Apple created a monster. Every September, millions expect Tim Cook to change the world. Steve Jobs actually did a few times. But, increasingly, the Apple hype-fests are a marketing—not a product—showcase.
Fanfare is a poor substitute for sustainable results. For product launches, long-term success relies on cornerstones of marketing research and execution, like a strong value proposition and full-funnel campaign.
Articles on product launches often lay out a start-to-finish strategy that applies tactics along a linear path to success. That rarely happens.
The key to product launches is to create a resilient campaign—one that can survive the nonlinear journey. This article details five unexpected lessons from real-world experiences to aid that preparation.
Yet while product launches are a risk, they’re not as risky as you think.
Lies, damned lies, and product launch statistics
As George Castellion and Steve Markham note, a common refrain is that 80% of product launches fail. The real number, they argue, is around 40%.
Why the discrepancy? Many who cite 80% include product ideas that never make it to market. Definitions of failure also vary. In consumer packaged goods, the benchmark for a “highly successful” product launch is no easy feat: $50 million in first-year sales. (Only 3% of products “succeed” based on those terms.)
Perhaps the 80% figure endures because it rings true for marketers. There’s immense pressure to get a product launch right. But, ultimately, product launches are merely one event in one phase of the product lifecycle.
Product launches are one phase in the product lifecycle
A successful product launch doesn’t require new marketing skills. Successful product launch campaigns have a strong value proposition, multi-channel distribution, supporting content, and other trappings common to every marketing campaign.
However, the product launch often earns added scrutiny. It’s a transition point between the Introduction and Growth phases. The Introduction phase is rarely profitable, and product launches are expected to push products up a steep Growth curve—and into the black.
The process starts before your product exists, which brings us to the first of five unexpected lessons from real-world product launches.
1. You can market a product that doesn’t exist.
Successful demand generation campaigns break down silos between marketing and sales. Successful product launches require similar collaboration between product and marketing teams.
Lucas Weber, who teaches CXL’s course on product marketing, emphasizes that product teams must first pitch the product internally to marketing and sales. Those teams can be persuasive only after they’re bought in.
You can argue, as Noah Kagan does, that activities during the pre-launch stage are the most important:
In case you haven’t noticed the pattern yet, most product launch failures don’t happen during the product launch, but BEFORE the product launch.
It’s much harder to rescue a failed launch than to prepare for its success. So how do you do it?
Write a pre-product press release to hone future messaging. This is a favored tactic of HubSpot and Amazon. “We write a mock press release before we launch a product,” writes Marcus Andrews, one of HubSpot’s product marketers. “The idea is that when you work backwards and start with the press release, it’s easier to put yourself in the customer’s shoes.”
Ian McAllister of Amazon offers greater detail on the process:
The target audience for the press release is the new/updated product’s customers, which can be retail customers or internal users of a tool or technology. Internal press releases are centered around the customer problem, how current solutions (internal or external) fail, and how the new product will blow away existing solutions.
If the benefits listed don’t sound very interesting or exciting to customers, then perhaps they’re not (and shouldn’t be built). Instead, the product manager should keep iterating on the press release until they’ve come up with benefits that actually sound like benefits. Iterating on a press release is a lot less expensive than iterating on the product itself (and quicker!).
Amazon’s Chief Technology Officer, Werner Vogels, summarizes the purpose of the press release: “Writing a press release up front clarifies how the world will see the product – not just how we think about it internally.”
Vogels expands on the potential of pre-product documentation:
1. Write a Frequently Asked Questions document. Here’s where we add meat to the skeleton provided by the press release. It includes questions that came up when we wrote the press release. You would include questions that other folks asked when you shared the press release and you include questions that define what the product is good for. You put yourself in the shoes of someone using the product and consider all the questions you would have.
2. Define the customer experience. Describe in precise detail the customer experience for the different things a customer might do with the product. For products with a user interface, we would build
mock upsof each screen that the customer uses. For web services, we write use cases, including code snippets, which describe ways you can imagine people using the product. The goal here is to tell stories of how a customer is solving their problems using the product.
3. Write the User Manual. The user manual is what a customer will use to really find out about what the product is and how they will use it. The user manual typically has three sections, concepts, how-to, and reference, which between them tell the customer everything they need to know to use the product. For products with more than one kind of user, we write more than one user manual.
Among other benefits, that initial work helps create a succinct, powerful value proposition. Nichole Elizabeth DeMeré, a B2B SaaS consultant, lamented that
startups want to launch their products without at least trying to language-market fit. Their value proposition is vague, their supporting language is vague. Their ideal customers won’t know right away that their solution will solve their problem.
I see this happen far too often when people submit products to me for review to post on Product Hunt. I go to their website, and their value proposition does not convey their product’s value. It’s generic, or vague, or not there at all.
There’s nothing that tells potential customers, at a glance, why they should be interested in the product or how it helps them solve their pain points.
Showcase behind-the-scenes work. Product launches often build expectations. Great product launches manage those expectations; failed ones let them run wild.
As screenwriting master coach Robert McKee explains, there’s a key difference between mystery and suspense:
- “In Mystery the audience knows less than the characters.”
- “In Suspense the audience and characters know the same information.”
Great product launches build suspense, not mystery. Suspense piques potential customers’ interest while also managing expectations.
Mahabis Slippers are a perfect example. Leading up to their product launch, they highlighted production images and videos of not-yet-available products on Instagram. The product teasers built but also limited expectations. A new product was coming, not a whole product line.
Andrew Macarthy wrote about social media use during the Mahabis launch. He notes that the behind-the-scenes content (of products and marketing collateral) connect the brand with consumers. Another plus: It costs almost nothing to produce.
That success contrasts with Pete McPherson’s experience. McPherson, who runs blogging courses, promised a course that “would challenge [participants] to take uncomfortable steps to ‘grow their blog.’” What were those steps? And would “growth” entail? There were dozens of possible interpretations and, as a result, a guarantee that some expectations would go unmet.
2. Product Hunt and Kickstarter darlings are pre-planned, not miraculous.
Brendan Sterne, who unearthed the above articles on Amazon’s process, notes that Amazon differs from the model advocated in Lean Startup, which “aims to put a concrete prototype in front of consumers to validate the product.”
The classic problem of not validating a product, David Skok explains, is that
Most products are built by engineers and product people, and they are often uncomfortable cold calling customers to get meetings for early feedback. The net result is that later, when they do start cold calling, they find out that what they are building doesn’t fit a need, or doesn’t have the right features to start selling immediately.
For a product launch, the need for validation extends beyond the product. It also includes the need to validate the product positioning and product launch campaign, too. Validation can take many forms—and doesn’t require full prototypes or expensive focus groups.
“You can conduct quick usability tests with internal experts and customers on prototyped marketing content: emails, landing pages, ads, etc.,” notes CXL’s Alexa Hubley, who has worked on several product launches. “It helps catch early positioning problems and draw connections between copy and desired actions.”
Validation, in turn, can pre-plan launch success, rather than leaving it to chance.
Test launch tiny products. Hugo Woodhead is the founder of Pilcro, which sells brand management software. Before their launch in 2018, Woodhead faced a challenge. He needed to test which were ideal for the pending launch.
His solution? Build and launch small, complementary products. The SaaS test balloons helped gauge the potential traction on social media and other channels. What earned likes and shares? What won upvotes?
They also got real experience pushing products out through platforms like Product Hunt. “You haven’t filled out a form until you’ve actually done it,” Woodhead noted.
Additionally, he explained:
When you launch a product on Product Hunt, you don’t automatically go on to the featured front page. We put [a test product] up, assuming that if it got votes, it would get to the top five and a lot of traffic, but you don’t automatically get that.
So we actually got in touch with them through an Intercom widget, asking a simple question of how do we get on the homepage. The response was, “Well, we look at each product individually and see what it’s like.”
If you really want to get on the front page, you have to build up a small relationship first. When we did our real launch a month or two later and put it on the site, we asked in the chat if they wanted to look at our launch, and then they put it on the front page.
Test products validated their concept. Promotion of those products validated their messaging. And they got hands-on experience of the process.
Securing pre-orders is another way to validate your product and ensure a strong start.
Seed your launch campaign with advance sales. KPOP Foods was the outgrowth of an MBA thesis. Kim and his co-founder, Theo Lee, did the formal market research—including a thorough investigation of Kickstarter. But they also knew the value of generating pre-orders to validate their product and give it a lift at the time of launch.
“When we launched on Kickstarter,” Kim explained, “we hadn’t left much to chance.” To hit the $10,000 goal, they estimated an average order value of $25, then worked backward to calculate the number of pre-commitments they needed (400). They then “dialed for dollars” to secure 100 commitments beyond the estimated need.
Rather than hoping for a Kickstarter miracle, they ensured early success, which also boosted their visibility on Kickstarter. The initial 12,000 followers generated during that campaign have since grown to an email list of 20,000.
The experience parallels Hubley’s work on a product launch at Help Scout:
For a campaign to launch Help Scout’s new live chat tool, Beacon, we seeded the launch with teaser content and asked prospects to sign up to be the first to hear when it went live. As the list grew, it ended up being one of our best drivers of qualified sales leads because we could clearly see they had an interest in our product.
While those acquisition efforts worked well, not all do.
3. Cheap acquisition is (too) cheap.
Aspirations for a “big” product launch are a casualty of Apple-like events. Growth does require large-scale acquisition, but a product launch may not be the best time to do it.
As KPOP Foods grew, Kim looked for ways to accelerate growth. The natural temptation was to expand that audience through paid campaigns on Google and Facebook during product launches. “We thought we could gather more emails or get more leads for cheap on social media,” Kim told me.
But cheap acquisition meant cheap leads. “That can be good for normal business activities,” Kim noted, “but I wouldn’t focus your effort on trying to get new customers to try a new product. It’s not efficient.”
Instead, KPOP Foods has focused on incremental growth of a loyal customer base. As Kim learned, segmentation can tailor marketing messages for small, loyal communities within a larger customer base.
For a given product launch, Kim explained, about one-quarter of his audience will account for 70–75% of launch sales. Segmentation allows Kim to market to likely buyers more aggressively while focusing on brand-based content for others:
A lot of businesses think “I don’t want to inundate customers with emails.” But if you’re providing value with humor, education, and segment your customers to see who wants a lot of emails and who doesn’t, it’s not an issue [. . .] Some people don’t like emails, some will respond to LinkedIn or Facebook.
Acquisition, in Kim’s experience, scales efficiently only if:
- You have the segmentation to keep pace.
- You don’t rely on new leads to buy a new product immediately.
One benefit of more people in the funnel: added feedback.
4. The need for feedback can guide a launch strategy.
When is a product ready for launch? The question returns to the paradox of validation: You can’t get real feedback until customers buy (or don’t buy) your product, but you can’t launch your product confidently until you’ve gotten enough feedback.
No matter how much feedback you have at launch, you can adjust your messaging and strategy quickly based on consumer responses.
Translate feedback into messaging. We wrote recently about using social media for market research. With product launches, encouraging users to share feedback can help validate or adjust early marketing messages.
Mahabis requests images from customers on social media, then “re-grams” them for the company’s Instagram account (while crediting the source). The effort builds brand connections but also aligns new product messaging with consumer use. As their marketing team explained to Macarthy:
In general our content is created in two ways, either planned based on our brand activity or ad-hoc and based on how people are engaging with us. This allows us to be both pro-active and reactive.
Adjust your go-to-market strategy based on feedback needs. When Pilcro first launched, they offered a free trial and a paid version. That initial go-to-market strategy helped answer the first burning question: Would people pay for the product?
The answer was “Yes,” but getting that answer limited their ability to answer other important questions:
- Which features are most important?
- Which aspects of the UX are confusing?
To answer those questions, Pilcro needed more users. Woodhead’s team rolled out a freemium model, which brought in a flood of new users to help them learn more about their product.
5. Big success can be terrible for your data (and maybe your product, too).
“Unless you have the most viral, sticky product ever,” Woodhead noted, “there’s a bit of ‘coming over the hill’ with analytics, and you hope for a soft landing. It’s difficult to identify launch noise versus value created.”
For data-driven marketers, that’s a challenge: Product launches are a big investment. The “noise” surrounding a product launch, however, can make it a blind one. What impact did major placements have on click-through rates? How representative are Product Hunt users who signed up for your SaaS trial?
Woodhead and his team, “try and hit a sweet spot of putting enough budget toward [the launch] that you can get statistically significant data, but not so much that you’re throwing money into something that you don’t know.”
For Pilcro, that’s meant trying to increase traffic “10 fold not 100 fold”:
If you go from zero to Product Hunt in one week, you can end up with a whole lot of noise without being able to see what’s going on underneath. Depending on the channel, delay until you’re ready for that channel.
We probably could’ve delayed Product Hunt. Exhaust the channels that are more repeatable, 5–10x. When you’re ready for the big bazooka, then go for that.
Big launch success can hurt growth in other ways, too. Pekka Paavonpera, a co-founder of VPR Media & Marketing, shared a cautionary tale:
The client wanted the launch to happen as fast as possible [. . .] as he had overspent his budget developing the service. There were also indications that some of his “competitors,” whose members he was hoping to lure to his site, had learned about the aspects of his service that made it unique and were about to offer the same.
He ensured us everything was ready to fire and that he could meet any demand generated. The media launch was very successful—in fact too successful. We obtained almost simultaneous coverage locally, nationally, and internationally, but unfortunately, the client had not been as prepared as he had led us to believe. His computer network crashed from so much demand from people attempting to sign up.
Although the system was restored with 48 hours, it was too late. He had lost forever what we estimated to be several thousand potential members because very few people would try several times to sign on to an online service they could not access.
Just a short time later his competitors, who already were successful and established, were offering their clients what he had hoped to. Our client tried to compete but that initial loss of potential members was too much to recover from, and after a few months he closed down the service.
Keeping up with physical demand is just as difficult as managing digital demand. American Biophysics debuted the Mosquito Magnet in 2000, at the height of the West Nile Virus scare.
A spike in sales forced a hasty expansion of production from the U.S.-based company to a Chinese facility. The new version of the product failed to work as intended. Customers got angry, and the company pulled the product.
American Biophysics, which had $70 million in annual revenue, was later sold to Woodstream for just $6 million. Woodstream still sells Mosquito Magnet profitably.
There are two high-risk approaches to a product launch:
- Skip the prep. Trust your instincts. Pray for a miracle.
- Pour your heart and soul into advance research and launch-day execution. Hope that the burst in sales sustains you for years—without destroying your company in the process.
A smarter effort puts in the work put also establishes a ceiling. Doing so maximizes the positive impact of the product launch without wiping out your data, crashing your servers, or compromising on product quality.
It’s the overarching takeaway of the five lessons shared in this article:
- You can market a product that doesn’t exist.
- Early launch success is pre-planned, not miraculous.
- Cheap acquisition is (too) cheap.
- The need for feedback can guide a launch strategy.
- Big success is terrible for your data (and maybe your product, too).
The Growth and Maturity phases of a successful product last a long time—and generate most profits. To thrive in those phases, you’ll need every data-driven insight you can get from your next launch.