“The word launch means different things to different people. To some, it means the time when the product has completed the technical development phase and is ready to test. To others, it means the kickoff point for the beginning of a new product development cycle. And to still others, it refers to a high-profile advertising event that announces the product to the external world. Most often, however, launch refers to the process of preparing the market for your product and putting all of the vehicles and infrastructure in place to get it to market.”
Catherine Kitcho, High Tech Product Launch
Analyzing the Product Roadmap
When MapQuest.com came online years ago, it was fantastic. In the early days of the Internet boom, it was new and relevant. Some of the major portals and search engines also offered mapping tools, but MapQuest was the biggest and the best. Arguably, one of the biggest benefits of MapQuest was the ability to look at your destination from a street-level perspective – and then zoom out and look at it again from a broader, more regional perspective.
There is an old Chinese proverb, which says, “Climb mountains to see lowlands”. In other words, to get a good view of your product or your product roadmap, you sometimes need to get a different perspective. It can be difficult to look at a product or project objectively when your nose is down in it and you’re working hard toward a new release. The problem is that it can be very difficult to release your product if all you have is a street-level perspective.
Some engineers never see outside of their own development areas – they don’t see all of the steps involved with launching a product from start to finish. By the time the end product has been delivered by marketing to QA, you should have already gathered a substantial amount of information about your customer, the market, your strategy, and your messaging. This late stage in the product release cycle is not the time to start developing the vehicles that will carry your messages into the market.
Gaining a Broader Perspective
Plato once remarked, “the beginning is the most important part of the work.” This message holds true in product development. The first step, of course, is the product concept. But let’s take a step back – take a look at the process with a broader perspective. The first step in the product launch is preparing the market for your product. It is at this initial stage that many of the communication vehicles and materials – or marketing programs - are developed and used to prepare the marketplace.
There are two kinds of marketing programs: External Marketing Programs are directed at customers and the outside world. These generally include print collateral, data sheets, press releases, white papers, brochures, direct mail, web content, tradeshows, seminars, product demos, product packaging, and sales training tools. Internal Marketing Programs, on the other hand, are focused more on educating your sales force, employees, and sometimes your channel partners. These include sales training, sales kits, memos, corporate announcements, presentations, newsletters, data sheets, and advanced press releases, and other tools. Together, these internal and external programs can be quite complex, communicating information about the product being launched and the overall marketing strategy.
You cannot successfully launch a product without addressing both of these areas. How do you expect to sell your product if your customers do not know about it? On the flip side, how do you expect to sell and support your product without educating your employees, customer support staff, sales force, and channels? Without internal and external marketing programs, you will have little hope in selling your product.
Kitcho provided a solid outline for the product launch process, to which I have added some detail:
First, understand (assess) your product and market
- Product definition – It is amazing how many products get off the shop floor without a thorough product definition. It should come as no surprise, then, when a poorly defined product has to undergo major reconstruction when it is discovered that the customer wanted something slightly different. Or something entirely different. By documenting the product definition and getting team and customer feedback, you are more apt to build the right product or solution.
- Strategic objectives – How does the product fit into your product or company objectives? Where does this new version fit into the industry or commodity lifecycle? Understanding the strategic objectives can affect how you build, deploy, or support a product. It also helps you prioritize your time, resources, and financial commitments if you can see the big picture.
- The customer – If you know your customer, it stands to reason that you’ll better understand how to prioritize your product features and support mechanisms. Why would your customer choose your product over your competitors? What specific pain points are you addressing? What specific customer demographic or psychographic areas are you addressing?
- The market – Where does your product or product genre fall in the market cycle? Is it still a fairly new innovation, a follower being spun out to match a competitor’s offering, or is it a cash-cow commodity in decline? How much of the marketplace are you targeting, what are the cyclical buying habits of your core customer group, and where does your company already touch the customer? In an information economy, you cannot enter any market blindly. There is not a single market in which there is not competition. Understanding your market and the competitive forces within it is essential.
- Competition – Who else builds this kind of product, and how do your features compare to theirs? Speaking of comparisons, how do you compare in pricing? In features? In design? In market size? How does your company’s direction and strategies compare to theirs? Are you in head-to-head competition, or do you have very few areas of overlap? You can learn a lot about how to build and manage your products by looking at what others have done and what they are currently doing.
- Channel marketing – Do you have partnerships in place, and are you planning to use them to extend your marketing reach and sales capacity? Few things are more powerful than to find compatible technologies and build relationships – especially if you can build linkages to established products or companies. Build out multiple channels as a way of reaching your customer faster – and by linking your offering to other products or services – you’ll generate better ROI for your customer.
Second, develop your marketing strategy
- Positioning – Where does your product or service fit into the marketplace? How does it fit against your existing or future product plans? You can understand your market and customer – but you must also correctly position your product with that market, and in a way that encourages, compels your customer to buy.
- Messaging – It is one thing to create something that people want, but it is quite another thing to help your customer to recognize value when it comes to parting with their money. Whether it be a commercial or consumer product, messaging is critical to helping people understand the benefits of your product.
- External marketing programs – Since you’ve taken the time to understand your customer, you have probably also figured out your external marketing strategies. Whether it is through trade magazine ads, conventions, commercials, or press releases, you must have some kind of orchestrated stratagem for disseminating your message. This includes public relations and advertising activities.
- Internal marketing programs – As we mentioned above, to support your new product or service, you need to train your team and put the proper support mechanisms in place. Plan out all of the necessary collateral and brochure-ware, for both internal and external distribution.
- The marketing plan – Once you have defined all of the parts, you’ll need to organize your efforts and build a high-level plan for executing your strategy. This will allow you to track your resources, your progress, and your finances as you roll out each step of the plan.
Third, plan and implement your product launch
- The launch team – This is the team responsible for coordinating and implementing all of your product and marketing plans. This might include members of product management and engineering, marketing, operations, and the executive branch.
- The launch plan – Unlike your marketing plan, which outlines all of the high-level internal and external marketing initiatives, the launch plan is much more tactical and low-level. This plan details the day-to-day steps necessary to move your product to delivery, with each of key deliverables and milestones clearly identified.
- Managing the launch – Whether your company follows a detailed launch methodology, or you are simply guiding your team via a Microsoft Project template, it is important to manage the launch process, making sure that issues are captured, alternative solutions are implemented when needed, and progress in gained.
It’s amazing how readily you can address problems when you plan properly. Problems always pop up – a build fails, pushing back an important milestone. A last minute customer enhancement request causes you to re-prioritize certain product features, requiring changes to the architecture and documentation. Packaging delays cause the team to scramble and find alternate vendors before a big trade show. But by understanding every aspect of the product launch, you can better prepare for the unexpected, and build better contingency plans.
The Big Picture
“Probably the most critical ingredient in successful technology development projects is achieving successful participation from all functions, but especially engineering, manufacturing, and marketing. What do we mean by effective participation? It is the kind of participation that results from a sense of ownership in a project; it is not just somebody else’s project for which you are providing some inputs.”
Lowell W. Steele, Managing Technology: The Strategic View
Developing a product launch plan is difficult enough without having all of your different teams wondering how it all fits together. As with the MapQuest example, you need both a ground-level or tactical view of the product launch activities – and a broader, high-level perspective on how the product and timing of the release fit into your company’s overall strategy.