golfer getting ready to hit a ball
PHOTO: Paul Codling

For software-as-a-service (SaaS) product managers, there’s a pretty clear motivation for making sure new features are visible to users. A feature that isn’t noticed may be a feature that’s never used.

That’s a problem if users may walk away from your product having overlooked a genuinely engaging, valuable feature. An unused feature is the antithesis of a growth surface that drives user engagement and revenue (And let’s be honest — given the blood, sweat, and tears your product team put into building the new feature, there’s certainly some emotional benefit to you in making sure users know it’s there.)

Still, there’s a sweet spot that needs to be found in debuting new features. Reflexively picking up a bullhorn and shouting about an enhancement might work for some products, with some audiences. In other cases, it might fall flat. Or even do more harm than good.

Different Ways to Debut a New Feature

So what’s the best solution: actively promoting a new feature, or letting it bubble up organically exactly when users need it? Do you stage a grand opening, or sidle in silently? Or attempt something in between?

There’s no one right answer, naturally. Not with the variety of tools today’s product teams have at their disposal — or the diversity of use patterns that exists even within a single app’s user base. The channel or tactic that’s effective with one slice of your user audience might not fare as well with the rest. That’s why research and testing (more on that later) is key to achieving the desired outcome.

Let’s take a look at some of the options available for introducing new features.

Related Article: Today's Product Managers Know Who's the Boss: The Customer

In-App Alerts: Add Value, Not Aggravation

Remember Clippy? (I’m sorely dating myself by admitting my personal experience with it.)

clippy image

Clippy was an early stab at context-sensitive help for Microsoft Office users. It failed because Clippy was, for starters, not all that context-sensitive. It was also obnoxious and interruptive to a fault.

But exposing users to new features while they’re actively using your application is usually a sound approach, as long as you’re staying attuned to the user experience. Your message might be in the form of text, an image, a GIF, a video or another format, but it always ought to target users at moments when you’re able to add value, not aggravation.

Let’s say you have a fitness app and you’ve added a new feature that allows users to share workout results to their social feeds. Displaying a pop-up reminder about the new feature whenever users hit new personal records would be a perfect way to get them to try it.

Here’s another example of a context-sensitive popup, this one from Dash, a maker of a mobile wallet app. In this case, Dash is offering users making payments below $100 a new, more convenient option:

dash

You can also tease future enhancements, to stir up anticipation among users for additions you know they’d welcome. Here’s Dash again, teasing an upcoming feature for making payments to businesses:

dash pay

Following up your alert with a guided walkthrough can help facilitate adoption of more complex features. In 2013, when Instagram launched its location feature, the company walked users through the steps to take so they could start tagging, including tips and best practices. It was bundled in a single in-app message triggered when a user tried to add a location for the first time.

Here’s an example of how time-tracking app Harvest does it, ushering users step by step through a key feature. This approach helps users recognize the value of the service. Harvest’s brand voice is more informal than many, but the design pattern itself is suitable to a wide range of applications.

harvest up to date

Related Article: Product Development Is a Team Sport

Email: Segment and Personalize Your Way to Effective Messaging

Triggered email notifications are one of the most effective channels for driving user engagement. A simple email announcement to your app’s user base sometimes is the most effective way to announce a major new feature with broad appeal.

But it’s best to remember some key guidelines: Be straightforward, put the user benefit first, use appealing but functional visuals, keep copy lean and tight, and offer a clear call to action.

One real strength of email, for our purposes, is that it’s possible to segment and personalize email campaigns, so you reach the right group of users with tailored messaging. This lets you use a new feature as a tool to drive different types of conversions, as in these examples:

  • Existing users: Adding new features to an existing product can help you retain existing users and increase their engagement (and create new upsell opportunities). To empower them to use a new feature right away, give them resources like guides and tutorials, and make sure to include a call to action to steer them back to the product.
  • Prospects: You can pique the curiosity of prospects and drive trials and sales by presenting a new feature as a compelling example of what’s to come when they click the button to learn more. As you prepare your messaging, remember that prospects are rarely going to be hooked by a self-centered feature walkthrough; they want a crystal-clear explanation of how and why your product will benefit them.

Invision has one of the cleanest yet most effective email campaigns you’ll find. It clearly explains how a new tool delivers a tangible benefit for the professional designers who are Invision’s core market. The distance between a reader’s “a-ha!” moment and a click to learn more is practically nonexistent.

invision

User Advocacy: Authentic User Engagement

Developing social currency by being an authentic participant in user or other online communities can give you a valid avenue for building awareness of new features. In fact, you might have decided to develop some new features as a result of listening to that community in the first place.

Don’t abuse the privilege, though. If you use a subreddit to out-and-out flack your latest product upgrade, you’ll swiftly find yourself ignored or banned. Effective user advocacy, where you’re genuinely focused on your users’ needs and expectations, will help in making the introduction of a new feature part of a natural, sustainable dialogue. Treat the online community as an important voice in the process, not just a captive and passive audience that’s just waiting to have new features shoved on them.

Blogging: Shine a Spotlight on User Benefits

Blog posts written in support of new feature introductions are a fundamental part of the product announcement recipe. They serve as the resource of record and are an important search-engine-discoverable part of building awareness of your product.

Feature announcement blog posts can be stirred into the mix in a various ways, such as these:

Product release notes. With mature products, a blog post offering product release notes is a classic tool for introducing new features. Also called feature rollups or roundups, product release notes offer users all-inclusive accounts of new features and other product updates. They’re essentially lists that allow you to pass along a lot of information in an easily-scanned format. But be careful of using your internal jargon too heavily or turning the notes into rote checklists that are only presented from your point of view and don’t stress user benefits.

New feature announcements. You can drill down in greater detail about specifics, and push the brand-building “story” behind new features, with well-crafted blog posts announcing new features. The new feature announcement in the example below, from SaaS workflow automation provider ThinkSmart, discusses improvements that arose straight out of user feedback and the company’s ear-to-the-ground attitude about customer support. A new feature announcement is a good way to use a new release as a branding opportunity, though you should always steer clear of hitting false notes or exaggerating. Like always, make sure the benefits to the user shine through.

tap

The sly solution. Another way to use a blog to introduce new features is to take the less-direct route of writing a post that explores a problem that resonates with users or prospects, offering expert insight and even staking out some thought leadership on the topic. Then, without fanfare or even much detail, you can slip in the fact that your product’s newest feature or upgrade is tailored to that address that problem. But don’t let the discussion of your product overpower the rest of the post, and make sure the introduction of the new feature doesn’t come across as the actual purpose of the post. It’s important to communicate your understanding of user needs first.

Related Article: 5 Reasons Your Company Blog Fails at Thought Leadership

The Definite Don’ts of Announcing New Features

It’s easy to overdo product announcements. While it’s understandable to want to give credit to product teams for the effort and emotional investment they put into their work, that isn’t reason enough to regularly interrupt your users with notifications about features that don’t serve their needs.

Here are tips for crafting new product announcements that don’t annoy users.

Don’t announce something that’s not noteworthy

Every small improvement or simple bug fix doesn’t merit an announcement. Reserve your notifications for the kind of news that will gain real traction with the user community, or might actually move the needle on usage and paid upgrades. If you bombard users with inessential messages, they will get aggravated by all the clutter and eventually they will think you’re just crying wolf and will ignore even your most important announcements.

Modulate your messaging

Don’t send email blasts that go to every single user. Instead, segment your email campaigns so that announcements of new features go only to those who’ll be most likely to use those features right away. Likewise, instead of slapping banners all over your support pages or storming user forums, use discreet and context-sensitive in-app prompts to introduce a feature (or an upsell) specific to a certain task. Scale your communication to actual relevance and news value.

Keep your eye on the prize

Make absolutely sure that you’re not cluttering the user experience with multiple messages. Too much messaging, especially if uncoordinated, will just annoy and distract. If users are new to your product, they won’t enjoy being confused by wading through a parade of pop-ups or prompts while they’re trying to simply learn the basics.

Don’t try to gin up enthusiasm — it can’t be done

Excitement about a product has to emerge organically. What if you introduced a new feature and then — crickets? What’s the root of that failure? Don’t fall into the trap of assuming it’s your announcement strategy, or that more messaging will fix a flatlining feature. Product teams need to ask themselves honest, tough questions about the features that users don’t seem to want.

Related Article: How We Generated 700 Live Attendees for a B2B Product Launch Webinar

What Are Your Users Asking?

Ultimately, the question is not, “What’s the best way to tell our users about a feature,” it’s “How does our new feature address questions and needs that our users have?”

Developing a good product communication strategy all comes down to listening to your users. Growth hacking and design thinking, and the entire iterative model of getting at optimal solutions, rely on capturing feedback. Crafting a new feature announcement strategy isn’t any different.

First of all, talk with users about how new feature news fits into their product experience. What do they want to hear about, through what channels and how often? Build models and do scaled-down and/or segmented A/B testing to decide what approaches work best with various user segments.

Another way to really listen to users and find out what they want is to let them control product and feature notifications. Twitter’s mobile app, for example, lets users manage news about product updates. This doesn’t just spark good feelings about Twitter’s responsiveness to its user base, it also generates a wealth of good customer data that will help polish future rollouts.

twitter

The truth in the SaaS market and throughout all modern digital businesses is that messaging and product are two parts of a unified ecosystem. They no longer exist independently.

Done right, new feature announcements provide both relationship-building opportunities and powerful growth surfaces. They’re not just bolt-ons, but an integral part of your entire UX continuum. So refine them using the same methodologies used for other iterative improvements.