Sunsetting Products

Previously I've talked about how you can use social media for beta testing, creating buzz, customer service and brand advocacy. In this final article I'll explain how to go about sunsetting - or retiring - your product on social media.

Putting a product or a product feature out to pasture is a business decision. Not a technical decision. Usually the cost of development and maintenance exceeds profitability. This might mean that support is withdrawn and new sales end. Or in the case of Software as a Service it ceases to be available.

Screenshot of Google Wave sunsetting notice
Google Wave *bye bye*

What's the worst that could happen?

Always be careful of grey areas. Some companies might claim to offer support for obsolete products. Even if development or support staff don't know anything about the product. What's the worst that could happen?

I once worked on an intranet product that had formal support discontinued. The vendor had one elderly employee in California that still remembered the product and how it worked. But he was about to retire. His retirement passed without the product being replaced. We were then flying by the seat of our pants. If the intranet went down there was no-one in the world who could bring it back up.

Clear product lifecycles exist for the benefit of both vendor and user. To see an example of the lifecycle of a product head to Microsoft's Support portal and search for something.

Make a plan

A good product exit should be graceful and minimise antagonising your customers, most of whom won't expect or want change. For this you should make a plan.

Sunsetting your product - the exit plan:

  1. Put together a brief description of the product and its history.
  2. Reasons for sunsetting the product.
  3. Financial impact of discontinuing the product.
  4. The exit plan describing the process of sunsetting the product. Work backwards from the exit date.
  5. The communications plan to customers. Including migration options if you have a substitute product.
  6. The communications plan to sales and customer service teams.
  7. Risks of your exit plan and any contingencies to mitigate the risks.

Partial sunsetting

When planning to sunset a product, you'll follow one of two paths. Either the product or the feature is being killed off completely with no ongoing support of any kind. Or you'll need to support a statistically relevant number of customers.

But not necessarily all customers. Cost and profitability aren't always driven by volume. Sometimes it's about keeping key clients happy and supporting your price thresholds. Sunsetting lower yield price tiers is also a business decision. It should be communicated as such.

Breaking the news

What you communicate to your customers is one part of a product exit plan. You'll find that transparency about sunsetting has benefits of its own. Particularly in a two-way medium like social media. Being transparent will help maintain the trust of your customers through the process.

Your communication plan:

Say why: Explain clearly why a product is sunsetting. Be upfront and explain that it is a business decision.

Make a list: Detail exactly which products or features are being discontinued. Include each variety or type, as necessary.

Last order date: If appropriate, specify the date and time of the last order and if quantities will be limited. Indicate whether guarantees or warranties will be honoured.

Purchase conditions: Specify the duration of service and support you intend to provide.

Replacement: If there is a replacement be very clear about what product or features are being replaced. Be specific about the differences between the discontinued product and its replacement.

Transition steps: Lastly, don't forget to explain any steps needed to transition from the old product to the new.

And speaking of transition, just because you no longer support your product doesn't mean someone else won't.

When Google Reader shut down Feedly picked up the baton and a nice chunk or ex-users. Feedly's successful acquisition of users was down to project Normandy. A clone of the Google Reader API. A seamless transition gave new life to a generation of users. And the sunset became a sunrise for a new provider.