Tuesday, September 23

Communicating Change: Where Utterz Went Utterli Wrong

"The initial reaction to the name change is mixed. People don't generally like change, unless things are going really poorly. As a company and community, we've never been better, so I've expected push back on the identity change." — Aaron Burcell

It’s almost cliché to say that change is never easy, especially during an election year when change seems to be the synonymous mantra of every candidate and politician in the running. However, for the multi-media presence application Utterli, formerly Utterz, change — the recent identity change, not necessarily its new interface — is suffering more than push back. It’s a disaster.

Never mind the comments that keep popping up online; consider that any time I mentioned the Utterz identity change at BlogWorld, every communicator and blogger I spoke with rolled their eyes and expressed a complete dismissal of the idea.

Some even wondered who was paid to push that idea through, speculating that such an identity change would carry a mighty price tag. Others suggested it would take months or even years to undo the powerful brand they had established with Bessie, the lovable cow. A couple said they never heard of Utterz anyway.

In fairness to Utterz, while the name change might have been a surprise to most members, it was leaked the same time it started rubbing Aaron Burcell’s head for luck and made him CMO. The leak, however, never made it beyond the whisper stages. And that’s too bad. If it had, I don’t think they would face so much “push back” as they call it today.

How Utterz Could Have Better Communicated Change

• Utterz could have released its interface change without the identity change, ensuring the new features would have been the story. It would have also captured its audience’s attention, providing a better venue to suggest the identity change might be in the near future, opening dialogue.

• Utterz could have remembered that it would need to be responsive to the identity change. For all the claims they expected “push back,” the post communication comes across as dismissive. The “we’ve grown up” message is weak and distances the company from its community because maybe its customers don’t want to grow up.

• Before committing to the change, Utterz could have promoted the idea of a name change, providing a forum for feedback, allowing people who feel vested in the service an opportunity to share their questions, comments, and concerns.

• Open communication is critical during change, but most Utterz members seem to feel that there was no communication by the company until after the fact. The change has left them feeling that any feedback is futile.

• Utterz, like so many Web 2.0 companies, need to consider the length of the change initiative. Communicating change is actually very easy, provided a company can extend the change cycle and adjust during adoption. Steady will always win the race.

• Too many online companies rely exclusively on their blogs to communicate change. Considering how many companies employ push marketing at the wrong time, not enough use it at the right time. When communicating change, one communication vehicle, such as a blog post after the fact, is not enough.

Successfully communicating change, especially when it impacts an identity that customers feel vested in and a part of, requires a controlled pace and deep engagement. For all the praise Utterli has received on being responsive with the interface, it’s always buried under the name change that exemplifies the opposite.

For Utterz, communicating an identity change would have played better after the service changed, especially if it would have been rolled out in several phases.

1. Announcing that an identity change was being considered and clear reasons why the change was being considered.

2. Collecting community feedback on the name change.

3. Announcing decisions based on that feedback, such as keeping a significant portion of name as the brand.

4. Providing some sneak peeks to the spontaneous stakeholders that become interested in the process, which would certainly include the most vocal critics of any change.

5. Finalizing the identity change and revealing it from the inside out — employees, hard stakeholders, community stakeholders, the entire community, and then outside interests such as the media.

Instead, now they are playing catch up. As they do, it seems more likely the name change had less to do about this and more to do with the fact that Utterli, formerly Utterz, wants to be acquired.



Michael on 9/23/08, 3:07 PM said...

Thanks for your carefully considered feedback. I did try to reach out to you on Utterli, but I couldn't find your account. Are you a user?

I'm CEO of RPM Communications, and I guess you were trying to get my attention. So, you have it. For this you can thank the glorious age of indexing, alerts, and an CEO maniacally focused on customer service. I'm happy to respond here. (Of course, with due respect, I'll suggest that readers research for themselves at www.utterli.com or elsewhere for additional information.)

You've expressed a number of recommendations, which I appreciate. It's always good to get free advice!

To your points:
- No one was "paid to push through the idea" - there was no money spent to rebrand, no new collateral. Maybe a few business cards, but we needed them anyway.
- The name (among others) was shared with a number of customers, prospective customers, partners, and prospective partners before it was selected. But ultimately, it's OUR decision.
- You yourself indicated a distaste for the brand and the mascot. It was fun early on, but as we build a business, it's in the way.
- As an aside, my kids are pretty upset - they loved Bessie. And just like with many other decisions I make, I don't necessarily go with their choice. It's okay to disagree.
- Change is difficult, and sometimes smart people disagree. Call it cliche as you might; it's true.
- As much as you might characterize it as a "disaster," our customer base has grown substantially since the change - and the growth rate is rising. That's GREAT! I call that a "success."
- Your suggestion that we are "distant" or "dismissive" of our customers is insulting. Please ask our customers before making a judgment call like that. I'm sure there are customers who we didn't ask that didn't feel part of the process; perhaps they felt disenfranchised. It's the unfortunate reality of growth that companies that could reach out and personally meet each early customer simply can't do it as they grow. It doesn't scale. But we do try hard...for example, that's how I found your blog post.

To your ordered list of "to dos," it reads just like our internal project plan.
1 - Announce change - done. First privately with selected interesting parties, then publicly on the site.
2 - Collecting feedback - done. We got plenty. Some good, some bad, some useful, some not. But we got plenty.
3 - Announcing decisions - done. Blog entry, calls to key press contacts, email to customers.
4 - Providing sneak peeks - done. Not sure how this is different from 1 and 2, but we did it.
5 - Revealing it - done. In the order you suggested, even.

Now...to your suggestion we did it to be acquired. Huh? Exactly why would we risk existing name recognition and a transition period during which we need to rebuild awareness if we were looking to be acquired? I'd be interested in how you think that helps drive an acquisition, because none of the acquisitions that I or any of our team have been connected with started with a name change.

Once again, I do appreciate your thoughts and feedback.

Please feel free to contact me any time - like many of our users do regularly - at www.utterli.com/michaelbayer.

Unknown on 9/23/08, 4:08 PM said...

Hi Rich - I just joined Utterli/Utterz and I'm one of the people who is not sure why people like you are making such a big stink about getting rid of that cow mascot (beatrice?) and changing the name of the site, I'm 24 and it seems a little immature to me, personally, but I'm opinionated too so I hear where you're coming from - want to keep hearing more of your opinions, what is your Utterli username?

Rich on 9/23/08, 8:50 PM said...

Hi Michael,

Thank you for taking the time to offer up your perspective.

We actually met some time ago. So while I am not a member, I've always been bullish on your service and took considerable time to understand it, but have not yet had the opportunity to use it.

And no, I wasn't trying to get your attention per se. This is a relevant subject within communication, which is what I write about here.

I'm glad that you could offer many clarifying points to this post.

- I'm glad to hear no one was paid to push the idea. So many companies are thrust into re-branding in such a manner.

- In changing the name, I'm basing the reaction on considerable comments from your users and a post from your team that reported a 50 percent adoption rate.

- I agree that the name change is ultimately your decision, with only on reservation in that online communities seem to operate a little bit differently than traditional products. Members tend to be passionate about the identity as it associates to their relationship with the brand.

- I don't recall expressing a distaste for the old brand. So I might side with your kids on that one. Perhaps it may have taken me back at first a long time ago, but having seen how deeply at least half of your members are attached to the original brand is an indication of a strong brand.

- I'm not sure your customer base is at issue. In fact, the platform does not seem to be an issue at all.

Utterli is a success. I'm limiting my comment to the brand change given that it seem you have 100 percent adoption for the new platform changes (AMAZING!) but only 50 adoption (according to your team, but I think less because I have yet to find raves about it) on the name. And, I think it's a shame that the name change is overshadowing the platform changes, which seems to be a big win for you guys.

- My apologies for insulting you. That was not my intent at all.

At the end of the day on the name change, you've still made it clear it was your decision. And, some of the things I mentioned are what your members are saying about the name change. It's a done deal. I'm not making it up. They said it was confusing, among other things.

However, I think it's great that you are doing the follow up work, even with people like me that will one day be a customer but might not be now.

- As for the speculation of acquisition, it seemed more plausible than outside research. But it was merely speculation.

It would make sense if the old brand was getting in the way of the acquisition while bringing on a new executive known for helping companies be acquired. That seemed possible.

Depending on the acquiring company, brand recognition becomes less important than number of members and the potential growth of the company, which Utterli says was penitentially diminished by the original brand. That's why.

However, all that is moot, of course, if it is not.

And, it seemed like a decent guess since the existing explanation, no matter how true, is not convincing everyone. So you're not looking to be acquired? Then the speculation was incorrect.

While I'm not sure when I might become a member, I expect one day I will because I've always wanted try Utterli, time permitting.

More exact though, I'll be the first to sing your praises when the new brand takes hold six months out or so. It just seems to be a little bumpier at the moment that it needed to be.

Likewise, since you say you followed a plan like the one I outlined, I have no idea why that might only be a okay with a half of members.

All the best,

Rich on 9/23/08, 9:10 PM said...

Hi Chloe,

By everyone's account Utterli/Utterz is great. I'm sure you'll enjoy it.

From your perceptive as a new member, I would say it makes a lot of sense that you would not understand why some people would have grown attached to Bessie. New members would have no relationship to the brand.

I'm not making a big deal of it, other than it is a very interesting topic that we can learn something from. Bessie was a very powerful brand for the company, and to risk existing name recognition and a strong brand relationship with at least 50 percent of the base is pretty amazing.

Is that prudent? I don't know. Utterli might know in 90-180 days, I'd guess.

Think of this way. Imagine your favorite product or group or friend suddenly changed their name tomorrow. For some people, it would not matter. For others, it would take time and be a struggle to adopt the new brand. Make sense?

Anyway, I do not have a user name, but I'll be happy to share it when I do. I'm reevaluating some tools I use now so it might be the right time to try it out.

I might mention though, since that question has come twice, that not drinking Coke does not preclude me from considering how they handle communication. Nor did not watching Veronica Mars preclude me from covering it's cancellation and what the fans of the show have done about it (although I have watched it since).

Thanks for the compliment on wanting to hear my opinions, even though from Michael's account I might have fallen short since I didn't include anything on cognitive thinking and how the brain responds overtime to repeated exposures and what happens when those repeated exposures seem to change suddenly. It links in very nicely with topics I write about frequently.

All the best,


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