“Product marketing means you’re on everyone’s team while being on no one’s team at the same time.”
This sentiment, expressed by a former colleague, can be quite daunting. The subjectivity of the role of product marketing can instill panic but also presents opportunities. This dichotomy between definitions proves why it’s so difficult to explain and execute product marketing.
Our approach to product marketing transcends simply marketing product updates. Instead, we see product marketing as the assurance that there’s infrastructure and understanding in a company.
Developing “infrastructure” and “understanding” has many implications as well. It means having to be extremely organized and being a great stakeholder. And even beyond the communication skills, there are tactical items to consider at every stage of a launch — from pre- to during to post. “Crossing your fingers and hoping things go for best” is probably not a piece of Warren Buffet’s business advice, nor is it a recommended way to launch a product. This lack of anticipation and foresight for problem areas is more ubiquitous than one might think.
There is a classic Harvard Business Review piece that was published a decade ago: “Why Most Product Launches Fail” (with a bonus list of 40 ways to crash a product launch). While the examples they use might be a bit...dated, the lessons still ring true for many product marketing teams.
Assuming none of us are trying to self-sabotage launches – and in the spirit of how Manual Labor likes to roll up our sleeves and get sh*t done (see more about what we do, here) – we decided to reframe that piece and explore how to turn the pitfalls around.
And so, we present: “21 Ways to Make Sure You’re Not Crashing Your Product Launch” (not 40, we know, but these are the most critical!)
While these watch-outs and best practices can be relevant for any degree of product marketer, these tips were particularly designed with B2B companies in mind.
Teams can underestimate the amount of “pre-work” required to launch a product. The pre-launch activities are vital to the success of your launch. Like one of our former favorite clients used to say, “Respect the prep.” Don’t skimp on the research and discovery that will fortify your go-to-market (GTM) strategy.
1. The product or the market lacks research support.
The obvious answer is: do the research. The challenge is being clear who owns which components of that research and how it all comes together. No one party — sales, marketing, product – is solely responsible. It’s just as important to research competitors as it is to hear from the sales team what customers are asking for first-hand.
First, you must recognize the demand you are filling. Does the market want the product? And if so, how are competitors also vying to fill this need?
Defining the scope and objective of the product early on avoids issues of questions and pitfalls of the launch, including disconnect on messaging, no clarity on where the target audience is, and overspending across all channels.
2. Most of the budget was used to create the product; little is left for launching, marketing, and selling it.
Not every launch is going to require the same amount of GTM effort. Therefore, it is essential to define the degree of “launch support” needed for any given release. A helpful way to approach this is by creating a tiering system for launches and a rubric to assess the level associated with each release.
Doing this will help you create standards and a framework for each launch and ultimately help you better back into how much budget should be roughly allocated for each tier. As a team, you can then align on expectations and budget allocations from the onset.
3. The product is interesting but lacks a precise market.
As part of the product development and subsequent launch, teams must be able to answer the following questions:
Who was the product built for?
How does it solve their problems?
How does the messaging and position speak to those audiences and their needs?
Understanding the key buyers and their needs is a necessary exercise. This means not just how you perceive the problem but the true buyer perception – how the buyer views your product and company in relation to that challenge. By starting with the buyer perception and business challenge, you can map your way to the product benefits by segment.
4. The product’s key differentiators and advantages are not easily articulated.
Always start with a messaging document. Developing your messaging framework and positioning early helps anchor all parties touching the launch. Include details on your market segmentation (see above), the key value propositions, features and benefits, the competitive differentiation, and relevant use cases. Any time you can quantify improvements - whether it’s over the competition or the previous iteration of your product - mention it.
Before anything, be sure to define the scope of your launch: is it a competitive play (parity/leapfrog) or new in market? The answer to this will help establish the flow of the remainder.
5. The product defines a new category, so buyers will need considerable education before it can be sold.
Seed the market with relevant content in the run-up to launch and do some of the education prior to your product being available.
Strategize with your marketing team to work this into your plans and develop ways and formats to integrate educational materials into the GTM. This might include videos, blogs, long-form content, or spokespeople getting out there evangelizing the needs and challenges your product will solve in a thought leadership-driven approach.
6. The sales force doesn’t believe in the product or isn’t committed to selling it.
It’s important to understand: does the sales team not believe in the product because they don’t understand the benefit, because they don’t think there’s a market problem being solved, or because they aren’t aligned to the pricing or positioning?
Involve a few key sellers early in the process to capture their perspective on how prospects might react to the product positioning, pricing, and competitive context. Building this partnership with a handful of sales leaders, along with their customer-facing experience, can help fortify your GTM and ensure you are creating the right materials for your teams so they can sell confidently.
7. Sales channels are not educated about the product and thus slow to put it on shelves.
Sellers don’t necessarily want to know the deep tech specs of the product. They want to know the customer pain points, positioning, and storytelling. To help educate, make sure to create a forum to collect seller feedback and align expectations on the enablement tools you’ll be delivering.
You can also schedule bi-weekly team meetings where sellers can ask questions and you can communicate milestones. Plan for training well in advance of launch and find a centralized place to house all the enablement and training material that will be shared.
8. The product lacks objectivity or validation, or is untested by the users
Alpha and beta tests are a great way to get out of your internal silos and gain perspective from people who’ll be using the product. These tests can help refine features and benefits early on, learn more about how your solution is used, sharpen messaging and positioning, and capture validation through use cases and quotes.
Be sure to set the requirements for accepting early partners. Customer advisory boards are a great resource of engaged power users and advocates and should be the first place to recruit these users.
9. The website signup/demo process is unclear.
While sales is out working their relationships, be sure to test the website experience for inbound leads. A few questions to assess the sign-up process for prospects:
Are the product description and benefits easy to understand? Is the call to action clear? Are leads/inquiries being routed through a defined and timely process?
10. Teams are not clear on what success looks like for the launch both day-of and 30-60-90 days out.
Launch plans will quickly deteriorate if you have not set goals and objectives for what you are looking to accomplish. Don’t do product marketing or marketing activities just for the sake of checking a box. Be strategic based on what outcomes you need to deliver and ensure you have the capability to measure those. Establish metrics (goals based on the objectives you set forth) to help align success or areas for improvement.
Successful launches are facilitated by well-prepared teams that are ready to be nimble and responsive to feedback and learnings.
11. The product is launched too hastily and doesn’t work reliably.
Here’s another reason why alphas and betas are helpful. Define the requirements needed to confidently move into general availability (GA) and be sure you have the proper support channels in place to quickly address and fix bugs or issues that arise in the early release stages. Far too often, companies skip these areas and wonder why their product is not selling or gaining adoption. The early work is critical for long-term success and sustainability of a product.
12. The product is poorly timed against key selling/buying seasons.
If your product corresponds to some sort of seasonality, consider the proper timing for your launch. This includes how it might align with industry milestones like CES, the upfronts, or the holiday shopping season, or a potential fiscal/budget year ending in specific verticals. If your launch is poorly timed, you might miss the window when buyers are most receptive to what you’re selling.
13. The product is launched without testimonials to promote its efficacy.
While having an in-depth case study for launch is a pipe dream, going out without any validation leaves you vulnerable. Gather stats and performance highlights from alpha and beta participants. Leverage existing customers for quotes to instill confidence and evangelize on your behalf. Encourage users to leave reviews on software review sites as appropriate. Once in market, submit your product for relevant industry awards to further gain validation.
14. The product has no trained spokesperson to educate the media.
Identify one to two people who will be the designated spokespeople for this launch and arm them with the proper messaging documentation with talking points. This includes both the critical points you want them to hit, and also the potential traps or messages to avoid. And invest in proper media training so spokespeople can talk in sound bites while ensuring they articulate the three most important messages for potential press coverage.
15. Sales and promotions start before the product is truly ready.
Ah, the age-old story of “sales started promoting before the product was ready.” A cross-functional team should align on the timeline for the launch, including the sales and marketing milestones. If pre-selling, ensure teams are trained and equipped with the right guardrails. Far too often, product features are over-promised when sales is not equipped, and then under-deliver when are made generally available to the market.
16. The ad/promotional campaign strategy is weak.
Relying on earned media alone is not going to cut it for major launches. Investing in paid media campaigns will help extend your reach and visibility. Be open to testing formats and channels, and don’t think you need to launch everything at once. Do some A/B testing, get some learnings, and refine and expand from there.
17. The product is not competitively priced.
In the research and testing phases, pressure test your pricing model. Don’t automatically offer promotions and discounts if pricing isn’t resonating. If you find you’re getting pushback, dig into why. It can be easy to dismiss interest by defaulting to price concerns as it can be a clear out, but sometimes pricing is a proxy for other concerns. This is another reason why establishing formal customer councils are critical to a company’s success.
A launch strategy doesn’t end the day a product goes to market. Actually, it’s just the beginning, and the hard work begins. Creating momentum beyond the launch requires focused milestones and measurement and a willingness to assess what worked, what didn’t, and how to evolve to elevate your GTM game.
18. The company spends the entire marketing/advertising budget at launch, so no funds are left.
Launch day has come and gone and you’ve tapped out your promotional budget...now what? Of course, you want to make a big splash on day one but make sure you plan and pace out your promotions to create a drumbeat of messaging and awareness. Building brand awareness takes real, sustained investment.
19. KPIs were not clearly defined so you can’t get a full view of performance.
Remember pitfall #10? Setting goals and KPIs sets you on the right course at launch but measuring impact and outcomes will also help in the post-mortem so you can learn what worked well and what fell flat. These measures will help quantify the impact of your product marketing and marketing efforts, and provide learnings for future launches.
20. It’s already time for another launch so you can’t properly do a post-mortem review.
We mentioned the post-mortem above, and it’s a miss if you deem this exercise not worth it. Don’t speed off to your next launch. Take a beat to assess how your latest launch went – the metrics are important but so is the other more qualitative feedback and anecdotal evidence. A helpful frame is a “start, stop, continue” model to understand what you should do next time and what might be better served if left out.
21. The strategy was not carried through to link the product to existing offerings.
Launches should not be treated as insular. Think beyond the launch and create the narrative for how this product fits into your bigger portfolio and what the cross-sell and upsell journeys look like. This creates a roadmap for the sales team and can drive future content and product marketing initiatives.
Multiple factors can make or break a product launch, and even the best-laid plans can be subject to the disruption of outside forces. Product Marketing has the power to own the process around launches to create a model for repeatable success and minimize the pitfalls that many launches fall victim to. Instead of being the order taker for any one team, Product Marketing can set the tone for how to collaborate and leverage an infrastructure to not just *market* the products but create the strategic framework to drive revenue.