Effective Marketing & Product Launch Best Practices
James Mastan, MBA 1990
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.
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.