Product Management

6 min read

You Built it...But No One Came, Now What? 8 Smart Ways to Increase Feature Usage

You did the market research, conducted the customer interviews, created the personas, built out the use cases, lobbied for engineering resources, and shepherded it through the gates and hurdles of your company’s product development process--Now your new feature is finally seeing the light of day, bravo!

Before you get ahead of yourself, it’s important to remember that just because you (and your data-driven rationale) believe your feature will be a hit with customers, there’s no hard guarantee that people will actually use it when it’s released. “If you build it, they will come” is a risky assumption to make--one that could cost you considerable stakeholder credibility points that will be difficult, if not impossible, to earn back. Fortunately, there’s a few steps you can take at various points in your new (or old) feature’s lifecycle to ensure it gets discovered, used, and loved, and that’s what today’s post is all about.

8 Smart Ways to Increase Feature Usage

1. Circle Back to the Source

Unless you’re just making things up yourself (which we all know is a terrible product management strategy), some customer (or potential customer) at some point likely declared, “It’d be really great if your product could peel bananas while updating the CSS structure,” or suggested whatever feature it is that you’ve now built. For starts--if you didn’t talk to this person (or, in some cases group of people) while you were planning, building, or testing your feature, consider trying to do that next time--the extra effort required to gather these customers’ email addresses and keep them in one place is worth it. Reaching out to these users early on in your new feature’s lifecycle is a great way to engage them and get them excited about the upcoming feature--it’s also highly recommended that you keep them in the loop about changes you’re making based on their feedback because it shows that you’re listening to them.

Fortunately, there’s still time for you to make things right, now that your product actually DOES XYZ, follow up with the people who initially suggested and/or supported you implement such a feature and show it to them. This isn’t just good customer service, it’s an opportunity for you--take that opportunity. Worst case scenario they’ll tell you it’s terrible and you’ll be able to adjust things according to their feedback. Best case scenario, they think it’s fantastic and share it with others--we’ve written about this one before, but as a reminder: customer evangelism often trumps marketing efforts.

Finally, you can leverage these conversations to generate testimonials, case studies and other customer-driven marketing pieces that can be used to tout the benefits of your new feature--it’s a win-win situation.

2. Leverage Press to Generate Pre-Release Buzz

If people are always looking for the latest bit of info about your product, a well-timed press “leak” can generate some pre-release buzz that will have people ready to start using your new feature the moment it’s launched--and in many cases it will bolster the amount of press you get when you launch as well.

For example: back in March, news of WhatsApp’s Google integration first hit the tech press looking like this:

“WhatsApp could soon make backing up and restoring your account a lot easier through integration with Google Drive. A new report has surfaced claiming to have received concrete information on this service and it looks to be very close to release.”

Three weeks later, the new feature was released to an audience that had been eagerly awaiting it since the news first hit the wires. The launch generates a second round of buzz and the feature receives even more coverage.

This technique won’t work for every product or feature, and it’s never guaranteed that a press release will pick up coverage, nor does getting said coverage guarantee you’ll generate buzz. An alternative option would be to reach out to your most influential customers and give them a “sneak peek” of your new feature  before it’s released, it’s a great way to collect early feedback and possibly get them talking to other people about what you’re about to release.

3. Highlight Real World Applications

"Here's what our product can do" and "Here's what you can do with our product" sound similar, but they are completely different approaches.— Jason Fried

Any new feature that has a learning curve (read: requires a user actually do something to utilize it) as opposed to those that make your product faster, brighter, lighter, more durable etc. is well served by having its attributes communicated in terms of how they can be used in the real world.

So how do you show your customers the real world applications of your feature? Well one of the easiest ways is to take the “eat your own dog food” approach and demonstrate how your own business is using the new functionality. Smartsheet, for example, launched some new visualization and integration features and used them to update their customer case studies, then they wrote a blog post about them:

GitHub has taken a similar approach as well, back in 2012 they wrote a post that showed off the capabilities of their Pull Requests feature, explained how they used Pull Requests to build the GitHub web site itself, and provided some handy tricks and tips they’d discovered along the way.

CampaignMonitor recently took it a step further and didn’t just show what you could do with their new Dynamic Content feature, they touted the results they achieved by using it--in this case, a 13% increase in conversions.

4. Give it Away (For Now)

Unless your new feature costs your company money each time it is used or every time you add a new user or seat, there’s plenty of incentive to give people a free trial. A free trial helps diminish a user’s fear of committing to something they won’t like or use, and hey, you might even get people hooked who would have ordinarily never even given it a spin.

“Charge for features no one cares about enough to upgrade, and no one will upgrade. Charge for features essential to user engagement, and no one will stick around long enough to build a relationship with your product and upgrade.” (Source)

If the ultimate goal of this particular new feature is to deliver value while also delivering incremental revenue, you can make it a time-based free trial (30-90 days) or create a free tier with a usage cap that will get the real users to upgrade and start paying a premium. Either way, you’ll get that feature in front of more people.

Pro tip: If customers are opting out after their trial period, FIND OUT WHY. Opt-outs and cancellation emails are the perfect opportunity for you to collect feedback.

5. Publish Tutorials and How-Tos

Just because you have added a new feature and had your UI/UX gurus come up with the best navigation ever doesn’t mean a potential user is going to feel comfortable diving in without some guidance. Having your team schedule regular customer success calls to show customers the ins and outs of new features and help them start using them may be a smart move, but success calls take time and your team may not be able to reach every customer. For the rest of your users, a step-by-step tutorial is probably the most effective way to help them get started.

There are thousands of excellent examples out there, like this PicMonkey tutorial where they really infuse their personality into the narrative while explaining exactly how to use their new “Design” feature. An excerpt:

“You know how we adore you and listen to you like a stalker? Well, we made what you’ve been asking for: a design feature that kicks off with a blank canvas instead of a photo. This feature is boss when you want to make an infographic; a watermark; a blog header or graphic; or even a scrapbook-y, poster-y hodgepodge of overlays, text, and photos. If you’re blubbering with happiness right now, we’re here with the tissues and the screen shots.”

In some cases, video tutorials make a lot more sense. The key to these is making sure they are as bite-sized as possible, don’t try to cover everything your product has to offer in one long and comprehensive video. Adobe does this nicely, they have a series of video tutorials on doing various things within Creative Cloud--take for example this one on creating custom brushes from images with their new Photoshop mobile app. It’s a very specific feature and the video quickly explains what you would use it for as well as how to use it

A final word, don’t think just because you created a great tutorial people will read it or watch it - you should make sure it is available wherever it is relevant on your site and/or within your product itself, and be sure to work it into your onboarding procedure.

6. Third-Party Tutorials

While you should definitely make sure you are including how-to blog posts, videos and documentation as part of your release plan, another way to increase feature awareness and usage is to make sure tastemaker sites within your user community are also creating some of these.

For example, in one such third-party tutorial, PC Advisor delves into the settings of Google’s Gmail and tells users how to color-code their starred items:“I love using stars in Gmail to remind me about important messages or emails I want to hold on to for later. Labels are great and all, but the immediacy of clicking that star is much better for me than setting up a bunch of filters or dragging and dropping messages into categories….”

“But did you know there's more to the Starred section than just yellow icons? If you dip into your Gmail settings you can add red, orange, purple, green, and blue stars, as well as check marks, colored exclamation points, and other items.”

First Google gets an impartial third-party raving about a feature, and then they get a step-by-step tutorial on how to make it even better using a little-known feature, excellent!In another case, an independent tutorial site identifies an underused Salesforce feature and acknowledges why you might not use it, but then delves into its benefits and why you should give it another look.

“See, part of the problem with the Salesforce bucket field is that everyone who talks about this thing makes it out to be very confusing and complicated. Nobody really puts effort into demystifying the idea, or pointing out how it’s so practically helpful in context of that….This means that this powerful feature, which can solve a lot of problems, goes unused by many, and they turn to additional, bulky tools to solve problems that Salesforce already has the gear to handle.

”To make these third-party tutorials happen, reach out to the experts that cover your product and its competitors and offer to answer any questions they might have or give them a one-on-one demonstration of the product and get their feedback.

7. Get Your Team Up to Speed

It’s easy to forget this one, but it’s critical to get everyone inside your own company up-to-speed on any new features you are releasing. This isn’t just a support issue (although customer-facing staff should definitely know how to answer questions about new features), it’s about evangelism.

Every sales call, demonstration, and conversation about your product holds the potential for your new feature to be mentioned or shown off. But if your staff doesn’t know enough about it or feel comfortable talking about it, they will likely shy away from bringing it up.

While you can certainly blast out an internal email with a link to your tutorials, a hands-on approach is far more effective. Try internal webinars or lunch-and-learn sessions. If you’re lucky, you will have management support to make these mandatory and get your busy coworkers to actually focus on the product they are selling and supporting and to learn about what’s new. Additionally, try to get a slot on the agenda of every sales meeting to cover the latest and greatest features.

Depending on your business model, you may also have a network of sales agents or distributors selling your product, partners--don’t forget about them! They are also the face of the company to your customers and should be just as well-versed. There’s nothing more painful than shadowing a rep on a sales call and realizing they are still following the talking points and feature set they learned about three years ago.

8. Give Unused Features the Hidden Gem Treatment

You’ve tried everything, but your feature usage still isn’t where you would like it to be. It happens sometimes. Before you throw in the towel and move on completely, there are plenty of opportunities to turn that underutilization into an asset when you decide to resurrect your outreach and promotion.

Nothing says “click bait” like “hidden”, “lost” and “undiscovered.” Take for example this excerpt from a third-party blog post about Mint heralding “rarely used” features that will save time and money: “...But what is surprising is how many people miss out on the best parts of Mint. Most use two or three basic features and ignore the treasure trove available to those who dig a little deeper...Here are a few ways to save money and time with Mint that you’re probably missing:” People love that feeling of discovery (and they certainly like saving time and money).

I’m curious...what feature activation tactics have worked for you? I’d love to hear your stories.

Heather McCloskey