What is a product launch?
A product launch is when a company debuts a new or significantly updated product. Launches are often accompanied by fanfare, not just because it’s fun to celebrate, but because new services can’t become successful without promotion. Teams—and especially product marketers—must capitalize on the launch’s newsworthiness to generate awareness and attract the paying customers who make the whole endeavor profitable.
While earning media coverage is easier than it has ever been, earning attention from the right audience is harder. There are more media outlets, publishers, and channels than at any other time in history, which makes the bazaar of public opinion crowded—and customers indifferent. To earn sustained attention and attract new users, teams need a product launch plan and access to lots of data.
Product launch strategy
A product launch plan can help ensure that product launches are successful. That is, that they don’t culminate in a bunch of employees sitting around with party hats and kazoos waiting for a flood of new users that never arrives. Having a documented strategy ensures that the right team members perform the right actions to deliver a clear message.
Launch planning is divided into three phases: Pre-launch, launch, and post-launch. The documented strategy should set out the goals for each stage, explain which activities will happen when, and identify who is responsible for completing each.
At every stage of the launch, teams can use data to make more accurate decisions. For example, if the team behind a social networking site knows that their revenue is correlated with their total number of users, they know to track user growth before, during, and after the launch. And if they know that the last launch attracted 10,000 new users, they know to set the bar higher this time around.
Companies without an existing user base have less data to consult in the pre-launch phase, but it’s all the more reason to implement user analytics early so they can collect user data the moment the product goes live. After any launch is complete, teams should record their results and compare them with their goals to learn and make the next launch even better.
How to launch a product in three phases
Phase 1: Pre-launch
Step 1. Understand your product
The success of a new product launch hinges on the depth of the team’s user insights, without which, product marketers wouldn’t know what to tell prospective customers. Teams should begin by taking the time to fully understand their users and the problem their product solves. For instance, does it help deal-hungry sales teams retire quota? Does it help millennials find love? Does it help foodies discover freegan recipes?
Typically, a product manager owns the customer or user issue that the product solves. Product marketers should embed themselves with the product team and learn everything they can from managers by brainstorming, sitting in on user tests, trialing the product, and using analytics to test the team’s hypotheses against past user data.
Without data, there is only educated guesswork. The best pre-launch data comes from beta testing. If product teams can get the product into the hands of early adopters, it helps them validate their assumptions and allows product marketers to corroborate their user stories. For instance, do people pay for a gaming app for the reasons the company thinks they do? Do the stories the marketing team plans on telling about the product match the reality? Teams should record and document everything they learn, and benchmark the product’s current performance so they have a way to interpret post-launch results.
2. Understand the market
Next, teams need to understand the market in which the product will launch. Product marketers should rely on surveys, focus groups, and research firms for both qualitative and quantitative evidence that demand exists among consumers. This helps them answer questions like:
- What’s the broader narrative in the market?
- How do consumers already feel about the product?
- What are the top channels and tactics for this space?
- How will the product differentiate itself?
- Which customer personas are likely to buy?
- What’s the total addressable market (TAM)?
- What is a suitable price point?
Market research is critical for reality-proofing the launch plan. Teams can inadvertently become an echo chamber for their own ideas and fall victim to groupthink. Coca-Cola famously launched a product nobody wanted—New Coke—due to a lack of market research.
Market research also helps teams develop a unique value proposition. The AI Chatbot service Tomobox, for instance, launched a product to help banks attract Millennial customers. Through research, the Tomobox team found that while banks did want more Millennial members, they were exhausted from other vendors insisting that banks “had a Millennial problem.” Tomobox adjusted its story to talk about customer acquisition in a way that was refreshing and positive, and its launch was well-received.
3. Write a launch strategy document
The act of writing the launch strategy down can help teams think through the plan more deeply. By having to convey the plan in terms that are simple enough for even a loosely affiliated partner to understand, they’re forced to clarify their ideas. As the aphorism goes, if teams can’t explain their launch plan to a five-year-old, they probably don’t understand it well enough themselves.
A strategy document should include:
- A purpose statement which explains why the company is launching the product
- Product messaging with guidelines for what to say and what not to say
- A timeline
- A strategy outline
- Goals and sub-goals
- Clear instructions for each team involved
- Templates for talking about the launch
- A press kit
The first strategy doc should be a rough draft. Based on what marketers learn throughout the pre-launch process, they’ll make revisions.
Teams should set ambitious goals, but that’s difficult to do without data. The more access to information they have via a user analytics platform and beta testers, the more accurately the team will be able to define their goals and expectations.
5. Write a mock press release
Amazon’s product marketing team famously writes a mock press release early on in the pre-launch process as an exercise. It helps the team focus its thinking. Wherever the authors have trouble explaining the purpose of a feature, benefit, or launch tactic, they know they need to conduct more research.
Here’s an example press release from a Mixpanel product launch.
6. Build your product messaging
Good product messaging is persuasive, simple, and unique. That means it should convey a solution to a prominent user need, be targeted to a single persona, and be simple enough to be conveyed in a single sentence.
Product messaging should include:
- A tagline (3-10 words)
- A description of the problem the product solves (10-20 words)
- A list of core features
- A value proposition
- (Optional) Testimonials and social proof
Here’s an example of product messaging from the prototyping tool InVision, which launched a product called Studio:
- Tagline: The world’s most powerful screen design tool
- Problem statement: Design, prototype, and animate—all in one place
- Core features: Lightning fast screen design, responsive design, and rapid prototyping.
- Value proposition: It’s easy to turn ideas into powerful design
- Social proof: InVision drives design at the world’s best companies (with logos for Stripe, Airbnb, Amazon, Slack, and more)
7. Validate the messaging with potential customers
Marketers should test their launch messaging with potential customers. It’s very important that they listen, not talk, during these sessions. The launch messaging should speak for itself and if potential customers get the wrong idea, for instance, if they think the product is for rocket scientists when its actually for non-technical users, that’s valuable feedback. Marketers must resist the urge to justify and explain their thinking. Instead, they need to revise their messaging until new potential customers get it instantly. Upon launch, it will have to speak for itself.
8. Revise the strategy document and plan
After user validation, marketers can amend their strategy document to strengthen it with the new, improved, and clarified messaging. They can identify the metrics they want to track and set goals for each. For example, a personal finance app might set a goal for net new users, a media site might set a goal for visits, and an enterprise software might set a goal for new leads.
Once the launch date is fixed, the team can work backward and finalize the timeline, and then publish their strategy document internally. It’s important to get the company’s attention. Product marketing teams they should let their company know they’re going to share the document, share it, remind them that they shared it, and then remind them that they reminded them. If it’s a major product launch, they should schedule an all-hands meeting to get in front of the entire company to make sure everyone knows the product’s purpose, goals, and the launch strategy.
9. Create content to support the launch
Marketers should create all the assets like articles, FAQs, social posts, infographics, webinar scripts, speeches, and handouts ahead of time. Once the product launches, there will be too much going on to create content.
Luckily, everything that went into preparing the strategy doc is invaluable material for great content. Based on what users like or don’t like, the narrative in the market, and the questions new users typically have, teams can create assets that help move prospective buyers through their journey to adoption.
A final note for marketers: Make the content unusual. Do weird things. There are billions of new articles and press releases published every day and unless theirs is different, it isn’t noteworthy and it won’t spread. According to marketing author Seth Godin, “Fitting in is a short-term strategy that gets you nowhere. Standing out is a long-term strategy that takes guts and produces results.”
Phase 2: Launch
Step 10. Choose the right channels
One of the greatest mistakes teams can make in their product launch marketing plan is choosing their launch channels based on convenience, not based on users’ needs. Just because it’s easy to encourage shares on social networks like LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook via “share” buttons doesn’t mean that that’s where the potential customers are.
Data and analytics are key to choosing the right channels. Marketers can look at marketing referral sources to see which channels their most profitable users came from, and target those.
For example, a personal finance app might choose to launch by hosting a Reddit AMA because they get a lot of referrals from r/personalfinance. Others, such as the marketing software Marketo, launch products at their annual summit, where they have a captive audience of qualified buyers.
When choosing channels, marketers should go deep, not wide. It’s far better for the launch to be a smashing success with a small, targeted audience that’s likely to convert into paying users than to earn mass media attention and then, like the Segway, fade into irrelevance.
11. Launch in a rolling fashion
Product launches should occur in a rolling fashion. Planning should begin months in advance and announcements should begin no less than 6-8 weeks out from the launch date. Early in the launch, product marketers should get partners, advocates, and beta testers excited and primed to share about the launch when it occurs. As the launch approaches, they can brief industry analysts on what to expect, and share the press kit. Some marketers release “leaks” to the media–-snippets of what’s to come–-that confer an added aura of intrigue.
13. Product release and launch
The day of the launch should be an exciting event for employees, partners, customers, and prospects. Marketers should post announcement banners on their digital properties, release videos and social media posts, and encourage sharing on the most valuable channels. Other than that, most of the marketing posts, articles, and emails should already be scheduled.
For the product team, the launch marks the moment when they begin to receive their first user data. Many teams consider this the real beginning of their product development cycle. It can be nerve-wracking to watch as users discover bugs and lodge complaints, and teams typically keep support and development staff on high alert to address roadblocks to user adoption.
The dashboard software Statsbot, for instance, noticed in its analytics that its user engagement wasn’t growing as expected after its product launch. Looking into the data, the team saw that only a few members at each company were using its dashboard because many people found it difficult to log in. Statbot’s development team quickly added a feature that allowed users to share dashboards via a simple link and fixed the issue in real time.
Phase 3: Post-launch
14. Keep up the momentum
In truth, a launched product is only halfway there. The initial excitement can burn off quickly, so marketers should ensure that news and media coverage are released in waves. For example, keeping the announcement of a new feature, a change in pricing, or a newsworthy customer story in their pocket until the buzz dies down.
“Oftentimes, marketers are working so hard on the launch that they don’t think about what happens after,” said Bonnie Rothman, founder of Company B, a communications firm that helps brands tell stories. “It’s important to think beyond the launch and ask yourself, what’s the next story we can tell? How can we amplify our earned media to earn even more media and further our strategic business goals?”
There’s no telling how the broader market will receive the product launch until it’s out there. Users often surface bugs or request features for use cases that nobody in the product development or pre-launch process anticipated. Product and marketing teams should be ready for these, and ready to pivot the launch messaging if it needs to change. Above all, teams should collect and analyze the user data and turn their focus to customer retention.
16. Record results for planning and posterity
After the launch period is over, teams should return to the strategy doc and record their campaign results. Were they below or above expectations? Missing a target can mean that marketers have room to improve, but it’s also an indication that they’re setting sufficiently audacious goals. With post-launch data, they can calibrate their plan and prepare for the next, even more audacious launch.