How to Avoid a Community Backlash when Making Big Changes to your Product

David Spinks
June 24, 2014
April 2, 2024

A boss once gave me some advice that has stuck with me for many years:

"No one likes big unveilings.”

What happened was I was working on a project for a long time and didn’t tell many people on my team about it. I wanted to make it a big surprise that would wow everyone.

When my “big unveiling” came up, it turned out what I actually did was cut out a lot of important people from the development process. People who could have spotted mistakes I missed and could have helped me improve the results. Instead of being wow'd, they felt like I kept them in the dark and ended up looking inconsiderate.

The same advice applies when communicating changes to your community.

If you’re making a big change to your product or service, it can be hard to tell your community, especially if you think they might not be too thrilled with the change. It’s much easier to just announce it and hope for the best.

Unfortunately, that’s a sure way to upset your community. Massive communities have been crushed by failure to properly communicate changes. Digg is one of the more famous examples, losing a huge portion of their community after launching a redesign that took away the influence of their power users, marking the downfall of what was once one of the most trafficked communities on the web.

So how do you avoid having a disaster of your own? Here are some basic tips for communicating changes or news to your community.

1. Involve your community in the decision process

Ideally, the change you’re making isn’t a decision you’ve made in an internal bubble. Hopefully, you’ve been talking to your community members about this for a while, gathering their feedback, asking for their opinions and building that into the decision.

If you’ve done that, everything becomes easier because the community will feel like they were part of the process.

If you haven’t done that, or you did but you still need to go against the opinion of the community (sometimes it’s necessary), that’s okay. Do it next time. Make sure your users know you learned from what happened this time around.

Want to get better at building research into your community strategy? Learn from what Danya Cheskis Gold did with Spark Capital.

Actionable tip: What projects do you have in the works today? Have you spoken to your community members about it? Have you asked for their insight? Get on the phone and start talking.

2. Be able to explain the “why” very clearly

The goal is to help the community understand why this thing is happening. Even if they disagree with the decision, if they understand why you had to make it, they’ll be more receptive.

When Meetup started charging hosts to create a Meetup page, they made sure that people understood why: In order for Meetup to continue to serve the world and connect people, this was a necessary change. They reiterated over and over again that when hosts have some "skin the game" it creates much higher engagement and a better experience for all Meetup members. Sure there was still some backlash, but there were also a lot of people who rushed to support Meetup’s decision because they clearly explained why.

Actionable tip: Understandably, it’s not always easy to clearly explain the why to the public. Make sure to pull in your team, CEO, legal, product team or anyone who can help you nail down a clear why. Think about that project you have in the works now and try writing down a clear and concise “Why”. Then run it by your team and see if you’re all in line.

3. Don’t wait until it’s public to start communicating

In as personal of an approach as you can muster, make sure the most loyal and influential members of your community hear from you first. They’ll appreciate you talking to them personally, they’ll feel special and will be more inclined to get your back when it’s announced to the rest of the community.

The rest of your community should also know about the change or decision before the rest of the world finds out. If they hear about it from press or other people instead of from you, it looks like you were hiding it from them. They’ll feel cut out and defensive.

Actionable tip: When launching a new product, I like to create a communication schedule (using a basic spreadsheet), laying out when we will email every different group of people (power users, existing members, public, etc.) that needs to be notified. This way we make sure everyone is covered and can visualize the timing.

4. Offer an open forum for questions, fears, and concerns

It’s important that the community knows that there is a safe space for them to share questions or concerns before and after the change takes place.

Airbnb has been doing a really solid job of this in NYC. They’re in a tough situation, fighting to defend their business and the privacy of their customers. Knowing that customers will have a lot of questions and concerns, they’ve been hosting regular “town halls” where community members can join in person and get answers.

These discussions don’t have to happen in person. You could host a Google Hangout, start a thread in your forum or group, or just letting people know they can email/call you directly will ease their mind a bit.

Actionable tip: Whenever you make a big change, before you announce it, host some sort of live event online or off where your members can ask questions. Have the CEO there to answer questions, or someone high up to show that you really care.

5. Accept that some people will be angry and leave

Your members joined your community or became a customer because it solved a problem for them. If you’re making big changes to your product, it’s inevitable that the product will no longer solve the problem that caused a lot of people to join in the first place.

That’s okay; If you’ve done your research, you’re making the change so you can do a better job of solving a different or more specific problem. So just accept that it will no longer be a great fit for some people. When Meetup started charging hosts they lost a whole lot of members, but they knew that those members weren't the ones they were truly aiming to serve.

Some people will leave. They don’t have to agree with the decision; they just have to understand why it’s being made.

Actionable tip: Before making a big announcement, think through who might be respond negatively. It's likely you'll find that it's a specific group of people. You might want to send them a unique message explaining the why or offer something to soften the blow.


So with those five steps, you’re ready to tackle any big announcement. Of course, this means that in order for you to efficiently communicate changes, the Community Manager must consistently be in tight communication with other departments of the team. They should be included in launch schedules, product development cycles, customer research campaigns and anything else that might affect how you communicate changes with your customers.

And my final tip: Always err on the side of honesty. It can be hard sometimes to be honest. In the short term, it may even hurt your business. But true loyalty comes from trust built over time and by taking the blame when it’s your blame to take, you’ll be making a strong investment in the karma bank. When in doubt, just be honest.

David Spinks
Founder of CMX, VP of Community at Bevy
June 24, 2014
April 2, 2024

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