Over the past two years at High Alpha, I’ve been able to take part in launching five brand new companies and brands into the world, and I’ve helped launch, (or re-launch) dozens of new products and features across our portfolio companies.
As I’ve worked on these launches, I’ve seen the impact a successful—and unsuccessful—launch can have on a business and product. Below are five best practices and tips I’ve learned both from High Alpha and others over the years to nail a product launch.
1. Understand Your Goals
As with any good campaign, marketing program, or business objective, it’s a good idea to start with your goal and the underlying drivers. Start with your “why”—why are we launching this product, campaign, company, etc. If you can, take that a step farther and drill down a few layers of “whys” (see Eric Ries’s article, Five Whys, on Taiichi Ohno of Toyota’s invention of this approach).
Start with the simplest, over-arching goals—awareness, engagement, or conversion/acquisition—and work from there. If we’re launching a brand new company, our goal is likely high-level awareness, focusing on PR, impressions, and social activity and mentions. If we’re launching a new product integration, we could be shooting for similar outputs, but the ultimate goal should be more around engagement with existing customers and conversions for customers to implement the new integration.
Make sure you’re setting SMART goals, with an emphasis on setting realistic goals around a launch. Yes, shoot for the stars and dream big, but the reality of TechCrunch or the New York Times covering your startup’s new feature is pretty slim. Instead, focus on realistic goals that will actually move the needle for your company.
2. Define Your Launch Priorities
Closely aligned to setting and understanding your goals, it’s imperative for you to also strategically prioritize announcements—especially for a high-growth SaaS company that’s continually building new products and features.
“When everything you ship presents a marketing opportunity, there’s a tendency to announce everything. Don’t do it. “
— Matt Hodges, Intercom
In Matt Hodges’s, “Prioritizing product announcements in a SaaS world,” he presents a really simple, yet powerful, framework for prioritizing product announcements. I’ve started to use this framework and methodology on our product launches here at High Alpha as well.
The first step is to plot your product launch on the simple framework below. One axis plots the “value” the product provides and the other gauges the “innovation” level of the product—is this a revolutionary new technology or functionality that existing products already provide.
This provides a simple framework for bucketing and prioritizing product launches. After prioritizing, you need to map that prioritization to tactics. Below is an example of how Intercom maps tactics to product launches hierarchies.
3. Learn the Art of Launching the Same Product Multiple Times
In a 2013 GV Startup Lab Workshop, Adam Gross, an early Salesforce & Dropbox employee, shared with the audience:
“One of the most important lessons I learned at Salesforce is how to launch the same product multiple times. Again, it comes down to that ‘Minimum Viable Marketing’ product—what’s the absolute smallest thing that we need to credibly add to make this thing new?”
One of the biggest roles of product marketing is to help develop the core narrative for your company or product and repeat and re-iterate that narrative again and again. A product launch doesn’t have to be a completely brand new product. Instead, learn the art of launching and re-launching a product multiple times. As Adam noted, look at your core product (or product catalogue) and look for the small tweaks you can make that will change the product enough to give you a reason to tell your story again and do a new product launch.
A great example of this is Salesforce’s launch of their mobile app(s) over the years. Salesforce first launched a mobile presence with AppExchange Mobile in 2006 and launched their first iPhone app at the 2008 Apple keynote. Salesforce launched the Chatter Mobile app in 2010 and at Dreamforce 2013, Salesforce launched the Salesforce1 mobile app.
Yes, these are slightly different products, but when Salesforce launched Salesforce1 in 2013, it was essentially just a re-design of the existing Salesforce mobile app. Salesforce was able to tie the launch into their larger development platform narrative, though, and make it their largest product launch during the Dreamforce keynote.
Get as much runway out of a product line that you can. Learn the art of launching the same product multiple times.
4. Tie Your Launch to a Larger Event or Trend
If you can, try to coordinate your product launches around special events, trade shows, or larger industry trends or news—like a major data breach, the announcement of breakthrough technology, the rise of autonomous cars, etc.
For ExactTarget, that pivotal event was our annual Connections conference. Every year, we would announce the biggest product launches of the year there at Connections during our main stage keynote and product keynote. Apple was one of the first to really popularize the keynote event product launch, but you see this now taking place with all the major tech and software companies from Salesforce and Microsoft to Box and DocuSign.
If you aren’t large enough to host your own 5,000-person+ conference, draft off the other major software giants in your space. Launch your new CRM integration at Dreamforce, announce a new partnership with a consumer electronic brand the same week as CES, or hire fake protestors outside a competitor’s conference for your company launch.
It doesn’t have to be a major industry event, either. It could be a customer dinner, user group meeting, or local pitch competition. Launching a brand or product at an event acts a forcing function for your business and helps you throttle all your launch energies and marketing into one specific event, leaving a profound boost on the impact your launch can make.
5. Over-Market Your Product Launch
You don’t want to be the boy that cried wolf, but I think there’s something to be said for over-marketing your product launches. The product launches you actually hear about are the ones that are heavily promoted, well thought-out, and, to a degree, “over-produced”.
With my last point, I’ll dig more into some specific promotional tactics I’d recommend utilizing in your next big product launch to help over-market your launch.
Videos can be an incredibly powerful way to showcase your product, company, and brand. If we have the ability and bandwidth, we like to produce some sort of short video to accompany all of our new company launches or major announcements. The videos below are a couple examples from previous High Alpha launches.
Even if your video is only a short, 15-second product vignette, a video can go a long way in communicating value and showcasing your product in an easy-to-digest way. Intercom is great at this — in almost all of their product updates, they will create a short video displaying the feature. Just take a look at the first few posts in their “Updates” blog—all of them have a video (or three) like the one below embedded in the post.
In addition to being easy to digest and engaging, 4x as many consumers would prefer to watch a video about a product than to read about it (source).
PR & Contributed Articles
Press and media will most likely not care too much about your latest product launch or partnership unless you’re already someone like Slack or Facebook. One way to still garner press interest and coverage around your product launch is to couple the news of your launch with a byline from an executive as thought leadership.
Tie your product announcement into a larger trend in the industry or value proposition outside the physical mechanics of your product functionality and use it as contributed content. Offering a byline article in addition to the news of your product launch is a good way to enhance your PR efforts around your product launch.
Dedicated Landing Pages
This one seems pretty intuitive, but make sure you create dedicated landing pages for your new product or product line. Use your product launch hierarchy to determine whether that’s a dedicated sub-page in the product section of your website, a new section on an existing page, just a blog post, or a dedicated landing page to capture emails and interest in the latest product release. It’s great to have one central location to direct all your promotional items related to the launch as well.
Another major component of any product launch is your customer communication. Again, utilize your product launch hierarchy to determine the gravity of those communications, who receives those communications, and how personalized they are. This could range from an in-app Intercom message, a personal email sent from account managers, a dedicated marketing email, just an inclusion in your next marketing newsletter, or a high-touch direct mail campaign to your top-tier customers.
Whether you’re launching a new, game-changing technology or a new product feature, think critically and strategically about your launch strategy and how this fits into your overarching company drumbeat.