starting point, I like to do the following:
- Talk about things under construction: If you’re already committed to and building something it’s pretty safe to hint at it by showing a small snippet, or explaining what it will do.
- Focus on themes: Rather than listing the 27 things you hope to do (and could change), tell them thematically about your goal or vision. This could be like saying we’re going to “allow you to do key activities on your phone you told us are important when on the go” instead of listing mobile app features.
5) Seek feedback and input
You should never send something product related that is “no reply”, and this is especially the case for product updates. If people have something to say about what you built, make it as easy as possible for them to share their thoughts.
You can then use this to also recruit people for future customer development based on the upcoming features you’re going to launch, or to get people to take a survey.
The more you show you’re listening and acting in their interest, the more engaged your customer base becomes.
Creating a virtuous feedback cycle
When I joined KISSmetrics, they were getting about 10 pieces of customer feedback a week from our feedback box in the product. Unfortunately, no one on the team was replying to those for a variety of reasons.
Through being more customer driven, replying to those messages, and sending notes like I’m outlining today, we were able to boost that to getting over 50 pieces of feedback (5X) a week while the customer base grew about 2.5X. This helped us catch and fix bugs faster, and more easily get insights from our customers.
The easier you make it to give feedback, and the more you respond and act on what you receive, the more feedback you’ll get from customers.
Before long, you’ll find it’s really easy to find and recruit customers for new feature feedback and customer development.
Adapt this to fit your business and audience.
With my startup, Lighthouse, we sell to managers. They’re generally in an office and live in email. This makes an email update great.
Once a month is a good cadence for us to send an update out as it’s a couple sprints, and usually enough to fill up a good update. It also is a frequency that resonates with our audience as they do a lot of their projects in monthly increments.
Your business may be different, so consider changes to what I’ve outlined here like:
- Message on another platform: Can you tell them in Slack, via a small text, or somewhere else they’re most likely to check?
- Tweak the frequency: Update your customers as often as you think fits your update cadence and your customers want them. More, shorter updates, or fewer, longer may make sense.
- Use another format: If you’re a video platform, then video updates probably are better. If your business includes a really popular podcast, maybe a quick audio clip.
- Show your personality: This is a huge opportunity to build your brand, so put some of your company’s personality into it. If your company is nerdy, be nerdy, if it’s playful or irreverent, be irreverent, and if you’re really formal, then your update should be, too.
- Involve the right people: Who has the strongest relationship with your customers? They should be in the loop on this. For example, if you have account managers it may be best to have them get the word out, at which point you could draft something they can copy/paste and adapt.
The best way to get to the right format and approach for your customer is to listen and iterate. Get the right people involved in your company and start trying things.
As you build the habit of doing this, you’ll see more of what works and doesn’t so you can work towards getting messages like this from your customers:
How do you update your customers about changes and improvements to your product? Share your favorite tactic in the comments so everyone can learn.