What to Expect When You're Expecting: A Relaunch.

Best practices for relaunching a site.

Gela Fridman
September 18, 2014

Online platform relaunches typically are fraught with complicated and unexpected technical issues. While some hiccups are unavoidable, companies can minimize them by preparing for user reactions to a new site or application. Developing internal and external communications protocols is key to mitigating risk by anticipating the effects of a new experience on customer service, marketing teams, and technologists. Putting procedures into place prior to site launch based on expected changes in user behavior, both online and offline, creates a more seamless transition.

Key Questions:

  • What are the best practices for a successful site relaunch? What are user expectations when an issue needs to be addressed?
  • How should a company prepare internal stakeholders for changes in user behaviors?
  • How does a site relaunch affect customer service channels such as call centers, live chat, and in-store feedback?

Key Finding:

Site relaunches affect user behavior both online, as users climb the adoption curve to learn new functionality, and offline. Time-crunched users may turn to other customer service channels before relearning the site experience. Organizations need to prepare for these changes and their effects upon success metrics, even if the effect is short-lived as users become accustomed to the new experience. Verifying that the right metrics are being tracked, closely monitoring these changes, and preparing internal stakeholders to ensure that multiple departments are capable of responding to these changes are key to the success of a new site launch.

Relaunching a new experience is inherently risky.

Asking users to relearn how to use a site can be precarious. Brands risk backlash – on social media, in their call centers, and on the site itself – as customer satisfaction levels decline (usually temporarily).  In 2010, Forrester outlined the main reasons users resist change. These include an increased cognitive burden on users as they learn how to accomplish their goals, a decline in key usability metrics such as the time it takes to learn how to use a site and the time it takes to complete a task, and an increase in users’ frustration and anxiety. The good news is that these issues are usually temporary, and risk can be minimized.

Analysis: Website redesigns and key metrics.

To better understand trends in site relaunches, Huge conducted an analysis of traffic patterns, time spent, page views per visit, and visitor frequency across multiple industries. The categories range from high visit frequency sites (such as news and entertainment sites) to sites that are visited more infrequently, such as banking, travel, and health sites. Huge aggregated the data over two years and across multiple sites within each category. The data analyzes the year prior to and the year following each site’s relaunch, to account for any seasonality in traffic patterns.

Two important caveats: most of the important functional and aesthetic changes made during these redesigns appear to be optimized for mobile usage. Assuming the sites were successful at improving mobile traffic, the overall traffic numbers provided by ComScore may show declines due to limitations in measuring mobile usage. Second, the eventual death of pagination, particularly in the news category (the redesign debuted by The New York Times in January 2014 may have been pagination’s death knell) may account for the drop in pages per visit.

WhatToExpect1

For the most part, key metrics such as time spent, visitor frequency, and pages per visit went up across almost all categories. The entertainment category, including sites such as TMZ, Gawker, E Online and College Humor, saw the biggest gains in time spent (up nine percent) and pages per visit (twenty-five percent), while visitor frequency declined by six percent.

The news category is the one likely to be hardest hit by shortcomings in mobile measurement, as more and more Americans get their news on mobile devices. Huge’s analysis shows that the changes in time spent post-redesign are negligible (down one percent), while pages per visit were down eight percent and visitor frequency declined six percent post-relaunch.

In the health category, a significant decline in pages per visit (fifteen percent) may more likely be due to redesigns that allow users to find the information they’re looking for much more efficiently. At the same time, the category experienced an increase of three percent in time spent and fifteen percent increase in monthly visitor frequency, indicating improved engagement.

Prior to launch.

Strategy.

Determine high-level goals.

Long before unveiling a new platform, organizations should determine their overarching goals and strategy for the site. This needs to go beyond simple objectives such as increasing engagement or growing revenue. Instead, brands need to develop specific key performance indicators to assess the success of their platform, and ideally to provide pre-and post-launch benchmarks. Businesses should use redesigns to achieve specific goals. Organizations only get one chance to get a relaunch right, and a thoughtful and deliberate approach to its introduction strongly affects its success at achieving the company’s goals.

Organizations should also define a measurement plan prior to launch.  Tactically, brands need to conduct a thorough search engine optimization assessment to ensure that redirects are in place before making a switch to a new site. Likewise, everything that needs to be measured should also be tagged.

Don't let launch deadlines compromise quality.

If there is one lesson to be learned from the healthcare.gov launch, it’s that driving towards a hard deadline with an insufficient digital product can be more detrimental than delaying launch. After the launch of the site, which was plagued by usability problems, sentiment dropped precipitously. Arguably, this negative sentiment did more damage to the public’s perception of the Affordable Care Act than a delay ever could. Companies are also subject to deadlines propelled by business imperatives outside of the control of the digital team, without regard for the damage that an inadequate web experience might cause.

Organizations need to balance expediency with perfection. The truth is that neither is entirely attainable, and often compromises are necessary. Brands need to make sure their sites work the way they intend them to on users’ primary devices and browsers. Final “fixes” and QA checks for browser compatibility for older or outdated browsers can add time and complexity without necessarily adding a great deal of value.

Ultimately, companies should understand what degree of “perfection” they’re comfortable with for a relaunch, and put into place plans to update anything that was de-prioritized prior to going live.

Research.

Conduct research ahead of launch.

It seems obvious, but organizations need to conduct pre-launch research to assess user reactions, help identify questions and unanticipated problems, and evaluate new usage patterns.

Prior to launch, companies should conduct a final usability session to identify any outstanding issues. Conducting A/B testing as part of a beta launch will help assess how the new site is performing compared to the current site. Comparing a single metric to another is insufficient in a beta test. Instead, a combination of metrics helps determine actual performance; no single metric is enough to gauge success or failure. Interaction and visual designers can also test potential modifications. This research should help create a framework for launch messaging.

Communications.

Develop a communications plan with multiple launch scenarios.

At least three months prior to launch, companies should develop a communications plan to inform users early. Giving users advance notice gives them time to adjust and accept changes in their experience, helps dilute opposition, and gets people excited about the new platform. Additionally, it allows a brand to focus the conversation on which changes will occur and why, laying the groundwork for user feedback. Outreach to members, registered account holders, and users should include onsite guidance, social media, and email. One general rule of thumb is to inform users for at least two visits prior to the new site launch to help lay the groundwork for acceptance.

Communications should be ongoing with a selection of internal, peripheral, and online influencer audiences, not just before launch but also during and after. Companies should also include employees at all levels – including team members who will be involved directly or tangentially in the launch as well as those who regularly interact with users, either online or off – in the communications plan. Outreach prior to launch must also include corporate partners such as advertisers, product partners, and vendors.

Define roles and responsibilities for launch communications.

As part of this exercise, organizations need to define roles and responsibilities for launch communications. Optimally, the company will have created a tiered response structure involving all of the departments integral to a platform’s success, including public relations, marketing, and customer service.

Brands should also organize teams with a very clear chain of command in advance of a relaunch. The most effective relaunches have multiple teams with a single departmental contact point working in relay shifts to preserve clarity of judgment in the rollout process. It is useful to designate someone with gatekeeper responsibilities, who understands the go-live decision criteria, each team member’s role, and how to respond (and to whom) if things go wrong.

Provide an advance preview to key audiences and influencers.

Ironically, a site’s most loyal users are likely to be the most disoriented and upset by changes to their experience following a relaunch. Therefore, they deserve more attention. Organizations should prioritize outreach and access to these users, as well as targeting media, bloggers, and social media influencers.

One of the benefits of providing access to a beta, or an advance preview of the site, is that a company can assuage and educate users who can be hostile to change, while maintaining the ability to toggle back and forth between new and old until the changes begin to feel normal and accepted. Allowing advance access can also provide critical early test data from users. Lastly, it helps facilitate viral adoption as word of mouth spreads.

Technology.

Prepare a Go-Live checklist.

The Go-Live checklist is a document that outlines the activities leading up to the final “Go/No Go” decision point, as well as activities necessary in the initial 24 to 48 hours after launch, in the three to seven days after launch, and for the decommissioning  or disabling of the legacy site. The content of the checklist will depend on the type of launch and must clearly document all the steps, assign responsibility, and set due dates. It is also valuable to create a number of opportunities during the “Go/No Go” decision for the core team to address unexpected issues that might occur in the last 72 hours prior to launch. It is crucial to achieve consensus and for everyone involved to understand the steps involved.

Have a rollback plan in place.

No one wants to imagine that a relaunch will meet unexpected problems, requiring a rollback to a previous version of the site. As a result, organizations often overlook  rollback plans, and then need to scramble at the last minute. In addition to having a rollback checklist that outlines the steps necessary, it’s extremely important to have defined rollback criteria. Too often, post-launch issues such as bugs or a drop in traffic create panic and precipitate overly hasty rollbacks. Define the criteria and thresholds for a rollback to help mitigate the risk of an unnecessary one.

Ensure technology testing meets expectations.

From a technology perspective, there are multiple components to testing a new platform. These include automated load tests, user acceptance testing, and formal QA. While formal QA is ongoing throughout the development process, both load testing and user acceptance testing happen later in the development cycle, when the project is near completion.

Communication is critical on launch day.

On launch day, the team should be in constant contact and able to run through the launch plan. This may mean setting up a war room with key stakeholders present or setting up a remote version via Skype or Google Hangouts. As it plans for launch, the technology team should outline the post-production environment and application monitoring. The first 24 to 72 hours after launch are critical and require the full, undivided attention of the core team to address any unexpected issues. Ahead of launch, the team should determine roles and responsibilities during this period and establish dedicated communication and escalation channels. Running daily meetings and reports is a good way to stay connected.

Customer Service.

Prepare for call center spikes.

With the launch of a newly redesigned platform, most sites experience an uptick in calls to customer service. As outlined by research firm Forrester, the increased influx of calls “will depend on the number of people affected, the extent of the change, the quality of the design, and the quality of the communication program leading up to the change.” 

WhatToExpect2

The time it takes users to learn how to use the new site will determine the duration of the call center spike.

WhatToExpect3

To help prepare customer service teams in advance of a site relaunch, they should function as key personnel in the redesign team from the outset, and should also be integral to the quality assurance process. Call center teams should also be briefed on the changes made to the site and given a list of potential problems users may encounter.

Analytics.

Use existing analytics to plan for future KPIs.

Prior to the site redesign, organizations need to ensure they have accurate data to benchmark the performance of the existing site with the new one. KPIs for the existing site as well as goals for the new site are critical to future measurement, and can help identify gaps in user engagement, site functionality, and performance. Any number of factors, such as optimizing for mobile, improving sales or conversion, introducing parity features and functionality, or launching a new corporate brand identity or products can stimulate a redesign.

While increasing traffic is primarily a function of advertising rather than a redesign, companies should build the new platform with SEO in mind. Often, a redesign results in temporarily lower traffic before it’s fully indexed by search engines. A comprehensive SEO strategy will create a smoother transition from the old site into the new one.

The SEO strategy should identify which existing pages redirect to new pages. It should also use analytics data to determine which pages or sections of an existing site have the most value from an SEO perspective and ensure that there are counterparts or replacements in the redesign. In 2010, Toys R Us bought the Toys.com domain but didn’t use proper redirects to its ToysRUs.com site, which resulted in Google de-indexing the Toys.com site – an entirely avoidable situation. The lesson here is that a site redesign should have a plan in place to preserve (and even improve) its SEO.

Post-Launch.

Customer Service.

Prioritize legitimate customer problems over aesthetic feedback.

Companies should anticipate negative feedback, regardless of how good the site looks, or how much easier it is to navigate. Marketers should have a plan in place for how to respond (and, in some cases, not respond). Learning to distinguish between customers who have a specific problem and those who are expressing their aesthetic preferences is key to engaging them in conversation. Conversely, marketers should amplify positive feedback in a way that feels organic and authentic to the brand.

Marketing.

Scale down marketing and promotion during initial rollout.

While it is tempting to pursue a full-court marketing press with a splashy advertising and promotional campaign, Huge recommends that brands think carefully about the consequences of this strategy during the initial site rollout of transactional brands.

In general, Huge recommends several best practices:

  • Don’t market the site until it’s working.
  • If revenue is a key metric, then a brand’s “ramp up” to 100 percent of site traffic should be conservative, in order to ensure that the new site isn’t adversely affecting success. Adding an additional variable greatly increases the chance of depressing success metrics. In other words, a successful marketing campaign temporarily may attract increased traffic, which in turn would depress conversion rates. Thus, if a brand chooses to pursue a large marketing campaign, it needs to be aware of how increased visitors may affect revenue as a metric, or else not rely on that metric during the rollout campaign.
  • The beta launch is the optimal time to test communications before a full-site rollout. However, not every site chooses to do a beta launch. In the absence of one, the initial site rollout could also be used to test response rates before a huge marketing push.

Communications.

Create onsite messaging to guide the experience.

One of the key components of the new site should be onsite messaging (or “onboarding”) for users on landing pages to guide them through the new experience. Sites can provide guidance through a variety of tactics, including animated gifs, interstitials, or “coach marks” that act as quick instructional overlays for new interactions. Another good tactic is to produce video guides that show users exactly how to use the new platform. Prior to the launch of the newly redesigned NYTimes.com, for example, the company launched a guided tour, calling out specific changes to the design and offering early access by request to the prototype.

Technology.

Set up a team shift rotation to ensure coverage.

For immediate post-launch coverage, there should be a clear schedule of who is working when to ensure a personnel rotation if possible. Too often, the launch team working on the rollout ends up working 48 to 72 hours straight to address all the various post-launch issues. It’s helpful to segment the team to set up a rotation, so that team members working on the rollout can take a break while another group covers the next shift.

Analytics.

Reassess KPIs based on the new user experience.

Changes to the design and user experience might mean changing expectations for certain KPIs. For instance, some simple KPIs such as page views or time spent may need to be reassessed as variables on a new platform, particularly if users are using fewer pages and spending less time on the site because they’re finding what they need faster.

Ensure that data is properly captured.

At this time, the analytics group should also check that data is captured properly. Additionally, analytics departments should match the site’s own transactional data with Google Analytics or whatever analytics program they are using.

Plan for sprint and ongoing reporting.

Analytics is central to understanding performance pre- and post-launch. There are several sources of data that should feed into site and marketing analytics, both immediately after launch and on a continuing basis. These include:

  • Site data: at launch, tagging and tracking should already be in place and be collecting data.  Organizations should provide weekly reporting in the first month of beta tests on critical KPIs, and more in-depth reporting as testing progresses.
  • In-store feedback should track concerns and complaints about the new site in the business’s physical locations. To do this, businesses need to provide communication pathways from stores back to the digital team at corporate headquarters.
  • Social analytics/monitoring should monitor Facebook and Twitter for additional insights into user reactions and pain points. Using additional social monitoring tools such as Sysomos, Monitter, SocialMention, or Twitter’s advanced search functionality can also provide insights into what users are saying outside of direct channels.
  • On-site surveys can be a prime opportunity to ask more qualitative brand and consideration questions of the target.
  • Member upgrading: businesses should monitor uptake if existing members with accounts, registries, or guest lists need to upgrade their accounts or create new passwords.

While it may be difficult to draw direct comparisons between a new and old site or app, organizations should monitor the following items:

  • Mix of traffic and behavior: If the site redesign is fundamentally different from the old site, brands need to monitor not just how the main KPIs are affected but also how users interact with the new layout. In addition to setting new KPI benchmarks, companies should monitor how or if order composition changes with the new layout.
  • Site bugs and tech issues: Page load times and site stability may vary during a relaunch. Most teams don't dedicate enough time planning for bug fixes and minor adjustments. Site launches will suddenly expose details that weren’t apparent in a QA environment. Too often, teams get focused on backlog and want to move toward new features. As a result, they’re taken by surprised when they further delay that planning at launch and then have to deal with it on the live site.
  • Marketing and media spend variations:  Depending on when a launch occurs, marketing and media comparisons will need to continue year-over-year to provide a true sense of performance. Alternatively, organizations can compare sales forecast with actual sales, rather than with the previous period’s sales, to avoid seasonal skews.
  • Search engine re-indexing: If possible, use the same URLs for the new pages to minimize the impact of re-indexing. Expect impact to be short-term while the search engine spiders relearn the main pages of a site.  Additionally, email and social sources may drive more visits than usual due to heightened interest.
  • Adoption curve: New features and functionality often take time to pick up at first and then snowball; this is common for user-generated content and advanced functionality. At launch, it may take a while for customers to start using certain functional elements. There isn’t a set period of time that this usually takes, so monitor for trends.

Prepare for a temporary decline in success metrics.

Every newly relaunched site has a “bake-in period” when returning visitors must relearn how to use the site. When accompanied by an increase in PR and marketing, conversion rates may decrease simply due to visitors’ curiosity to check out the new site. Though this phenomenon typically self-corrects after one or two visits, stakeholders need to be prepared for a dip in success metrics.

Conclusion.

While no site relaunch is flawless, there are ways to minimize the risk of complex and unforeseen technical issues. Most importantly, companies need to have strong internal and external communications procedures to manage both user expectations and stakeholders. Predicting the effects of a newly relaunched digital experience on internal departments such as marketing, technology, and customer service is key to lessening risk.

A new digital experience requires that users climb a cognitive curve as they learn how to use new functionalities. This in turn may affect offline customer service channels as users relearn the site. Organizations that prepare in advance for these changes, even if they are short-lived, will find the transition to a new experience to be more seamless. Adopting the best practices outlined above can help manage internal expectations as well as guide users more quickly to a better experience.

Read This.