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I am a product/project manager for a product we've created. We have customers using the product, which we are continually updating as it is Web based.

What are some tools and techniques for managing communications with clients regarding product updates?

5

Communication channels will depend vastly on the type of product you have and your target clients. You can consider a few of following strategies.

* Social Media

Most important ones (Twitter, Facebook) already mentioned here. If your product is some web application which is targeted directly to end users this channel may prove to be the most valuable. Just remember that once-in-a-quarter updates don't work. These streams have to be alive no matter if you have a software update to announce or not. Note: for big products or those addressed to big clients this channel won't work that well.

* Product/company blog

When we are on social media another popular strategy is a blog: either product-related or company-related. As an example of the former you can take Google Reader Blog as an example of the latter you can take TargetProcess blog. Also you can approach this one creatively - for example Eric Sink on his personal blog writes mostly on the stuff of his company. In this case, again, it will work better if your relationships with clients/potential clients are rather informal. I'm yet to see a good corporate blog out there.

* Auto-updates messages

This one assumes you have a good auto-update mechanism, but for web based solution somewhere in the cloud I take it for granted. After successful update you can display messages with description what has changed. Many people will dismiss it anyway, but some will read.

* Messages within application

You can put information about new features within the application. This is something Facebook sometimes does - you can see a box on the top of your stuff which for example says that privacy settings have been changed or that a new localized version of the site is available. If I remember correctly it hangs there unless users closes the box, so direct action i required to dismiss the message which raises the chance that the message will actually be read.

* Mailing list

Since the discussed application is web-based I assume you have users' credentials, including emails. You can use them to send the message about new features. Note: it is important not to break privacy policy (if you have one). Also I'd be very careful with frequency of such emails. On the other hand that's probably the best method to inform about important changes.

* Trade shows/Conferences

As crazy as it might sound people actually do that. If you know places where you can meet your users go there, talk with them, tell them what has changed. Direct communication always is more convincing than communication through electronic tools.

* Viral marketing/Buzz/Advertising

You can consider a campaign to share news about your new features. It won't work with every update you do, but for major changes it can be a good idea. A good example of this strategy is what Google did with Google Wave, which is by the way already dead product. There was a lot of buzz and viral messages spread all over the world about new cool Google product and what Google basically was doing was unveiling some details about the product to sustain interest. Of course this can be made easier with completely new products than with a stream of update messages.

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I would suggest to avoid any promotional one-way communications in this particular case (and in almost every other case). Try to make the product speak for itself without a product manager behind every message. One of the methods is "promotion through education". Turn your customers into evangelists. They will promote your product.

  • +1 - This sounds like a good first step, and could be combined with using Twitter or Facebook. – jmort253 Feb 27 '11 at 8:31
  • Depends on what tools your customers are using. Maybe even a LinkedIN group will be more convenient for them to become more educated about your product. – yegor256 Feb 28 '11 at 9:10
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If the updates to the product affects the customer's ability to use the web application, I will encourage you to use your time of less traffic and to give ample notice.

If you are only thinking of the actual strategy of communicating the updates, I will suggest the following:

  1. Create a YouTube campaign with videos explaining the benefit of each update. This will help educate your users as you tell them the good news.
  2. Create a webminar type seminar were you will show users that subscribe the new updates. This might seem like an overkill, but you will get questions from the users that you did not think.
  3. Send twitter messages that encourage people to take action, update your profile before the update, etc. you get the idea. This will let you know how effective is that medium.

You need to send similar messages from different sources.

  • The videos I created with Camtasia studio and Snag-It were way more effective than anything we have done in the past. – SBWorks Feb 28 '11 at 0:56
  • @SBWorks and @Geo - I'm going to try out videos. Great suggestions! Thank you both. – jmort253 Feb 28 '11 at 5:07
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I like the way LiquidPlanner does it. They use the space on the right side column of the dashboard once a user logs in.

LiquidPlanner dashboard

This way whenever I log in I'll see their update and can click to find out more. If you're already using a web based system than why not take advantage of letting announcements and other news reside where users can easily find them.

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If your updates are small and can be made public, I would include Twitter in your list. Take the Twitter stream for OmniFocus, or for FreshBooks as examples.

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If, as I understand from your question, you are only targeting your existing userbase, I would advise to use only a single way to communicate your updates. In my experience, e-mail with a sober and consistent format works best. Keep it brief, with only the highlights of the update, with an additional link if they wish to read more. Clearly explain the consequences (eg down-time from - until).

Three messages seems to be adequate:

  • One week in advance, to inform them about the coming update (including a link with more info but also a ontact link if they still have questions)
  • The day itself, as a reminder (especially if down-time or a user action will be required)
  • When the system is online again (including a link for support)

In my view, attracting new users with new functionality is something completely different from informing your existing users about an update.

  • Thanks for your answer. What do you think makes email a more attractive approach than a Twitter feed or a Facebook page? – jmort253 Feb 28 '11 at 5:07
  • Maybe my userbase is a bit more conservative in the use of these things :-). I think consistency is more important than the means. – Stephan Feb 28 '11 at 18:57

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