When exciting improvements are being made to your product, everyone in the company feels the momentum. But do your customers feel the same way?

They won’t unless you invest in consistently reliable and consistently excellent communication. Reality isn’t reality; perception is reality. If customers don’t hear about a recent release, in their world, it doesn’t exist.

Enter: Release Notes

Help Scout: Release Notes

To better inform Help Scout users of our ongoing product polish and new feature releases, we started sending a monthly broadcast known as Release Notes.

Consisting of a direct email and a blog post for posterity, Release Notes have served as our running recap of changes made to Help Scout; a single piece of the customer comms pie, to be sure, but an important one. Now a few months in, we can confidently say they’ve done their job. Better still, customers seem to really appreciate the effort.

Instead of telling you how to start or conduct your own version of Release Notes, we’ll share a few of the questions we asked that helped get us to what we publish today.

When will we publish? Do we always need to?

We’ve chosen to send Release Notes during the first week of every month. Consistency kindles its own sort of momentum, but it can also leave you feeling beholden to dates on a calendar. If you ever feel what you’re about to publish is mostly scraps with no main course, make the easy fix: don’t publish!

Last month we launched Help Scout Plus, spending the lion’s share of our time and effort bringing it to market, listening to customers, and making small improvements along the way. When it came time to publish Release Notes, we realized Plus was a centerpiece that made the other improvements feel like tacked-on topics. Since we had already sent dedicated broadcasts for Plus, we decided to skip the Release Notes.

Click send when you have something to say, not because you have to say something.

Which updates should be included?

We’ve previously shared how we’ve found a tiered approach useful to group product releases. Here’s a common way to group features:

  • Tier A. A major release/update that adds new functionality to the product. These features are also important to prospective customers, because they may need them to justify making the switch. Beacon is a good example for Help Scout.

  • Tier B. An important update that may add some new functionality or greatly improve an existing feature. These releases are important to current customers because they enable better results. Help Scout for iPhone is a good example for Help Scout.

  • Tier C. These are smaller but meaningful updates to an existing feature in the product. These releases are important to a subset of current customers because they improve their workflow. Reporting Views are a good example for Help Scout.

These are the obvious ones; your main concern will be how you nail the messaging and presentation. Things get interesting for Release Notes when you get into Tier D and Tier E territory—the smaller improvements that don’t demand a separate email, blog post, or in-app message but are worth getting in front of customers.

To narrow this down and help us avoid selfish, company-centric communication, we have a brief set of guidelines to determine if a new release is worth writing about:

  • Is this a customer-facing change? Every company will have different answers for this, but you should start by asking what it means for an improvement to be customer-facing.

  • How noteworthy is the customer benefit? Unless it allows for significantly better outcomes, “we made this easier” is often just you doing your job as a product owner.

  • Is it mostly aesthetic? You may have worked hard on making your “Send Message” button more beautiful, but how does that affect customer outcomes?

  • Is it mostly marketing? Please spare me the update about your new onboarding flow.

The last thing we explore is what updates outside of the product may be worth mentioning in our Release Notes. If we have a truly customer-driven update to something like our free classes, that may be worth including even though it isn’t related to a product change.

Who needs to be involved?

Too many cooks can spoil the broth. We found we produced better Release Notes with less confusion when we reduced the total number of people involved.

Today, our product marketer Mo is the project lead; she keeps everyone informed about the current status of releases, writes the first draft, and ensures everything is completed on time. Nick contributes feedback and copy suggestions for Mo’s draft, which she uses for the final version; a second set of eyes is important for a big broadcast to customers. Jared brings us home with visuals and animated GIFs, and he codes our final email.

I share our process to encourage you to ask the following questions:

  • Is at least one other person reviewing this broadcast for spelling/grammar, clarity, and on-brand messaging?

  • Is one person writing the first draft? Multiple voices early on usually leads to a poorly stitched together Franken-email.

  • Do you have a clear project owner? The buck needs to stop with someone.

Are we being clear? When is it okay to be clever?

most newsworthy info > important details > other general info

This is tricky. Since this style of Release Notes is more marketing-oriented than a traditional changelog, we do like to make them engaging and fun to read. When you need to share important information, however, wit and charm cannot take precedence over clarity.

To help avoid this, we live by the following:

  • Prioritize by importance. Put the important stuff up top; “save the best for last” is bad advice for Release Notes. This applies to the broadcast as a whole and for each individual section. Use the inverted pyramid (above) as a reminder.

  • Remove material to concentrate what’s left. All of our Release Notes emails are fewer than 600 words. Every word removed gives potency to those that remain. When in doubt, take it out.

  • Assume readers will get it wrong. When a passage, example, or sentence makes you ask, “Will this confuse our customers?” always assume that it will. People read fast, they skip things, and they don’t agonize over every word. Communicate respectfully, but remember you can never be “too clear.”

  • Show customers what they can do. “What you can do” is generally preferable to “what it does,” and often makes for more concise copy.

We also look to show instead of tell for important announcements. Animated GIFs, screenshots, and custom visuals may take more time to produce, but they save precious space in emails and can help make key points impossible to misunderstand.

Help Scout: product animated gif

Let clarity be the reality check for all of the humor, puns, and personality you want to include. There’s no need to scrub them out completely, but clarity serves as a good compass to keep you from veering completely off course.

The lights are still on

An absence of product updates always reminds me of a poorly lit storefront: you may know you’re open for business, but nobody else does. To avoid building a reputation of dust and rust, let people know you’re continually improving your product by sharing the actual work you’ve been doing. As the saying goes, next to doing the right thing, the most important thing is to let people know you are.

Gregory Ciotti

Gregory Ciotti

Greg is a writer, marketing strategist and alum of Help Scout. Connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn.