What Reddit, Sonos and Plex learned about making big changes — and angering superfans
How do you communicate difficult decisions without alienating your most enthusiastic users?
Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
How do you communicate difficult decisions without alienating your most enthusiastic users?
When Reddit's VP of product and community Alex Le joined the company in late 2015, he was told some shocking things about Reddit's rabid fan base and their resistance to change. Supposedly, the site's designers at one point increased the line-height of text displayed on the site by 1 point — and promptly received death threats.
Details about the incident are vague, and it may have never actually happened. But that the story was passed around shows how concerned the company's employees were about the backlash any potential change could provoke.
"This idea had sort of penalized the company," Le said. So when Reddit executives decided in late 2016 to overhaul their entire site, the company had to deal with a major challenge: Could it pull off a massive redesign without provoking all-out riots?
It's a question many companies with superfan followings have to deal with in some form or another. Design changes, the discontinuation of existing products and major pivots all can provoke emotional responses from loyal users. What amounts to a PR problem for billion-dollar corporations can be an existential struggle for startups, which often depend on the goodwill of customers turned brand ambassadors for word-of-mouth marketing, peer-support and more.
So how do you make and communicate difficult decisions without alienating your most enthusiastic users? Here's how Reddit, Sonos and Plex handled the challenge.
By 2016, it had become clear that Reddit needed major design tweaks to facilitate continued growth, account for new media formats and lower barriers of entry for new users. To break the fear of blowbacks, the company decided to tell its users early on about its plans. "With the redesign, we wanted to be really upfront," Le said. Reddit execs began to publicly talk about the redesign two years before it flipped the switch, and early on, they shared their rationale, ambitions and even design ideas.
This level of transparency was new to Le, whose previous jobs included a two-year stint at mobile game maker Zynga. He admitted that there were initially some concerns about secrecy and confidential information. But Reddit execs realized that the company's service was unique enough to take some calculated risks. "We shared everything that we could with our community," Le said.
Reddit soon began to test parts of the redesign with subsets of users and frequently solicited feedback from its community. For instance, employees talked in detail with users about the way ads were going to be displayed on the site and incorporated a number of features inspired by the way communities were using the service.
The company also decided to make the new design optional, giving users the option to switch back to the old look at any time. And when Reddit launched the new design, the company continued to work with users to iron out bugs and address concerns, resulting in a much more positive response. "When we do things in collaboration with our community, they will make it successful," Le said.
Smart speaker maker Sonos had to deal with not just one but two instances of backlash from consumers in recent months. First, Sonos announced a new recycling program in late October that was meant to reward customers for trading in their old speakers with a rebate on new products. And in January, it announced that it would end support for some legacy hardware going forward.
Both decisions were challenging to communicate on their own. But taken together, they seemed to suggest that Sonos was turning its back on its most loyal customers, who had in some cases spent thousands of dollars on the company's speakers, and bricked perfectly fine speakers that could otherwise have been resold. "We flubbed the communication for sure," said Sonos CEO Patrick Spence in a conversation with Protocol in February.
However, at the core of the uproar wasn't just a poor choice of words. It was also a series of assumptions that made perfect sense from the company's perspective but seemed like an affront to customers.
Take the recycling program, for example. Phone makers frequently offer customers rebates for trading in old phones. While some of these phones are refurbished, many are actually sent to recycling facilities. And since Sonos doesn't have retail locations in most cities, it decided that it would further minimize the environmental impact of the program by letting customers turn their products in at local recyclers, with the company decommissioning the devices with a software downgrade, instead of having them shipped to the company's headquarters.
"We had assumed people would understand that's what everybody else in consumer electronics does," Spence said. However, this didn't account for the fanlike customer loyalty Sonos had developed over the years. "We aren't everybody [else] in consumer electronics," he said. "We've set a different bar."
Spence responded with a mea culpa blog post, and the company more recently clarified why some of its new features, including high-definition audio, wouldn't run on legacy devices. Sonos also reversed course on the recycling program, doing away with the need to render old hardware inoperable in order to qualify for a trade-up discount.
"It really helped us understand that we've got to be more mindful of how we communicate," Spence said.
Plex, which launched a little over a decade ago as a hobbyist project for digital movie collectors and has since turned into a media-streaming solution for millions of users, is in many ways a prime example for a company driven by fans.
Not only does Plex owe much of its growth to word-of-mouth marketing driven by an avid user base, the company's business model is also an outgrowth of fan support: When some Plex users suggested that the company should put a donation button on its site in 2012, Plex turned that donation idea into a paid product called Plex Pass, a subscription that offers access to premium features, but also gives users a way to directly contribute to Plex's development.
"When you have fans, then they are looking to support you," said Plex CEO Keith Valory.
Except, sometimes, some of them won't. In recent months, Plex has expanded its product to offer access to professional media services, including music subscriptions via Tidal, and ad-supported movies and TV shows through its own video-streaming service. This has resulted in vocal criticism from some users who'd prefer that Plex continue to focus on its core product instead.
The inability to share business-critical information with consumers is at the center of many misunderstandings with superfans, Valory said. "We try to be as transparent as possible," he said. However, the company has to be cognizant of competitive threats and keep some information under wraps, leading to an asymmetrical information problem. "To some degree, users are always surprised," Valory said. "If I could sit down with every customer individually, I could very quickly make them understand."
Plex makes up for that by relying on superfans inside the company, where heavy users include co-founder and Chief Product Officer Scott Olechowski. "We use it every single day, just like our users do," Olechowski said. "Scott is one of our biggest power users," Valory added.
Being a heavy user of the company's own software allows Olechowski to see consumer criticism from a different perspective. "There is usually some truth in some of those things," he said. As a result, Plex introduced a more customizable design when it began integrating commercial streaming services. Now, users who aren't interested in ad-supported movies and TV shows can simply remove those items from their home screen.
Sonos and Plex both use their own blogs and forums to communicate with their users, but increasingly, fans express their grievances on social media. That's why Reddit long ago began to assemble a playbook for brands on how to better engage with their audience on its site. Lesson number one? "You start by listening and learning," according to the company's head of brand strategy Will Cady. "Simply being present is enough for most brands," Cady said.
It's also important to be present before things turn sour, he suggested. If company representatives participate in customer service threads and address smaller issues, they're more believable when big problems arrive. "In order to really be successful, you have to lay down the groundwork early," he said. "Be there not just when you need them."
That was also very much true in the lead up to Reddit's redesign and has become key to introducing other product changes as well. Le said that early dialogue also helped to change the perspective on what a company aims to achieve, moving the goal post away from the notion of crisis management.
Ultimately, engagement with the audience wasn't just about avoiding a backlash, but about building a better product, he said. "It's not just to manage the downside, it's to claim the biggest upside that's possible."
Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety's first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.