ren asked: “What [do you] do when upgrading to new software causes a downturn in user engagement? How [do you] get it back?”

Thanks for the question, ren. For me, it relates to the general issue of change on communities and what you can do to make your changes more meaningful and widely accepted by your community. That is what I am going to cover in this article.

So that we stay focused, I am going to assume that you have given the change a lot of thought and have determined it to be worthwhile. If you have a staff, you have also asked for their feedback and improved the proposed change to a point where you are excited about it and are looking forward to rolling it out.

Limit Surprises

When you are rolling out meaningful changes to your community, it is generally a good idea to ensure that surprises are kept to a minimum. Members shouldn’t be surprised by a new design or a software conversion. They should have some idea that it is coming.

You don’t want to announce something, only to fail to follow through on it. So, wait until you are sure it is happening and then start preparing people, mentally, for what is coming. One of the reasons that people reject change is if they don’t know if it is coming or if they are shocked by it.

Explain the Benefits

You can do better than just letting people know what is on the way, you can tell everyone why you are making the change and why it is beneficial. You can also give previews and explain what is on the way, in further detail. You can tell them what is cool about it and why you are making the change.

Your goal is to get others excited about the change, so that they are anticipating it – not dreading it.

Get Feedback and Improve the Change

Perhaps the single most impactful thing you can do is to make your members a part of the development process. You can post previews of the changes or the design and ask members to offer their feedback. You can do this with the entire community or with a special group of members.

By making them a part of the process, you are giving them a sense of ownership in the change. More importantly, the feedback is usually very valuable. Your members use the site constantly and they are in a great position to share with you the experience that they enjoy. Allow them to help you make it better.

Make it an Event

Speaking of anticipation, if the change is big enough – make it a historical moment. Give it a day, a time and a countdown. Consider allowing people to RSVP for it, maybe even host a live chat.

Dealing with Backlash

All of what I have said so far is all well and good, but it is best to do those things before you launch the change. Let’s say you already have and the response is not good.

Generally speaking, with a large scale change like a redesign, that has been planned over an extended period of time, I would recommend against doing a straight reversal and going back to what you had before. Instead, I would focus on improvement of what you have launched.

Understand that sometimes, not always, the people who don’t like the change are a small (possibly vocal) minority. It is important to weigh this. That doesn’t mean that their feedback can’t help you, though. Just don’t make any rash decisions.

Even after you’ve launched, you can still explain the benefits and seek feedback. In ren’s case, it might be worthwhile to identify some members who have not visited as much since the change and ask them for their thoughts. Give that feedback some though and apply it as appropriate.