Vendors spend months or even years designing and building an app, but one mistake during product release can put the whole project at risk of failure.
Maybe one team didn’t prioritize the features and lost lots of time and money fixing too many mistakes. Or a developer failed to test the app with real users to verify usage scenarios, hoping his idea was the one idea that didn’t need it. And what’s worse is to build a solution that simply doesn’t have product/market fit.
We talked with people who previously launched startups, products, or rolled out updates to ask about their best practices for successful launches. Keep reading if you want to know their hot tips.
What is a product launch, when does its planning begin, and who participates in planning?Product launch is the introduction of a new product or its upgraded version, making it available for customers to explore, use, and purchase. The day of the launch day is the most important day for everyone working on a product. There are different ways of doing it. Consider a huge live event with plenty of guests and journalists. Or you can do a webinar about a product, schedule posts on social media, write a blog for the company website and your partner media. But an event is just one aspect of the launch as a process.
Planning for a launch“Launch [as an event] is a point in time, and various activities, besides software development itself, like a product goal definition, design, or marketing precede it and are a part of launch . If the product success directly depends on marketing activities, these activities are carried out even before development,” notes Vlad Khilchenko, product manager at AltexSoft. “You start pitching ideas, contacting investors, fueling interest among people, writing promo materials, and, once you’re done with these things, you can proceed to the launch… In this sense, development can be perceived as the preparation for launch.”
So, in practice, product launch is more than a one-time event – it’s a process that’s in line with development, so planning for the launch day should start as soon as you decide that you want to build a product.
“One thing I learned after my first startup nearly failed is that you need to start planning for launch from the beginning of development,” says Devin Miller, patent and trademark lawyer and founder of Miller IP Law. “Too often startups and small businesses believe that if they build a great product, people will be knocking down their door to buy it. While having a great product certainly helps to sell it, you should be selling your product from day one. Get a website and start engaging potential customers, line up B2B deals, and get feedback from potential customers. That way you will already have leads or customers to buy your product or service when you are ready to launch.”
But, there’s no universal framework for planning your launch. Andrew Hatfield, director of product marketing at the Portworx startup, notes that timing and detail of the launch plan largely depend on the product type and the level of effort involved to bring it to market combined with a company’s desired impact: “Once we've decided to develop a new product or deliver a major release, we set a tentative launch window. As product development progresses, we shift gears and start actual launch planning once the product is deemed Beta by product management and engineering. The exception to this, I start preparing for the launch earlier when we're expecting the launch to coincide with a significant industry event, such as a conference.”
Product launch teamNow, various departments or specialists take part in launch preparation. Andrew Hatfield notes that the core group of participants is always led by product marketing with close involvement from product management, engineering, and broader marketing teams, such as demand/growth, design, events, PR, analyst relations, and investor relations. “As we get closer to launch, I also pull in other teams, such as field sales, legal, sales operations, and sales enablement,” explains Hatfield.
With small companies and startups, it’s all hands on deck, according to Devin Miller, “Everyone should be selling, everyone should be preparing for the release.”
NASA employees during the launch of SA-5, a two-stage Saturn I vehicle, in 1964. Source: Apollo Launch ControlTo determine whether the product team is ready for the launch, Andrew holds a Go/No Go launch meeting, during which leadership from each department gives their feedback. “Some divisions are advisory, such as enablement, whereas others are blockers, for example, product, legal, and sales,” adds the expert.
Each of the departments has its own set of scheduled activities – a checklist – it must complete before the launch. For instance, designers must create prototypes, software engineers must build all key features, and QAs test how these features work. And how successfully the employees proceed with finishing their checklists, influences the launch in terms of timing.
A product manager coordinates the work of all teams responsible for the product, driving its launch. He or she also reviews checklists and evaluates whether the solution is ready to go public.
Product launch checklist: What should be ready for the launch?While every team has its own checklist, a product manager is responsible for the whole operation, so he/she has their own final checklist. This helps coordinate efforts among teams, track task dependencies, while having the big picture of how development proceeds. A product launch checklist may include processes and tasks related to the whole product lifecycle, from positioning and messaging to post-launch development and support. Team members that use checklists have little to no chance of missing an assignment while up and running.
Launch plans can be organized by activity, function, or chronology. We will explore a launch checklist by the type of work as some activities can be done in parallel.
Check development milestonesMost software products experience several launches. There’s a pre-alpha launch, alpha launch, or beta launch. Each one is planned ahead in a product roadmap, along with milestones – specific sets of functions that should be ready for each launch type. A product manager ensures that all functions are done and tested, so when the product reaches a milestone, it’s ready to enter the market.
Example of a product roadmap with milestones Source: Roadmunk
Prepare user documentationIf you release software, ensure you have clear and well-structured user documentation to let end-users and system admins learn how to set up and manage the product. User documentation includes tutorials, user and troubleshooting guides, installation, and reference manuals. You can find more info about types of technical documentation and how to write one in our article.
Such resources as how-to videos, FAQs, and technical data sheets (printed and digital) for physical products are also a necessity.
Ensure legal agreements and compliance with regulationsMake sure your legal department has developed a customer-facing legal agreement. The type of agreement depends on the product type and its distribution option. The agreement for software or hardware, for instance, will specify the company and user’s legal responsibilities and the way you’ll provide your technology to a customer. This also includes compliance with such regulations as GDPR.
Describe success metricsThe product team should know how it will be measuring the level of the launch success. Metrics can depend on the product and the goals you set to underpin your efforts. That can be
- the percentage of positive reviews vs negative and neutral ones,
- the actual number of purchases or subscriptions (with a breakdown by subscription types) vs forecast, and
- the influence of added features on the total conversion.
Devin Miller considered the size of an acquisition deal as a success metric for one of the companies he co-founded: “The first product I launched was also one of the most successful. It was a wearable hydration monitor. We were getting all ready to launch and go to the market and then ended up getting acquired by a company wanting to utilize our technology.”
Also, plan which tools you and your peers will use to track and collect these metrics. Google Analytics, Apple Analytics, Mixpanel, IBM Digital Analytics, or Flurry analytics are some of the tools for learning how customers interact with websites and apps.
Plan feedback collectionFeedback signals to what extent your product vision and customer expectations are met and acts as a guiding light on further development. Decide what methods, type of feedback, and channels you will use.
For example, consider ratings and reviews on the App Store and Play Market and review platforms that will depend on your niche (TripAdvisor, Foursquare, Capterra, or CNET), your site, or social media. You can use custom or off-the-shelf sentiment analysis tools or brand mentions tracking solutions.
Asking users to fill in a survey in exchange for bonuses also works.
Select a pricing strategyMake sure the team has agreed on the product pricing structure. Competitor-based and value-based pricing are common options for products purchased with a single payment. Apps and software providers have a variety of pricing models to consider. They may let people use solutions for free, stick to the freemium model and only charge for the product’s upgraded versions, or introduce a one-time payment for access or download. Subscription plans and the pay-as-you-go approach are popular as well.
Finding a pricing balance is crucial. Source: MediumIf you set the price too high, you risk that it will be too pricey for most prospects, like Apple Lisa – a personal computer that was released in 1983 and off the market two years later as only 100,000 units were sold. It then cost $9,995, which is over $25,000 today.
Set up a promotion strategyOutline a promotion strategy and assign employees that will be responsible for it. A promotion strategy entails defining channels where you will promote the product, the messages you will use, and the value you will emphasize. Popular tactics for promoting software solutions are
- Lead generation – drawing the attention of potential customers (leads) with email campaigns, social media contact, through organic searches, paid searches, referrals, or your website.
- Content marketing – building public trust in your brand and drawing leads from organic search with articles, videos, landing pages, podcasts, or infographics about your industry.
- Social media marketing – using ads on social media, posting your content and industry news about to grow your fanbase.
Planning the date for a press release and a launch event are other essential tasks on a promotion to-do list.
Train the sales and customer support teamsThe sales team should know why the product stands out from the rest of the solutions on the market. They should be able to describe its value to various user and buyer personas. Train them on how the product works and what its features are; enable them with conduct demos if needed. Salespeople should also be able to advise customers on a subscription plan based on their budget and requirements if the product has several pricing options.
Supply your customer support representatives with the documentation so they know the product functionality and peculiarities well and can help new users become proficient by answering their questions or linking to additional content. Also, establish a procedure on how to document user complaints and politely respond to critical feedback.
You've launched the product. Now what?Well, the real life journey of a new product has just begun. HubSpot recommends to continue building up the interest in the product among potential customers, engaging with them via optimal touchpoints: “This means nurturing emails, free trials, demos, and more in-depth, product-focused webinars and activities. Build extra creative, like a longer video or social media posts that you can save for after the launch. This will give you fresh assets to share.” If you want to learn how to define options of communication that will smoothly lead a customer to the purchase, read our recent article on the next best action.
As customer support and salespeople are the ones in touch with customers, it’s important to ensure that they’re steeped in product knowledge, adept at answering questions, and emphasizing the product value proposition.
The post-launch phase is also the time for collecting first metrics, user feedback, and planning further product development based on analysis of relevant data. According to Vlad Khilchenko of AltexSoft, the main task for a product manager here is to collect and analyze user feedback and usage analytics to prioritize between building new features that were initially in the user story map and making critical urgent changes that can affect metrics and user behavior.
“The product never stops developing after the launch. What can be good but also bad is that you’re working with real users and real product: Customers can point to some flaw and you must react to it right away.”