After all that hard work building a product, no one wants to stumble at the finish line. But the big reveal is too often accompanied by chaos and frustration behind the scenes, especially with a complex product launch.
While technical challenges are sometimes to blame, many issues boil down to their complex nature. Moreover, a lack of foresight and planning might exist. The more moving pieces trying to work in harmony, the more opportunities for something to go awry. But with an intentional, comprehensive approach, you can tame even the trickiest product launches.
What adds complexity to a product launch?
No two product launches are the same. Here are some common areas where product launches wade into more complex waters:
Pulling off a successful product launch requires a ton of logistical coordination. For digital products, completed, tested, and documented code must get pushed to production environments at the same time as press releases get issued, reporters and analysts get briefed, new sales materials get distributed, advertisements commence, the website gets updated, and so much more.
Throw in extra hurdles such as aligning the launch with an industry or corporate event, training a remote sales force and customer support organization, or updating pricing in the accounting system…the permutations of what might go wrong increase exponentially. And if your product involves hardware or retail distribution, you’re now talking about new layers of intricacies to consider.
Expecting all of these trains to pull into the same station simultaneously is overwhelming. Yet, it’s pretty basic table stakes for any notable product release. But this level of mandatory synchronicity doesn’t happen by itself. It requires intense planning, communication, coordination, and—more often than not—a bit of last-minute mitigation to deal with the unexpected hiccups and delays every release entails.
Most contributors to the product launch process may already have many other things on their plates. This greatly increases the degree of difficulty in getting everyone to hit their milestones. Let alone hand over their deliverables on time.
But competing priorities aren’t the only issue product launches must contend with; many dependencies create a web of hurry-up-and-wait scenarios across the business. For example, product marketing might know the overall themes of the next release, but they can’t produce sell sheets and web assets without capturing screenshots and videos, which in turn requires finalized designs and coding to be complete.
To orchestrate it all, colleagues across different business units must work in lockstep. Like an assembly line, the next station can’t get to work until the pieces arrive on the conveyor belts.
Product launches don’t happen in a vacuum. They actually require a host of carefully choreographed sequences and handoffs. This requires thinking backwards from the desired end state, identifying each element of the product launch, the prerequisites for each, then their prerequisites, etc.
For example, the sales team wants to hand out a brochure at the industry event where the product is launching. For example, marketing needs to update the website, create ads for social media, and much more—and that’s just marketing!
The devil is in the details… and there are a lot of details to worry about for a product launch.
Making it happen
Now that we’re well versed in how tricky it can be to release a product, it’s time to talk about how to make the process smoother and increase the odds of success of staying on schedule.
You can’t have enough lead time for a product launch, so there’s no time like the present to kick things off. Even when the details are murky, and release dates remain extremely fungible, it’s still worthwhile to begin ASAP.
While it may be too early for timelines and specifics, as soon as the organization agrees to build or update a product, someone should already be contemplating product launch logistics. In these first phases, the emphasis should remain at the strategic level by answering questions including:
- What is the goal of this product launch? Organic growth, boosting revenue, increasing profitability, retaining and engaging the existing customer base, product line extension, attacking a new vertical… there’s a lot to choose from, so it helps to know the objectives upfront.
- Is there a target date… and why? Understanding from the jump if the product launch must be tied to a specific timeline can be key to building momentum and creating urgency when needed. It also helps to know the rationale for that date, so everyone understands there’s a reason the organization is pushing for a specific release window.
Just getting some of these basics nailed down early on can set the stage for a much smoother process, as it provides more opportunity for detailed planning. It gives external-facing teams such as sales and marketing a clearer vision of what the go-to-market messaging might look like.
A master plan
Every product launch requires an all-encompassing plan, including every deliverable, deadline, and resource. Those responsible for the overall product launch process should use this as their primary guide to herding the cats and identifying key risks as the timeline progresses.
While individual contributors may only refer to it occasionally, it also provides context for them to see how their actions and deliverables contribute to the overall effort and how their lack of action might derail things downstream.
Complex launches may benefit from creating smaller “sub-plans” for discrete projects that roll into the master product launch plan.
For example, the launch training plan would include preparing the training materials, identifying who needs to be trained, scheduling the sessions, conducting them, and integrating new release information into the company’s existing onboarding training for different roles. And if the company uses distributors or other channel partners, training those entities would also fall under that umbrella.
These sub-plans will contain more details and specifics, including deliverables, deadlines, and internal responsibilities.
Role definition and accountability
Confusion surrounding who does what and when plagues many projects and complex product launches are no exception. Without clarity, everyone assumes it’s someone else’s job, and if key contributors lack a sense of ownership, they’re unlikely to go the extra mile to clear things up.
Avoiding this requires product launch managers to clearly define who is accountable for each deliverable. With an established owner for every item, who’s on the hook is no longer a question, and by including these names and their deliverables in launch planning documents, everyone else knows who to look for when they’re waiting on something to finish their part of the puzzle.
But accountability is more than just the “stick” everyone can use to punish folks who screw up or run behind schedule. Identified owners might just take a bit more pride in their work because they also know they’ll get some credit for contributing to the cause, so be sure to liberally and publicly praise folks for delivering on time or going above and beyond.
Risk assessment and mitigation
Things will not go according to plan. Sorry, but there’s no sense operating under the assumption that they will. There will be surprises, delays, interruptions, and many other unanticipated events impacting the contents, timing, and overall success of each release.
Therefore, instead of sticking your head in the sand and assuming everything will run like clockwork, get proactive about it. Every deliverable in the product launch plan has a risk of being late or not happening, so why act otherwise?
Instead, after mapping out everything that’s supposed to happen, evaluate each item with the team to try and identify which deliverables have the most potential risk. Next, contemplate which items would have the biggest downstream impact if they’re late or never happen.
With this ranking complete, the team can now think about how they can minimize the riskiest items and those that represent the biggest overall threats to product launch success. Can things be done in advance? Would additional resources help? Do we need other suppliers? Could more frequent status updates or meetings on those topics provide additional visibility so reinforcements can be marshaled if it comes to that? And what happens if we don’t launch with a tutorial video or an updated user manual?
Once this evaluation is complete, don’t hide it away but rather socialize it widely. Being transparent about negative possibilities alerts everyone to the importance of execution and communication, plus it helps in the CYA department if things truly go wrong.
Product launches tap into resources across the organization. Unfortunately, not everyone’s boss will be thrilled when their resources get pulled off one of their priority projects.
Getting the executive team to support the product launch plan and keeping them updated creates momentum from the top down. This puts pressure on individual department heads to ensure their team doesn’t drop the ball on their high-visibility tasks related to the launch and hopefully builds enthusiasm for their involvement.
Every complex product launch takes a ton of time, effort, and ingenuity. However, narrowing things down can make things a little easier on everyone. Your product is not for everyone, so don’t try and launch it for everyone.
By sticking to the target persona and centering each launch around a limited set of high-value problems your product solves, everyone remains focused on a narrower goal. This simplifies messaging and training while also setting clear boundaries between the must-have and nice-to-have components of the launch.
It’s a movement, not a moment
With so much focus on “launch day,” it’s easy to forget that launch activities can take place anytime. Teaser content, sneak previews, beta programs, early access, and sales funnel-filling activities can help build momentum.
Then it’s time to build on that launch with follow-up activities that drive other interest and traffic.
Finally, once you’ve got a stable of happy customers, it’s time to mine them for case studies. The studies help get more tentative buyers off the fence and into the fold. And don’t forget to conduct a post-mortem to identify best practices.