How companies use seasonal releases for product storytelling (with examples)

Quarterly launch events have become a trend in product announcements. Here's what seasonal releases and video games can teach us about storytelling with bundled updates.

Jun 25, 2024

Jun 25, 2024

/

0 min read

In the past few years, there’s been a shift in how tech companies release product. They started using seasonal releases ("Summer 2024 Update") as a way to introduce big new features. After decades of mantras like “ship fast”, here's why this trend may be a good thing for B2B SaaS and won't actually slow you down.

Video games pioneered the seasonal release model

Video games have some of the earliest examples of seasonal releases, with games like Fortnite introducing seasonal content starting in 2017 as a hybrid between subscription and downloadable content (DLC) business models. At some point in the past couple years, this storytelling approach started to appear in tech product announcements too.

What's different with quarterly releases?

Seasonal releases are an evolution of typical product launches, not a return to waterfall development and installing software by CD-ROM. The main difference is that they bundle a large number of changes into the announcement, anchored by one or two "Tier One" (T1) features. These features may not all be released on the same day, but the marketing efforts are concentrated around a bundled launch event.

Conventional wisdom was to do large releases for T1 features. This is a little different, in that seasonal releases include not just T1 features, but also a bundled list of other improvements. It feels more like getting the latest iOS update instead of just a new feature.

Releasing in seasons

Seasonal releases are complementary to regular product release cycles. Companies who adopt seasonal releases don't have to slow down the pace of shipping — it just changes how and and when they message those changes broadly.

Even in cases where there is a continuous release cycle for the product, the quarterly seasonal releases are a chance to highlight features in marketing again. Marketing releases can be different from availability in the product. Leading with the product availability or beta program gives you reference-able early adopters which help the narrative for your marketing release later.

You also have more control to develop a compelling narrative. We’ve all seen what happens when a TV show continues too many seasons, vs mini-series starting with an end in mind. Storytelling in SaaS products looks similar to an ongoing TV series narrative.

  1. Short term cycles (30-90 days) with clear story arcs + roadmaps, relative timeframes (“mid-season”), clear progression across time frame, high conviction of content in release.

  2. Episodic themes (“In the last few seasons we started to introduce [X], today we’re taking the next step with [Y].”)

  3. Video led by product managers and company leaders. Trailers, virtual keynotes, sizzle reels similar to TV shows. No longer just a temporary approach for pandemics and Fortune 100’s releasing the latest iPhone.

  4. Anchored on an event, either live streamed or prerecorded.

  5. "Big number" summary of small improvements like "150 quality of life upgrades". Segmented into categories of features, with deeper dive on content.

  6. Infographic roadmaps. Bento box designs. Strong sense of future direction with concrete examples.

Descript Seasons

Follows quarterly-ish, numbered seasons. Latest was Season 6, which included an AI product called “Underlord”.

Why they changed the release strategy

Andrew Mason (CEO and founder of Descript) kicked off their first season-based release in 2021, as a way to have more predictable release cycles for customers. Descript Season 1: Release Event (Transcript edited for clarity.)

We're calling this season one, and it's a new experiment in how we're releasing products. Historically, for the last four years of our existence we just ship stuff the moment that it's ready. We typically release new versions every two weeks or so. And now that the product is becoming more mature and we have a lot of users who are using it for many many hours a day, [this release schedule] started to feel a little bit too unpredictable.”

“[By releasing in seasons] it's easier for you to see in one fell swoop all the cool new stuff that we're working on. It's also easier for us to just update the help docs and tutorial videos four times a year instead of every couple of weeks.”

Bundling the largest releases in quarterly events helps customers absorb the changes. You can see continuous releases on biweekly release notes regardless. For example, quality of life improvements made to transcriptions a few weeks before their Season 6 announcements. You can even see Underlord, the flagship feature of Season 6, visible in the screenshot for toggling on Labs features before it was officially released.

The types of changes you see in between major season releases seem to be quality of life or targeted improvements for Enterprise audiences.

Shopify Editions

Editions are quarterly releases which bundle updates from across the Shopify platform. Each edition has themes like "Foundations", "Unified", and "Built to Last" which informs the overall product narrative.

When introducing the latest Shopify edition for Summer 2024, the first 30 seconds of the presentation put this release in context of the past few editions.

Theme: Big releases, batched to include hundreds of updates across the platform. Emphasizes value of this season's release.

AirBnB Seasonal Releases

AirBnB has a persistent page for airbnb.com/release which features the most recent season of releases on a single view. For the past couple years they have quarterly updates across the entire platform, anchored by flagship features like Icons, or themes like improving guest confidence in bookings.

This approach is nice because it highlights their focus on specific parts of the product. Think: “This release is all about…”, “You’ll see big improvements to the [Guest/Booking/Host] experience…”

Examples from video games

For more robust examples of seasonal launches, we look to an unlikely candidate — video games. One notable difference with video games seasons is that some of the changes introduced will only exist for the duration of the season. This dynamic allows them to experiment with new game mechanics without an expectation to maintain indefinitely. This leads to deeper experimentation and keeps the experience fresh for players.

Call of Duty

Notice how timeframes like “mid-season” and “start of season” come into play with this schedule. It has a strong parallel to “Now/Next/Later” roadmaps. Infographic roadmaps for roadmap and releases play up the visual strength of games, while being a shareable format. (Source)

Fallout

Roadmap preview by season, with key features teased at the bottom. (Source)

Fortnite

Fortnite was among the first to introduce the concept of seasonal releases starting in 2017. It uses a slightly different model of Chapters and Seasons. Each Season lasts about 10 weeks and Chapters last about a year. The story plays out over the course of the season, similar to the previous examples. (Source)

The benefit of bundling release announcements

Seasonal releases are not just a luxury for only large companies with established products. This style of release makes discovery easier for customers, instead of constantly fighting to stay on top of a stream of endless improvements every time they log into one of their dozens of SaaS apps throughout the workday. Staying on top of change is exhausting.

Your customer's attention is limited, even for products they use daily. In BetterCloud’s 2023 report on SaaS, even medium sized businesses (200-749 employees) use an average of 80 SaaS apps. The reality is that there are so many big releases happening every week – how can someone keep up? The momentum of feature categories like AI come with even faster improvements. At a certain point, people still have to get their work done too.

Wrap Up

If you're the sort of company that ships a lot and needs a clearer way to bundle announcements for your customers, the seasonal model might be worth exploring. It's a mindset shift, but easily adapted to how most teams probably already work with a Tier system for marketing comms. Anything that can keep up with teams that move quickly will help your customers stay up to speed.

Need to tell a better product story?

Learn how Rally makes great storytelling easy for your whole team, sales to customer.