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Ross Alumni Club of Los Angeles - Effective Marketing & Product Launch Best Practices STEPHEN M. ROSS SCHOOL OF BUSINESS
   

Effective Marketing & Product Launch Best Practices

James Mastan, MBA 1990

Overview
 
Launching a new product can be one of the most exciting company activities. The energy level is  high,  the  work  comes  fast  and  furious,  and  expectations  of  a  successful  launch  abound. Taking  a  new  product  to market  can  be  a  great  experience,  especially  if  the  launch  team  is composed of high-quality, motivated people who communicate well and enjoy working together.  It also helps  if  they know what  they are doing, and  the Microsoft  launch model  is an excellent teacher.
 
Microsoft  is known  for  its marketing prowess, and  for good  reason. After  taking  thousands of products  to market, Microsoft  has  refined  the  product  launch  process  to  focus  on  the most important  elements  and  steps  to  efficiently  and  effectively  take  a  product  to market. After  14 years as Director of Marketing at Microsoft managing,  leading, or participating  in  innumerable product  launches,  I  convey  the  lessons and  best practices  learned  from my experience. This knowledge  transfer  is  documented  in  my  book  Product  Launch  the  Microsoft  Way.  This whitepaper summarizes some of the key points in the book. If you want the detailed content, the book is available on amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com.

What to Expect During a Launch
 
Nothing  is  static  during  a  launch  process;  change  is  the  rule,  not  the  exception.  The  launch environment,  or  state  of  things, will  change  significantly  throughout  the  launch  process.  The level of clarity and available  information  to enable  informed decisions will also fluctuate. At  the start,  the  product’s  specific  feature  and  functionality  definition will  be  hazy.  Folks will  have  a concept or vision of what  the product should be, but  it  typically will exist only  in a PowerPoint document as vaporware—a  term used  in  the software  industry  to connote a product  that does not yet  truly exist. This  is a time during which  the product concept’s rationale and fit within the overall corporate strategy are being debated. Initial budget investments and headcount resource asks are also being made.
 
Assuming there is positive corporate sponsorship a small group will be formed and chartered to further  investigate and build a  viable business plan based on  the existing  level of knowledge and information available. Even with the best data, ambiguity abounds at such an early point in a  product  launch  cycle. Many  assumptions  about  the  product, market,  and  customers will  be made, validated, and invalidated. The product development team will attempt to define the initial core product functionality and features. Potential target customers will be approached to provide validation  for  the  product  concept  and  their  needs  regarding  product  features.  Potential  keybusiness partners must be contacted to assess interest and willingness to invest in the product; some will get on board and others may become competitors.  Internal political battles will be  fought as various factions maneuver  to retain or  take power and control during the launch process. Competitive and market sizing analyses will be performed to estimate market opportunity potential, reachable market share, and potential revenue. Until these types of activities resolve themselves, ambiguity will rule the early launch environment. People who do not deal well with ambiguity may not be  the best fit to become involved in a product launch, especially at the very beginning.
 
As the launch process progresses, things tend to become more clear and structured. Note I did not say  “clear and structured,” but  “more clear and structured.” After a viable business plan  is created, the beginnings of clarity and structure start to emerge, Although future change will still be in the air. A business plan is (or should be) a living document that adapts to newly acquired information  and  can  accommodate  the  changes  a  launch  process  surely will  bring. However, once an initial business plan is in place and approved, along with allocated start-up funding and headcount resources, the launch process can kick into high gear.
 
This  means  converting  the  business  plan  and  strategy  into  an  actionable  rollout  plan  that encompasses all  the functional groups that must be  involved  to drive a successful  launch from the business perspective. The engineering staff can then create more detailed product planning, product  definitions,  and  specifications  in  coordination with  continually  discovered market  and customer  requirements.  Initial key  functional group personnel, beyond  the original small  team, can now be hired. Typically,  these  initial hires will be  the  functional  team managers,  such as sales, marketing, business development, and  lead engineers. These  folks can begin  to create the specific launch plans for their functional roles and then staff up as necessary for the launch.
 
From  the marketing perspective,  this  is  the  time when  things start  to get very  interesting. With high-level  business  plans  in  place,  the  marketing  team  can  get  started  defining  and implementing the myriad activities needed for a successful launch.
 
Key Launch Activities
 
There are a number of key launch activities that require resources and focus in order to pull off a launch. At a high-level, the following are some of these activities that should be duly noted:

Qualitative Aspects of a Launch: it’s possible that it can take years to fully complete the product launch cycle. Of course, the actual time will depend on the particular product or industry, the team’s experience, the scope of the product, and so on. During this time there are intangible qualitative aspects of the launch process that can make or break a launch, and are important to a successful launch. Think of these as necessary to form the core foundational elements of a successful launch culture among the launch team(s) and other key stakeholders. Some such qualitative aspects include strong leadership, strong executive sponsorship, excellent communications, and solid planning, among others.
 
Understand  Your  Customers:  Before  you  can  start  writing  a  rollout  plan  for  launch,  begin creating  positioning  and messaging  statements  for  your  product,  or  execute  planned  launch activities, it is important to create a clear target customer definition. You need to develop a crisp and  detailed  understanding  about who  your  target  customers  are,  including what  their  needs are, what motivates them to purchase, and how and where they purchase. Knowing this allows you  to paint a clear and actionable picture of your  targeted customers.  Why  is  it worth putting  time and money  into understanding  your  customers? The answer  is  that  your  customer  definition  is  at  the  core  of  all  your  launch  and marketing  activities  and  will  drive  and  shape  the  go-to-market  strategies  and execution tactics for your launch. If you get the customer definition wrong, paint an incorrect picture, or lack a detailed understanding of your target market’s attributes,  there is a knowledge gap that will flow through all your product development and go-to-market activities and significantly weaken your launch efforts and post-launch business success.
 
Build a Solid Business & Launch Roll-out Plan: It may be stating the obvious, but having a solid business plan is a must-have prerequisite to successfully launching a product. Exactly how  business plan is defined is subject to interpretations that can vary from company to company and person to person. Some call a marketing or sales plan a business plan, which they are not.  Others consider a business plan complete at a couple of pages in length, while others require a 200-slide PowerPoint deck. And  the elements and  topics  for  inclusion  in a business plan can vary as well. For example, different executives may have specific items or analysis they always want included in a business plan, or there may be a required company business plan template.  For others,  it’s a  free-for-all with no particular  required elements demanded of  the plan  (not a good  approach).  The  key  issue  is  not  so  much  how  the  plan  is  physically  structured  and delivered, any individual content preference variations, or the extent of the plan content. Rather,it is making sure that all  the important considerations are thought through and described in the plan, that it hangs together holistically, and that the plan communicates the Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How  in  its  final  form. Generally,  for moderate  to  large  firms, a company will have in place an overall corporate business plan that describes at a high level the strategy and direction the firm will take. This plan then drives individual business unit strategic plans. Within the  context  of  those  plans,  the  product  launch  plan  lives.  The  key  conceptual  elements  and focus areas described in this chapter are a good start to structuring a launch plan. Aligned to the higher-level plans, a launch plan takes high-level business planning from a conceptual exercise to an actionable output. Think about  the  launch plan as a  “rollout” or  “go-to-market” plan  that provides  both  a  context  and  an  execution  framework  for  the  product  launch within  the  larger corporate scheme of things; in essence it describes the implementation of the business strategy as it relates to the specific product being launched. Developing the plan with this perspective in mind will make the tactical details more concrete and executable.
 
 
Properly Position Your Product  for Launch:  “What we’ve got here  is a  failure  to communicate.” Cool Hand Luke (1967). This  famous movie line points out  that even  in a contained environment like a prison communication can break down, be misconstrued, or simply be ineffective. Imagine how communication clarity might become problematic when,  in an unconstrained environment (the  business  market),  communications  are  sent  to  many  at  the  same  time  in  anonymous manners  (advertising,  direct mail,  PR,  etc.)!  The  potential  for  lack  of  clarity  in  business  and marketing communication, with  the associated negative ramifications, underscores  the need  to get  your  communication  points  right  from  the  beginning,  as  you  move  your  product  toward launch,  before  you  begin  any  large-scale  customer  communication  activities.  Assuming  you have done your homework, you should have a solid understanding of your customer targets and segments,  including  who  the  product  will  be  designed  for  and  who  will  be  buying  it,  who influences and decides the purchase, and what their key pain points are. Through your research and  interactions  with  customers,  partners,  and  competitors,  you  will  also  likely  have  some understanding  of  the  key  value  propositions,  features,  and benefits  that  are  attractive to customers.  Proper  positioning  assumes  that  level  of  customer  knowledge  is available. Given  this,  you  need  to  determine  exactly  what  you  will  be  saying  to these  potential  customers  about  your  product,  to whom  you  will  say  it, why  the customer will care about what you are communicating, and what you want  to say about your product relative to the competition. The What, Whom (to customer and against  competition),  and Why  should  be  completely  defined  by  your  positioning messages if you want to be effective in your marketing communications.
 
Create  the  Necessary  Critical  Partnerships:  In  order  to  successfully  launch  your  product, your  firm  may  need  to  establish  significant  and  deep  business  relationships  with  other companies. In a normal product launch cycle, a company may need to develop highly strategic relationships with a small number of close partners whose products, services, or  technologies can  fill  gaps  in  the  go-to-market  strategy  that  your  company  cannot  or  will  not  fill.  The relationships  formed with  these  types of companies are market-making relationships, meaning they can make or break  the success of  the product  launch and post-launch activities. Market-making relationships are those that could:
 

  •   Provide critical technology you need for your product
  •   Enable key services to be delivered with your product
  •   Open important distribution channels for you
  •   Deliver applications or complementary products that work with your product
  •   Provide access  to significant or hard-to-find expertise or knowledge, either  technical or market/customer expertise
  •   Secure key go-to-market sales and marketing partners
  •   Provide market credibility and validation if your firm is new to the market

 
Given their broad scope, depth, and potential complexity, strategic relationships like these may take a  fair amount of  time  to put  into place, and  their  formation may need  to be  initiated and activated years before your product actually hits  the market. With  relationships at  this  level, a formal written agreement  is  typically  required  to define and codify  in some detail each party’s responsibilities  in  the relationship and any monetary commitments. As  the rollout plan  is being developed, the specific needs for market-making partner relationships and the time frame to put these  partnerships  into  place  should  be considered.  At  Microsoft,  these  market-making relationships  and  partnerships  are  typically  developed  under  the  “Business Development” moniker. The  folks  in business development  roles are  responsible  for strategizing, evaluating, selecting,  and  closing  deals  with  market-making  partners.  Market-making  partnerships  are different  from  typical  relationships  with  other  channel  or  market  partners—the  hundreds  of smaller,  more  numerous  industry  partners  that  may  have  a  role  to  play  in  your  partner ecosystem, but are not  fundamental  to  the  launch  success. Business development  resources should  be targeted  at  acquiring  the market-making  partnerships.  The  broad-breadth  partners are  best  acquired  and  managed  via  a  more  programmatic,  arm’s-length  channel  partner program.
 
Gettin’ Slimy Baby!- Launch PR: Public  relations  (PR)  is an often misunderstood element of product  marketing,  whether  in  a  launch  or  sustaining  marketing  phase.  The  title  of  this paragraph  purposely  underscores  the  false  perception  that  PR  activities  are  “spin,”  lies,  and unsupportable, slimy marketing speak. These perceptions are generally held by those who think that PR is all about writing a press release, filling it with half-truths, releasing it on the wire, and voila, you’re done! This couldn’t be  further  from  the  truth.  In  reality, PR encompasses a broad range of specific, focused activities that involve multiple target audiences and deliver on specificgoals  to  support  all  marketing  mix  activities  required  for  a  successful  product launch. For a product  launch,  there are a number of key outcomes  that  your PR activities can help accomplish:
 

  • Assist  in  creating  broad  positive  awareness  and  education  about  the product,  your messages, and  your  strategies  to  the  target  customer base.Awareness and education  is  the  first step  to  incent  trial and purchase of your product.  PR is one element of the marketing mix that can assist in this regard.
  • Help establish  the product’s credibility  to  the  target audience and how  it can help solve their  business  needs. Having  solid  positive  press  and  analyst  support  can  help  place your product into the customer’s purchase consideration set.
  • Accurately position your company and your product. If you are not actively conveying the positioning points you want  to claim,  then someone else,  like a competitor, will position you in the manner they choose.
  • Assist  in  positioning  the  competition  from  your  perspective,  and  re-position  the competition  to  your  perspective.  You  must  position  your  company  and  product  andactively convey  the positioning perception you wish to create around  the competition. If the  competition  occupies  a  positioning  space  that  places  you  at  a  competitive disadvantage, then you need a strategy,  talking points, and evidence  to re-position  that competitor.
  • Help  build  excitement  in  the  marketplace.  A  well-planned  PR  strategy  can  create anticipation in the market, which could translate into revenue post-launch.  Build  and  enhance  key  partnerships  and  show  a  critical  mass  of  support  for  your product.  Not  only  will  PR  activities  around  your  key  partners  provide  evidence and credibility  to the press, but working  together on PR-related activities can strengthen the partner relationship and further publicly tie you together, creating a compelling incentive for win-win scenarios in your partnership activities.
  • Create and show momentum and progress around your launch and the product’s market acceptance.  As  you  build  to  your  launch  crescendo,  you  want  to  show  accelerating progress around key success drivers  for your product—more partners signed up, more customers  are  interested,  and  large  well-known  customers  adopting  your  product, among others. The pace of your PR activities and your strategy  to  release  information will  help  convey  the  momentum  and  traction  you  are  gaining  in  the  marketplace, providing further evidence for press and analysts, which could lead to positive write-ups.
  • Create fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD) in the marketplace. As a competitive tool, PR can help change  thinking and create desired competitive  responses. Just as  in military communications, misinformation  or misdirection  can  be  a  powerful  competitive  tool  to shift a competitor’s  focus and capital or other  resource  investments  to your advantage and to blunt the competitive threat you may face when your product gets to market.

 
Depending on your particular situation you may choose to optimize around a few or all of these outcomes.
 
Implement  and Execute Core Pre-launch Customer  and Channel Partner Programs:   At the point  in  the  launch cycle when  the pre-launch programs and marketing  infrastructure need attention and focus, it should be safe to assume that the rollout plan is in place, market-making partners have been signed up, positioning and messaging frameworks have been solidified, and early PR efforts have been  instigated. The  focus should now be on defining and building out pre-launch  customer  and  partner  programs  and  getting  the  core  marketing  program infrastructure activities executed. These programs and activities were alluded to in the high-level rollout  plan,  but  at  some  point  you  must  go  to  the  next  level  to  define  and implement  the  specifics.  This  chapter  focuses  on  the  pre-launch  customer  and hannel partner programs:

  • Pre-Launch Customer Programs: Programs generally  intended  to generate pre-launch feedback, early awareness, and trial of the product in the target market.
  • Pre-Launch Partner Programs: Programs  intended  to create,  train, and sustain a broad partner and channel ecosystem before launch.

To maximize  launch effectiveness,  focus on  the  “Big Rocks,”  those programs or activities  that will account  for  the bulk of  the  time and  that will generate  the most  impact  for  the  launch and into  the post-launch  sustaining environment. Some examples  include  customer awareness or preview  programs,  early  adopter  programs,  customer  councils,  breadth  partner  channel programs,  and  partner  councils.   All  of  these  programs  and  activities  should  be well-planned and structured programs. As with any structured program, whether a development project or an out-bound marketing  campaign,  these  pre-launch  programs  should  be  resourced  and  funded appropriately if they are to be successful.
 
Implement Basic Block-and-Tackle Marketing & Launch Activities: There are many basic block and tackle activities that need to be in place to support a product launch. These activities are  the nose-to-the-grindstone, nitty-gritty  launch activities  that  leverage  the earlier pre-launch work. These  include  taking  the positioning and messaging documents and building marketing
collateral and sales tools around  these messages, or building case studies  leveraging  the pre-launch customer programs, or getting the product SKUs defined in the rollout plan set up in the sales, marketing, and manufacturing databases to enable order processing.


The major activities comprising the block and tackle marketing activities include:
 

  • Creating and producing marketing and sales tools
  • Selling product into your distribution channels for launch availability
  • Ensuring that a customer and partner product support infrastructure is in place
  • Preparing for international sales and distribution as required
  • Defining and managing pre-launch events
  • Synchronizing and coordinating with the direct sales force
  • Creating and launching the public website
  • Finishing and rolling out training and readiness content and delivery mechanisms
  • Planning and executing the big launch event
  • Developing product packaging
  • Marketing operations activities,  such as setting up product SKUs  in  the manufacturing systems, finalizing the product price, and ensuring correct pricing in the price system

Don’t  Forget  About  Post-Launch  Sustaining  Marketing  During  the  Pre-Launch Timeframe: The product  is out  the door,  the  launch event and activities were successful, and everyone  is  enjoying  a  post-launch  glow  as  the  soon-to-be  successful  product  enters  the market. The sustaining marketing phase of the  launch has now begun. Until now, the pressure of actually starting to fulfill on some of the promises and commitments made in the business and rollout plan has not been faced. Now the market share, revenue, and units  that were committed  to  in  the plan must be acquired. To do so, you need a sustaining marketing plan  that will shift  from  launching  the product  to  the nuts and bolts of marketing execution  to drive the product success  in-market, and you need to  write  this  plan  and  be  ready  to  execute  on  it  when  the  product  releases  to
market. To shift into marketing execution, there are a few key goals and focus areas that need attention as the post-launch marketing plan is executed, including:
 

  • Engaging the sales force and ramping sales
  • Converting any pre-launch customers, such as beta, trial, or product preview customers to paying customers
  • Driving  and managing  the  channel  and  your  partners  to  sell  and market  your  product effectively, while growing and training your core partner base
  • Leveraging early customer wins for collateral, PR, selling material, and sales references
  • Maintaining and continuing to develop new sales tools and collateral as you continue to learn through market experience
  • Gathering product feedback from customers, press, analysts, and customer support  Continuing to drive sustaining post-launch momentum and buzz through positive PR and strong analyst support
  • Driving  market  awareness  and  demand  generation  throughout  your  target  customer segments, and generating leads

 
Making sure you have a solid plan covering  these areas  is mandatory  for a successful  launch and post-launch business success.
 
 
It Never Ends
 
If you effectively execute on the key launch activities, and get the product out the door, you may think  that  is  the end of  the  launch process. And  if you  think  that’s  it,  the end,  then think again. Will your customer or partner councils stop after  the  launch? Will  there never be new product SKUs to create? Will event attendance simply end? Does product positioning remain static over time? Do market-making  partners  simply  disappear? Of  course  the  answer  is  no. These  and many other activities put into place during the pre-launch time frame will continue post-launch.  Finally, a viable company continually conceptualizes, designs, and introduces new products into the  market.  Each  of  these  products  must  be  taken  through  some  sort  of  launch  process, whether  they  are  product  updates,  revisions,  extensions,  or  new  versions. Depending  on  the scope of  the new products, and their  importance  to the firm, they will require different  levels of launch activity scope and breadth. Product  releases of  lesser scope and  importance may not require an  investment across  the  full  range of  launch activities covered  in Product Launch  the Microsoft Way. Or  they may  require  all  of  them  executed  in  a  lightweight manner. However, broad  scope  products  of  great  importance  warrant  the  full  rigor  of  the  launch  concepts  and tactics. While all this occurs, the current product must be actively marketed and sold. 


Once you’ve completed a launch, you should feel really good about that accomplishment. It’s a huge  investment  in  time  and  energy  to  take  a  product  to  launch.  Not  everyone  gets  to experience that, so enjoy it. Hopefully, you will have (or had) fun during the launch process. The big  launch event  is always something  to  look  forward  to as well, so enjoy  that  when  you  are  living  it.  Another  fun  tip—try  to  get  your  executives  to commit  to  doing  something  crazy  if  you  meet  a  major  milestone  or  make  the planned launch date without slipping (or even just get the product out the door). It’s like when a football team wins the big game and the coach gets Gatorade or water dumped on him—the big cheese takes one for the team. At Microsoft, I’ve seen  executives commit to shaving their heads, getting fully dunked into one of the various  water fountains and pools on the Microsoft campus, and eating dog food (no, I am not kidding).  Those  are  always  amusing  activities  to watch  and  participate  in—just  keep  in mind  that  this same person may be overseeing your next launch!
 
With all that in mind, it should be clear that a product launch is only the beginning of a road that never really ends. Have fun, learn something, and enjoy. Good luck. 

James Mastan

Product Launch the Microsoft Way

Written by 1990 Ross School of Business MBA James Mastan, Product Launch the Microsoft Way is a comprehensive marketing and product launch playbook, providing detailed “How-to” knowledge of all the business and marketing efforts required for an effective product launch and post-launch sustaining marketing. This new title distills years of Microsoft marketing and product launch expertise into one convenient book, providing an in-depth “How-to” for all aspects of pre- and post-launch marketing.

If you are considering, planning, or are involved in a product launch right now, Product Launch the Microsoft Way will provide the critical launch elements and programs you need to know to pull off a successful launch and contains over 100 figures that clearly explain marketing, business, and launch concepts. Learn the end-to-end business and marketing concepts and product launch best practices based on Mastan's personal experience in leading and participating in multiple product launches over 14 years as Director of Marketing at Microsoft. Whether you are new to marketing, a highly experienced marketer, or involved in technical product development, the knowledge gained from this book will help maximize launch effectiveness and possibly help your career. Public relations, strategy, channel and partner programs, customer programs, positioning, post-launch sustaining marketing and much more are covered in-depth in this unique book.

James started at Microsoft in 1993 two years after getting his Ross School of Business MBA. The many products he led to launch and market included developer tools, Office products, server products, books, TechNet, various advanced consumer technologies, and he also led the U.S. -based marketing to small businesses. After leaving Microsoft, James founded Blue Rain Marketing, LLC, a business strategy, marketing strategy, and marketing program execution consulting firm.

"The book is intended to help both new and experienced marketers increase their skill sets and become more effective marketers using the lessons learned and best practices in place at Microsoft" says James. "Microsoft is such a great marketing company; I felt that the knowledge of how marketing and product launches are done at Microsoft would really help a lot of folks.

You can find out more about the book and Blue Rain Marketing, LLC at  www.bluerainmarketing.com. Product Launch the Microsoft Way is also available online at www.Amazon.com and www.Barnesandnoble.com.


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