Product marketers, how do you launch a product or release that isn’t quite ready for the market? Maybe it’s inferior to the competition, or it’s missing some key features.
In a recent product marketing consultant roundtable hosted by EM founder Ken Chen, EM consultants Susan Becker, Leo Castro, Christiane Hile, Eric Wee, and Laura Wilton shared their ideas for handling such a situation, or better yet, preventing it in the first place:
1. Partner early
The best practice is always to partner to influence product direction early on. "I have always felt that product marketing spends so much time downstream, and not enough time upstream,” said Becker. “It should not be, we're about to launch in a month. It's how do we put ourselves together as a team and collaborate so that we deliver a great product to the customer?"
Castro suggested looking at the partnership through the lens of "choose versus use," a concept he learned from a mentor. Product marketers should own the "choose" decision, getting buyers to select your product over all the other options. That means owning pricing, naming, positioning, and messaging. The product manager owns the "use" decision — finding all the little details that make for a delightful user experience.
"They're different. They're complementary," Castro said. "But both require insight into the customer early on to have product market fit and to drive adoption."
Be prepared to take the lead in building the relationship. "Product management and product marketing have to hold hands," said Hile. "When that wasn't the case, I literally inserted myself into the weekly meetings to stay close to the roadmap, and understand why changes were being made to the product capability. It was extremely helpful for my career."
2. Bring in research
Bringing research to the table is one way to build that partnership. Marketers are often grounded in customer and market research in a way that product developers are not. Simple surveys are great, but more sophisticated research such as max differential and conjoint analysis can generate insights that add value for product managers.
3. Look for launch-product fit
As product marketers you own the launch plan and get to say how big or how small it is, or whether it’s really even a launch at all. Fortunately the way product development is done today is much more flexible, and doesn’t require an all or nothing approach. If you don’t have product market fit, here are some of the group’s suggestions for achieving "launch-product" fit.
Do a soft launch.
If the product isn't feature complete, but you still need to launch within a specific time frame, consider a smaller launch until you get an understanding of what the full product looks like. Basically, this entails enabling the market-ready features for customers who are eligible. You still do the training with the sales force, but hold off on outbound marketing until the full product comes out. That way, those that really want it can get started.
Launch a beta test.
If you have something that’s close to complete but engineering is still getting the bugs out, launch a beta test. Customers who participate know going in that it's not going to be perfect. They can help you learn, and it still gives something for the sales teams to talk about and invite people to. If beta testers like what they see, it could be a short path to getting them to pay for it.
Don’t even call it a launch.
If the product is really far from ready, and the direction is really unclear, structure it as a learning plan. Work with the product manager to roll it out in a bite sized way to a select group of potential customers, and capture the learnings along the way. You might even do this intentionally for a product that is still very conceptual.
But be careful. Such an approach can be tricky to pull off. "I've launched products before they were available, and it's hard," said Wee. "Now you’re trying to set expectations for the folks that are most passionate about the product. But if months go by, you still have to maintain the credibility that the product is coming soon."
Signal your direction — indirectly.
It used to be that analysts and media were the conduit for getting information about product capabilities and roadmaps out. Now there are many channels you can use. Publishing customer use cases on your website and social channels can show what the market is finding important and valuable. Thought leadership blogs can reveal your thinking and ideas, even if you’re not ready to make an official announcement.
Build a close relationship with legal.
They can help you understand what you can and can’t say about what’s coming down the pike. If you’re launching without a key feature but it’s on the roadmap and coming soon, people might have a higher propensity to buy.
While a big bang product launch is a great way to signal forward momentum, grab attention and generate sales, it’s not always the right move if the product isn’t ready for prime time. There are many options for right sizing a launch, but whatever you do, you need to do it in collaboration with the product team. Find a way to substantiate your position using your research or customer feedback. Come to the conversation ready with a detailed plan of what you think could work now, and what the next steps will be. Take it as an opportunity to build a better working relationship.
Susan Becker is a global product marketing consultant who has taken more than 20 data & analytics products, SaaS and digital platforms to market.
Christiane Hile is a marketing consultant who is passionate about launching a product or turning a product around.
Eric Wee has done product marketing at companies running the gamut from large enterprise to midsize company to startup.
Leo Castro is a consultant specializing in product marketing and fractional CMO services for high-growth SaaS companies serving SMBs.
Laura Wilton has done marketing communications, customer, and channel marketing as well as product marketing.