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How to Abandon Risky Single Day Go-To-Markets With Phased Launches

By Evan James

A CMO walks into a room. (No, this isn’t the setup for a punchline — far from it).

He says, “Our VP of Product said Product A will move out of Beta on May 6th. Tell me about everything that’s going to happen on that day. I want, nay, NEED, a glamorous launch with marketing activities that run the gamut.”

Sound familiar?

Well, here’s the thing. May 6th might not be the date the product should be launched. Too frequently before a single-day launch, a major bug is identified, the product team wants to polish it more, or the development team’s timeline was overly optimistic. Or the product simply doesn’t command a strong enough value proposition yet.

At this point, all teams are working overtime, sales training has been scheduled, and maybe you’ve aligned the launch to an unmovable internal or external event. As the Product Marketing Manager, you’ve been to Starbucks three times in one day and your family is ready to file a missing persons report. Regardless, you buckle down, push through and work until the final buzzer, and… it doesn’t end up being that needle-mover that your CMO hoped for. You better get a fresh Expo marker, because there’s a drawing board to go back to with your name on it.

The Launches You Never Hear About

This process described above is the single-day launch, designed to make a huge splash and, hypothetically, go off without a hitch. We’ve all read about them, dreamed about them, maybe even been part of them. Successful single-day launches are immortalized in textbooks, glorified in marketing blogs, and popularized on social media. They’re the launches that launched a thousand case studies.

Far less often, you’ll hear about those that fail, although that is a much more common occurrence. While fast-paced, dramatic, and thrilling, single-day launches don’t always have sustainable results. PMMs pull 18-hour days before launch, only to find out the tech or demand isn’t ready. While losing their minds trying to find a better plan, they lose steam, credibility, and any pre-rollout traction they’ve gained.

I know this because I lived it: early in my career, I launched a product for a company with only one competitive differentiator. After spending six weeks working with the product team on the launch, from UI integration, to sales enablement to growth strategy, the product still wasn’t fully market-ready, so I pitched a phased launch. Focused on short-term ROI and making a timely conference announcement, they insisted on forging ahead with a single public launch.

Splashy vs. Sustainable

The big, splashy launch succeeded — at first. It grew from 0 to 100 customers in less than six months but quickly took a downturn. In the second half of that year, all but 25 customers churned. The product had to be migrated into our core product as we worked to salvage our reputation as a whole, which was tarnished by the ripple effect of a rushed rollout.

There were a lot of lessons to be learned from this experience, and one has remained true over time: The “big splash” rollout is often a big mistake. Methodical phased launches lead to higher success rates, lower churn rates, minimized risks, and can lead to dramatic increases in both your ROI and personal credibility. Had my team taken the time to perform a phased launch, we could have improved the product offering with early feedback, understood and leveraged the value more, and gradually ramped up customers and revenue in a sustainable, steady model.

Methodical phased launches lead to higher success rates, lower churn rates, minimized risks, and can lead to dramatic increases in both your ROI and personal credibility.

While it’s tempting to create a marketing tidal wave, smaller, incremental waves are more effective for building a sustainable product and revenue. Phased launches, admittedly, are less riveting. But they’re the superior choice if your goal is to steadily grow revenue and improve brand reputation over the mid and long term. Most recently, everyone’s favorite audio app, Clubhouse, took a similar phased launch approach while introducing their concept to small sectors of the public. And in case it’s not glaringly obvious, their strategy appears to be working.

The Phased Rollout

Alright, so you’re determined to successfully pull off a phased launch — now what? The first item on the agenda is to come up with a framework. This is valuable for holding those initial key stakeholder meetings to get buy-in to the concept.

I’ve created a sample Enterprise SaaS Phased Launch template, which incorporates five stages (Beta, Early Access Cross-Sell, All Customer Cross-Sell, Public Launch, and Growth). It’s worth noting that a phased launch could have fewer or more phases — I once ran one with nine. Selecting the ideal number of phases varies by product launch.

When it comes to structuring your GTM, it’s important to include the following in each phase:

1. Define The Phase

Provide a high-level overview of activities and brand each phase (Beta, Early Access, Cross-Sell, Public Launch, etc.). Assign roles to key teams (Product, Sales, Marketing, etc.).

2. Outline Key Activities

Ensure everyone is aligned on what happens in each stage.

3. Assign Phase Owners

Accountability is important. Make sure that everyone knows who is responsible during each phase. Given there are multiple teams involved in successfully launching a product, I’d recommend stack-ranking ownership by phase. That way, each team understands their remit and recognizes the significance of their input throughout the GTM.

4. Provide Estimated Phase Durations

After getting initial strategy sign-off, keep everyone on the same timeline by creating a Gantt chart and circulating it internally. Contextualize the timeline by clarifying that dates may change if early phases aren’t showing the target results.

5. Set Exit Phase Requirements

An often overlooked, but critical, step for mitigating risk. Provide KPIs that absolutely must be hit before moving onto the next phase. For example, a requirement to exit the Beta phase and move to the Early Client Access phase could be “90% of major bug fixes are resolved.” Make sure these requirements are attainable so the team isn’t struggling to hit the deadlines.

6. Phase Goals

These KPIs should directly map to what defines each phase’s success. Each phase goal should be leading to the overall GTM goal, which is likely tied to revenue, number of new customers, and retention rate.

Still on the Path to Glory

Once you’ve defined the overall framework, you’re on the right track towards having a successful product launch. And the best part is, you can still achieve the glory that’s usually associated with a single-day launch.

With an increased focus on each stage of a phased launch, you cultivate a richer plan as you push through the funnel. Now, armed with product KPIs, use cases, and testimonials that lend themselves to content and communications, you have the ammunition your entire organization needs to move forward confidently and as a cohesive team through every phase.

A phased launch based on customer insights breeds stronger opportunities to create buzz around what you’re rolling out. You’ve decreased risk, increased cross-sell success, customer satisfaction, and long-term value while letting customer acquisition develop organically. So while it may take you longer to acquire your first 100 customers, after six months, you’ll find yourself with far more than 25.

Now, put that in a textbook.

About Evan James

Evan James is a freelance marketing consultant and advisor who has built product marketing teams from the ground up for three organizations, each with its own successful exits. By challenging the status quo, he’s championed consistent revenue through phased launch programs, and has developed a templated, customizable approach to product marketing. If you’re interested in receiving a customized phased launch don’t hesitate to reach out to him at evan.james@byfreeagency.com.

One thought on “How to Abandon Risky Single Day Go-To-Markets With Phased Launches”

  1. Evan, you’re right that a multi-phase launch strategy is a good way to separate the product release from the solution launch. Consider using the “Lightning Strike” method associated with category design (detailed in the book Play Bigger by Lochhead, Ramadan, Maney, and Peterson). It’s important not to peanut butter your efforts.

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