A Startup Guide to Product Launches: Generate the Hype Your Product Deserves Kiersten Gaffney
Kiersten Gaffney has spent the last 20+ years generating revenue for B2B early-stage startups and public companies. She currently works with early-stage startups that need an extra hand with marketing strategy, growth, and execution. Previously, she held VP Marketing positions at companies like productboard, Buoyant, and Mesosphere.
In this post, Kiersten outlines an easy no fluff guide to launching your product to ensure it receives the attention it deserves, even with limited team resources.
Before you get started, always start with your objectives so that you can build a clear roadmap. You want your first set of goals to be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Timely), examples could be X free trial sign-ups, X paying customers, and X number of customers using a specific feature within 30 days post-launch. Don’t spend time on a strategy if it won’t lead to your goal.
Positioning and Messaging
You’ve done hours of customer research, you have feedback from the beta launch, you understand your ideal customer profile (ICP) pain points, and you know why your ICP would want, need, and decide to buy your product. Perfecting your messaging is where most companies struggle, follow this how-to guide created by Scott Schwarzhoff, former VP Product Marketing at Okta for a run-down of the process and excellent examples.
If you start with launch and distribution strategies before positioning and messaging alignment, you will end up confusing your total addressable market (TAM) and your team members. The executive team and product leader must train everyone from product, marketing, and sales and should extend through your entire company, including engineering, customer support and success, to even recruiting, on how the new product or feature works — employee knowledge equals business growth.
Pick a Launch Date
Timing is everything, but how do you decide what date to launch? Tie your launch date with an upcoming fund announcement, your first community conference, ecosystem partner product launch, ecosystem user conference, or news relevant industry trend.
Commit to your launch date. Partners, influencers, press, analysts, and your team will work asynchronously towards this date. If a feature isn’t quite ready, agree to either remove it from the launch and release it in the next feature release cycle or be comfortable knowing you will get to it immediately after launch.
Draft a 3 month work back plan. Start with having the founder assign either the product lead or marketing lead as launch project manager. The project manager should schedule weekly meetings with all arms involved until 2 weeks before the launch, at which point meetings should be every other day.
Test the End-to-End Experience
The customer journey doesn’t start or end in the product. Think of the experience holistically, beginning with the landing page on your website, chatbots in your product, all the way to post-adoption nurturing campaigns.
“How To” Documentation
Like quality code, good documentation is difficult and time-consuming to write, but necessary, especially for any self-service SaaS offering. Documentation should go deep into the product and guide you through every feature, every platform, every best practice, and every use case but be comprehensive and easy to digest at the same time.
Include images with captions and mini videos, and make sure your code is formatted well with the rest of your documentation because it’ll provide an impression of what to expect in the product. Don’t forget to update your docs as new features are released. O’Reilly Media published an easy to follow best practice guide on the eight rules to creating good documentation to learn more.
Chatbots can help direct visitors to a help desk page or a feature tutorial and offer personalized help. Even if your product is the most intuitive SaaS app, I still recommend you build an in-app chatbot that can automate some of the onboarding and adoption work. Anticipating your customer’s pain points and use cases not only signals that you’ve done your user research, it also helps them achieve quicker Time to Value.
You can also use this channel to promote upcoming events, webinars, and blog posts, leverage it for instant product feedback, and answer questions. Asana, Airtable, Twilio, Hootsuite, Docusign, and Wealthfront are great examples of a beautiful in-app UX experience.
Don’t be overwhelmed; check off one item at a time. If you don’t have three months to plan and are on a tighter timeline, focus on the big-ticket items such as the announcement blog, the documentation, and the distribution strategy.
Rolling thunder begins after you have beta users, beta feedback, and a roadmap of the last remaining items you need to build before the big announcement. It’s a chance for you to reach out to your marketable database and network and begin to create some buzz and hype around your brand and what’s to come without giving away the launch details.
A Post on Your View of the World
One month before the launch, share your opinion on the world’s current state and where the market is headed in a blog post. Share through the business Twitter and LinkedIn accounts and request the CEO/founder and team to RT and Like. This opinion piece is a chance for you to:
- Prime your network with where the market is today
- Review the existing solutions that don’t meet market needs
- Share where the market is going
- Expose the new market problems
- Tease out what you will create to get the job done
Evan Weaver, founder of FaunaDB did a nice job setting the stage for the launch of FaunaDB in this teaser post before GA. It’s not about product features, it’s a thought leadership post that sets the landscape for what’s to come. Don’t skip this step. This post doesn’t just serve to tease the launch, you can also repurpose it later in assets like sales decks.
Ten days out, send a teaser email that doesn’t reveal details about the launch to your marketable database. Grab the recipients’ attention and provide them with something of value in return, such as a free personalized assessment through a survey. The prospect will get helpful answers to questions they may have through the personalized assessment, and you’ll learn if the prospect could be a high-quality candidate for the upcoming product release.
Don’t underestimate how much needs to get done in 3 months and don’t let the launch date slide. You have to commit to the date or you’ll appear unreliable and unorganized to your team, partners, media, analysts, and influencers. Give the same amount of time, energy, and attention to your launch as you would your product, because your product deserves it.
Social proof is far more compelling than any sales or marketing effort. The earlier you can collect testimonial quotes, case studies, and online reviews from customer and industry influencers, the better. These early adopters will prove the product is ready for prime time from a functional and technical standpoint, as well as generate material for promotions.
This feedback will also give you insight into what might be required to improve implementation, training, user onboarding, and customer activation. Rope in your champions early and get them involved in the pre and post-launch process to amplify your efforts.
Reveal Video and Demo
Your blog, social, email, and other promotion channels will lead to a live product reveal, demo, and webinar. Harness.io did a great job with their product reveal when they launched Continuous Efficiency. Your reveal video will be a video story of your world view post and at the end you will reveal the product with a demo and an opportunity to engage with someone live or sign up for a more detailed product webinar.
The announcement blog should educate your readers about the Why of your product. You’ll want to explain the world’s current state within your Total Addressable Market (TAM), why your product, why buy it now, how it works, and testimonials. Address questions, concerns, and share how your product has been used in beta and in-house by your team.
It’s common to focus on product features and not how the features will benefit the users. Don’t do this. Users don’t care about features. They care about how your product makes their lives easier.
Remember what your objectives are and create Call to Actions that will drive those efforts e.g. “We’re offering a free 14 day trial. Sign up for our free on-boarding session this Wednesday.”
Press releases are templatized, lack personality, and were originally designed to help you reach a broader net of reporters that might be interested in writing your story. Today, large enterprises write press releases as a formality.
As an early-stage B2B startup, you are most likely in a niche market, you know the journalists that write in your ecosystem, you have a database and some social followers and if clever you can leverage all the other available channels in today’s post-gatekeeper era.
The only advantage of a press release for an early stage startup is a backlink for SEO, but it’s not worth the time or money when you can create a well articulated blog full of personality that will organically get picked up by your partners, media, analysts, and influencers. If you have the resources and feel compelled to write a press release, use this ultimate startup guide to writing a press release.
Announcement email to database
Email is still the most effective form of communication when sent to an audience already familiar with you. Use the product launch email to re-engage with prospects, remind them of your product’s value, and reiterate your position as the expert solution that will make their (and their bosses) lives easier.
If you’ve done some form of rolling thunder, the announcement email shouldn’t be the first time the database gets wind of your product. Use this opportunity to build a sense of exclusivity and customer loyalty by thanking them for being beta users and offering feedback, or share some of the statistics from the personalized assessments.
Graphics are often an afterthought but take the time to develop these and make them meaningful and engaging. Below is a non exhaustive list:
- Blog thumbnail and blog banner graphic
- Email signatures, header and footer template
- Demo and webinar landing page graphics
- Google search and display ad graphics
- Social media banners, cards and gifs
Post Launch Nurturing
The launch is just the beginning of the customer journey, and all teams in your org play a role in delivering customer success. Continue to build awareness and adoption through chatbots, drip campaigns, Slack DMs, and even an old fashion phone call.
Your nurture streams should provide the new customer with best practice tips for features, case studies from a beta user, how-to documentation, an invitation to your next live demo+Q&A hour, or introductions to your customer success lead. Pretend you’re the new customer and think through all the touchpoints that would help you and work backward on implementation.
If you don’t have a PR firm lined up, create a highly targeted list of journalists you would like to write about the announcement. You will need to begin reaching out to them two weeks in advance and continue to follow up with them until you receive a response. If you don’t have access to their email and can’t find it through LinkedIn or Twitter, I recommend asking your investors or board members for either the email or an introduction.
These journalists receive hundreds of pitches daily. The best way to approach the journalists is with an email from you, if you’re the founder, explaining why buy, why buy now, and why buy your product. These days there’s a lot of noise and funding announcement fatigue, so the better understanding you have of the market and the more compelling your product story, the higher chance you’ll have of getting noticed. Let the journalists know your embargo date/time and that you trust they will keep the news under wraps until the launch.
Having a CRM is critical and will become your most important asset. Don’t forget to use it often, or the data will get old. If you haven’t touched the data in a while, expect some unsubscribes, which is ok. You only want people in there that want to be there. Purchasing lists are a waste of money, it’s best to be patient and build your database through high-quality marketing and sales efforts.
Google Search, Display, and Retargeting
Paid advertising is a great way to learn fast and experiment with keywords, messaging, and website conversions. Promote your trial, free version, or a top of funnel training course. Set aside some budget for google keyword search, so you can learn more about what keywords people are searching for that might engage a prospect.
If your ICP is a developer or anyone in the IT field, you have probably heard they won’t click on an ad. That is true and not true. Believe it or not, they do click on the ads, but when they don’t, you’ll begin to see your “direct” channel traffic spike and you’ll know it’s from your Google advertising efforts.
Twitter and LinkedIn are the two most used and proven channels for B2B SaaS tech companies. Facebook and Instagram are great for consumer tech and can be leveraged for B2B brand awareness and team culture, but have low ROI for lead generation.
Think of Twitter and LinkedIn as a two-way communication channel with your followers. Encourage your followers to engage with you, and share and like your news. The objective of these channels is to gain followers: the more followers, the wider your reach and impact. Test out sponsored content with a set budget to see if it works for your product and request the team to engage with the posts.
When working with partners in your ecosystem, consider n1) how will the launch affect any existing integrations, and 2) how can we co-promote the launch to expand our total addressable reach? Much like involving your champions, partner involvement not only increases your impact, it also gives you legitimacy in the space.
Host a pre-launch planning session to ensure your partners understand how your product impacts them and what joint GTM activities make sense. Typically partners will contribute to the announcement through posts, email, social, co-hosting demos, contributing documentation, and newsletters to their customers.
Industry Specialists and Influencers
Utilize industry specialists for social proof and to expand your awareness. Take the time to build a list of industry experts within your ecosystem, reach out to them, pitch your launch, share a demo, and invite them to write a blog, join a live panel session, and engage with you on social media. Industry experts always want to be on the latest technology’s front lines, be affiliated with cool tech, and remain an industry expert. By inviting them to participate in your launch, you provide them with what they need, and in return, you are casting your net wider and gaining social proof that your product is well worth a try. Don’t skip this opportunity.
Third-party syndication means you publish content on a media news website that attracts a similar audience but is not your website. Some of the syndication websites are great for a thought leadership blog series, and some are great for in-depth technical how-to tutorials. Third-party sites are not designed for a product announcement blog; use the public relations media channel.
To find the best syndication sites ask your team and existing customer base which websites they learn from and where they recommend you publish. Don’t offer to pay to contribute and if you lack writers on your team, ask for contributions from your champions or partner organizations. Leverage this channel as an experiment because not all syndication websites are of high quality. Still, it will provide you with lots of referral links and high-quality traffic when you find one.
Upvote launch pads
When using Product Hunt or Hacker News, you don’t always need to post links to your own site. Participate in existing conversations and find opportunities to demonstrate your domain expertise. Both sites will offer you constructive feedback and ask you questions you haven’t considered before.
Reflection is important, but don’t wait until post launch to consolidate everyone’s reflections. At launch many will have forgotten about the valuable lessons learned. In your weekly team sync, schedule a few minutes to reflect in a Google doc. Post launch, review all the reflections and agree on next steps.
There are many moving parts to a successful product launch, and no launch plan is foolproof. But the absence of a plan will leave you, your team, and your product at a significant disadvantage. It doesn’t matter if what exactly will be released is still in question. You can always hype up features and remove them in the next cycle. Stick to this guide, and you’ll get to your goal(s). The launch is more than just the announcement so give your team enough time pre-launch, during, and post-launch to experiment, tweak, and maximize hype for your product.