This article was first published in 2017—we've resurfaced it because Hiten's advice is still just as valuable as ever.
The problem is that these tools make it insanely easy to bug customers in the wrong ways (I discussed this in an episode of my podcast, The Startup Chat). Far too often, I'll log into a SaaS product and get hit by 5 pop-ups and two chat messages with the latest product updates. I don't care about these updates. I have work I'm trying to get done, and these messaging examples are getting in my way.
When you go too heavy on in-app messaging, you're showing your customers that you're thinking about getting more clicks, about driving superficial engagement—not about them. By focusing on short-term engagement, you're risking the long-term relationship you're trying to build with the customer, which starts with the implementation of user onboarding best practices and lasts throughout the customer journey.
How not to do product updates
People are using your SaaS product for a reason. They're trying to get work done. If you can't add extra value, you need to get out of their way. You know you're doing updates wrong if you:
Send an update every time you make a tiny fix. SaaS products have to keep improving to better serve customer needs, but that doesn't mean customers need to know everything you do. You want your customers to take notice when you have something big to share. You do that by moderating the frequency of your outreach.
Have multiple overlapping in-app messaging campaigns running at the same time. Companies often carry out multiple messaging strategies at once. This can be overwhelming, especially for new customers who are just trying to get acquainted with the most basic product features.
Find the most attention-getting way to promote your update. Full-screen takeovers aren't necessary when a hotspot or tooltip would've done the trick. Blasting all of your customers when segmenting for relevance would've saved your customer an interruption. When you overwhelm customers in-app, in the exact place where they're trying to get something done, they may well leave your product and go find someone else's where they can concentrate.
If you send in-app notifications about minor product updates and bug fixes, you'll irritate users. If you write them out in a long list of release notes, nobody will read them. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't update users at all.
How to do product updates well
Good product updates are simple: they respect what the user wants. Send them in the right medium, at the right time, and people will want to read them.
1. Use in-app messaging updates sparingly
After building a new feature, you're excited, and you want to share that excitement with your customers. But constantly bugging people with in-product updates is the wrong way to do that. Take a step back, and think about each update from the user's perspective. Slack is a company that does in-product messaging really well. In this example from 2017, in-app updates appear as a little red gift icon in the top-right corner of the desktop app. When users click on the red box, they only see the most relevant and helpful updates—stuff like a new video calling feature, or threaded messaging. It's a non-interruptive way of showing people new features.
2. Bundle product updates in an email
Weekly or monthly emails help keep your existing customers in the loop about how you're constantly working to make their lives easier. Because it’s an email, they can save it, ignore it, or come back to it. Help Scout's monthly update email does this really well. It's organized into categories, so people can easily scan for the stuff they care about. More importantly, the email frames updates around real problems that customers have complained about. The copy from this email shows that Help Scout is listening to the pain users are experiencing and doing something about it.
3. Launch on Product Hunt
Updates can help get your product in front of a new audience. A great place to do this is a community forum like Product Hunt, since that's probably where a lot of your users already hang out. Share what you've built and let your audience know you've been featured on the site.
When Drift launched Drift 2.0, the company's CEO David Cancel posted on the Product Hunt page. He wrote that he was happy to answer any questions from the community—and he answered these questions himself, showing how he and his company personally follow through for their customers.
Separate yourself from the noise
When a customer is in your app, for a brief moment in time, you may have their undivided attention. Respect it. Make sure that any product updates you send are contextual and valuable to the customer. Show customers you care, and they'll be excited to hear from you again.
There are so many products competing for your customers' attention. With all of that noise out there, customers are gravitating towards the companies with the highest signal. These are companies that are the most consistently helpful and customer-focused. Remember: Each product update isn't a one off in-app messaging transaction; it's an interaction point with your brand. That's a relationship you need to cultivate for the long term.
Hiten Shah has been building products on the web for over a decade and is an advisor and investor in startups. He is the co-founder of including Crazy Egg, Quick Sprout, FYI, and (formerly) KISSmetrics .