Turn Your Release Notes Into a Content Marketing Machine

BY SAMI LINNANVUO ON SEPTEMBER 14, 2017

If you’re in a product company the chances are that you’ve developed some process of informing your users about new features. This could be in the form of a blog post or as a notification within the UI. But it doesn’t have to stop there. Spending a bit more effort on the process can help you turn your release notes into effective content marketing.

We send our newsletter out once a month to inform our users about the latest developments to our products. We don’t only send it to our current users, but also to those who have shown interest in our products in the past. We’ve found that it’s a great way to draw those people back to our product and to convert them into paying customers.

Plan Your Release Process

The path to engaging releases starts with planning your near-term roadmap. That doesn’t mean that you should have several sprints planned ahead in detail, just that you should know what longer-term goal your next few sprints are serving.

A release is a chunk of work that introduces something new to the product that will be of interest for your users. To make your releases newsworthy, try to include something that appeals to a large portion of your user base.

That requires a bit of forward planning. When you’re constructing your roadmap, you should already be thinking about how you want to bundle tasks into releases and how those releases are communicated to your users. Try to bundle your tasks thematically so that it is easy to describe what’s included in a release.

It’s a task that also requires tight cooperation between tech and marketing functions. When planning your releases, involve some marketing people to make sure that your releases make sense from a marketing point of view as well. This is perhaps the most difficult step to achieve and that’s why so many release notes appear as just a list of technical changes made to the product. They are of little interest to anyone but the technical team.

Build a Contact List

Let’s be straight about this, I’m not a big fan of using email as a marketing channel – who wants to get more email? But it does have some good use cases. We’ve found email useful to promote the work our team has accomplished.

Without an audience there’s not much incentive to invest in your release notes so you should start building your email list early on. We add all our signups automatically to the email list. In addition, we ask for an email address to access our online demo.

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This demo login alone brings us 15 to 20 new contacts every week.

We used to have a simple form on our front page that allowed people to leave their email address in order to “be first one to hear about the new features”. Almost no one left their email address via this form so we removed it altogether.

The key learning here is that in order to build your contact list, you should have something to offer in exchange for an email address: a free trial, online demo, e-book, or similar – anything that is worthwhile enough to make people to leave their contact info. Needless to say, you should always include an unsubscribe option to each message you send out so that no one has to stay on your list any longer than they want to.

Produce Engaging Content

Some of the task management tools, for example JIRA, can generate release notes automatically. This is a very handy feature and something you likely want to use internally. But don’t take a shortcut and send out this machine-generated information as your release notes to your users. It’s just a list of tickets so it’ll be of little interest.

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Release notes auto-generated by JIRA

Instead of a list of tickets, the stuff you want to include in your release notes should include screencast videos and links to tutorials, blog posts, and FAQs and all the other things that make content great.

Creating a tutorial video of a new feature is really not as hard as it sounds. You can start with recording a screencast while you’re using the new feature. There’s a wide selection of tools available that allow you to record a screencast video, ranging from free browser extensions to more comprehensive paid packages supporting multiple file formats and editing options.

If you’re a non-native English speaker and not confident about your own narration, you can even get a professional voice-over for your screencast from services like Fiverr for less than $100. The point is, you don’t need access to an in-house content team as there are plenty of tools and services available to help you to produce content.

Create a Landing Page for Your Release

Now that you’ve created all the content related to your latest release, the next step is to create a landing page that gathers all that content in one place. This can be in the form of a website, a blog post, a landing page, or any other online property that can be pointed to by a URL.

For inspiration, take a look at these samples from Squarespace, Trello, and Slack. Reading these release notes doesn’t feel like you’re going through a list of tickets. Instead, you immediately feel like you want to give these new features a try as they’re so deliciously presented!

You might want to have a place in your website where you keep all your previous release notes. It’s a good way of showing your visitors not only what’s new but also that there’s constant progress in your product. We have linked all our previous release notes in our public roadmap page. This way, our website visitors not only see what has been added to our product recently, but also what will be added next and our release frequency in general.

Market Your Release

This step is perhaps the most important one. Once you’ve done the work of producing all that content (not to mention the work required to produce to release itself), it’s time to let others know about it. Send a newsletter with your chosen email tool to your contact list.

You want as many people as possible to hear about your latest cool feature so share it in all your marketing channels. Don’t be shy about letting others know about it. There’s no reason why you should restrict your release notes to only your current users. Use it as a tool for getting new customers.

Track Engagement via Analytics

Once you have established a habit of writing regular release notes and are investing in making them useful for readers, the next step is to set up analytics to measure the impact of this effort.

We track the number of reads, clicks, and the click-through rate of our release-note emails. Most email tools can report this out-of-the-box. Here are the response rates for the people who gave their email address to access our demo.

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A 25% open rate for a newsletter is pretty good result. One could easily expect that people who gave their email address as an exchange for a freebie would unsubscribe in the first opportunity. However, at least for us, this hasn’t been the case. As you can see from the figures above, very few of them unsubscribe, and a large proportion of them read the messages that we send out.

You can get even deeper with the engagement tracking by including UTM tags to the links you embed in the message. What are the visitors who clicked a link in the newsletter doing on your site? Did they sign up to a trial? Did they buy?

You can get answers to those questions by looking at the Campaigns report in Google Analytics. You’ll find it under Acquisition -> Campaigns in the left menu. It will show how long they stayed on your site and how many pages they accessed. If you’ve set up goals, you can also see how many converted to each of your goals.

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In our case, the release notes sent in August resulted in three new signups. Nice, that provides us a base for measuring the ROI of sending out release notes.

You can approximate the value by comparing the time invested in producing the release notes with the number of new signups and conversions it brought. If you know the lifetime value of your customers, you can easily calculate whether your efforts are paying off.

Since the majority of the recipients in our email list are people who are not currently users of our product, it is unlikely that they would have signed up without receiving the release notes.

Serve a Bigger Role

Sending out release notes is a great way to keep your users informed about the latest features you’ve added to your product. However, they can serve an even bigger role. When you invest a bit more time to turn your release notes into great content, they can draw prospects back to your product.

Don’t do it blindly. Set up your analytics so that you can see the ROI of your efforts. Numbers can help you find the things that work. Consider your release notes not only as a way to inform your users but also as part of your overall marketing strategy.

About SAMI LINNANVUO

Sami is the founder & CEO of Screenful, the company that develops visual dashboards for JIRA, Trello, GitHub and Pivotal Tracker. You can follow him on Twitter @sl1nna

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