What's the best way for developers communicate with their customer?

What happens when vendors have some information that's vital to deliver to the customer base? Facebook? E-mail? Rogue Amoeba, the maker of a number of popular Macintosh audio utilities talks up its new in-application programming interface for sending important news directly to users.
Written by David Morgenstern, Contributor

In the company blog, chief technology office and lead programmer Quentin Carnicelli, talked about the customer and company issues. A bug or some kind of service issue and bring about a flood of hundreds of emails, he wrote. Rogue Amoeba makes the popular Audio Hijack Pro recording program and Fission editor, as well as other audio products.

But it's difficult to create a channel that can connect to a sufficient percentage of the user base. In addition, Carnicelli says that the review process in the Apple App Store can slow down the arrival of updates. The company doesn't know when an update will hit the virtual shelves, or even if it will.

For general communication, Twitter feeds and Facebook can connect with users — maybe, if the eyeballs are on the feed. And for those users who have registered, there's e-mail, which also may be ignored.

While we have a well-subscribed mailing list, e-mailing everyone about a bug which won’t affect most of them is likely to be more annoying than helpful, and still won’t reach all relevant users. The fact is, regardless of where they purchased our software, most customers have no contact with us at all after purchasing. That’s generally just fine, but when an emergency arises, everyone prefers a direct line of communication.

So, the company created an "infrastructure" inside its applications, called the Developer News window. Carnicelli said this approach lets them reach users when "they’re most likely to need the information we’re providing."

He described the main features of the Developer News system, and showed some screen-shots of the window with received text. The company used it to warn users of incompatibilities following a system update and other instances.

Since we started shipping Developer News in our apps many months ago, we’ve been fortunate  to need to provide users with critical information just once, and everything worked exactly as designed. Specifically, users with Piezo on Mac OS X 10.7.2 were alerted to an issue before they upgraded their OS, and many opted to hold off for a few days until we could issue a fix. After that, users on Mac OS X 10.7.3 who had the broken version were alerted as soon as a working version was available.
Though we hope emergencies will be rare, we do plan to utilize Developer News again in the future. In the past when we’ve had a paid upgrade, we generally made a single mention of it in our version checking window, without ever actually offering to download the new version (as doing so would mean changing out the user’s licensed copy for an unlicensed one). This was not terribly effective.
Worse, when Mac OS X 10.7 was released, it killed the quite-out-of-date-but-still-popular Airfoil 3 entirely. We needed to get the word out to all Airfoil 3 users on Lion that their new OS required Airfoil 4. Making the best of a lousy situation, we opted for the first time to use the version update window (which had previously only ever offered free updates) to move users to a paid upgrade:

This is an excellent idea, as long as it's used in moderation. Carnicelli admits as much, saying it would be easy to use the Developer News system to send all kinds of information, much the way some games send "tips," which really are advertisements for other titles or upgrades. Very boring.

He says that info on minor updates and other products belongs on Twitter, Facebook, or the company weblog, since these are ways that customers have explicitly opted-in to receive company information.

That's the right thing to do and it's easy to say. But it's a hard policy to keep up -- just as we find with New Year's resolutions.

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