The Ultimate Product Launch Plan for New Product Marketers

Jake Brereton
|
September 23, 2020

This blog is a guest post authored by Talia Moyal, Head of Product Marketing at Lightstep.

For questions, feedback, or to suggest improvements to Talia's product marketing launch template, drop a comment on the template itself, or reach her anytime at talia@lightstep.com.

Included in this post:

  • 3 key pre-launch considerations
  • 3 tips for great product launch execution
  • Top 5 product launch pitfalls to avoid
  • The ultimate product marketing launch template

Going from PM to PMM

As a former product manager (PM), when I found myself in a product marketing (PMM) leadership position for the first time, I quickly realized that everything I knew — or thought I knew — about product marketing came from my experience as a PM. When you’re on the product management side of the house, life is largely about understanding customer pain, championing the delivery of new features and functionality to solve that pain, and consistently adjusting scope, priorities and roadmaps to ensure on-time delivery. PMs think about the launch process but, in my experience, this had largely been from a functional standpoint. Following the “launch,” or point in time when code was deployed to production, I shifted my focus to monitoring success metrics (engagement, traffic, usage, etc.). Then I was on to the next project. As a PM, I was never tasked with creating lots of fanfare around new features and so I’d never given it much consideration.

When I transitioned into product marketing, my perspective expanded almost immediately. I realized that as a PM I was only working on releases, not launches, and that in a product marketing role it was now my responsibility to sit behind the microphone, ensuring features put forth by our team received as many eyeballs as possible. As a PMM, I needed to turn these releases into successful launches.

But what did launching a feature look like in practice? How much lead time would I need to plan a launch? What teams would I need to help me at each stage? Even though I’d worked closely with PMMs for years, and taken on PMM work in various aspects of my former role, officially stepping into a PMM leadership position gave me an immediate sense of imposter syndrome. I was entrusted with this brand and in charge of a significant upcoming launch, and didn’t necessarily have the technical background or institutional knowledge of a PMM.

How my launch template came to be

In an effort to crush my own sense of imposter syndrome, I began googling for help. I searched for just about every iteration of product marketing launch assistance I could think of: “product marketing launch checklist”, “product marketing launch template”, “product marketing launch tips”, “product marketing launch guide”... anything that could even remotely help me nail my first launch. Unfortunately, after many searches, I didn’t find any materials of real value that simply spelled out how to execute a great launch. All I did find was SEO clickbait driving me to sign up for new products or services, which I didn’t have the time or budget for. So I did the only thing left to do: I created a Google sheet with my own launch plan.


Of course the first version wasn’t great, but with every launch since I’ve iterated on and improved the template. Today, it’s my go-to product marketing launch playbook and something I'm very excited to share! It’s my hope that any new product marketer looking for a place to start can use this template to navigate their first launch and feel more comfortable not only with the necessary launch tactics, but also with how to effectively communicate to stakeholders and the rest of the business to ensure everyone is aligned and empowered to maximize the splash of their launch.

In an effort to make this post as helpful as possible, I’ve also included a few other useful tips that I wish someone had told me on day one. This includes some pre-launch considerations, ideas for great launch execution, and a few major pitfalls to avoid. They are mostly things that I’ve learned the hard way over the past year, and hopefully things that you won’t have to!

Just here for the launch template itself? Access that here: The product marketing launch template

3 key pre-launch considerations

1. Launch vs release

Any product launch is a marketing moment — a moment in time when you take a new product, feature, group of features to market. It’s important to note that there’s a distinct and important difference between a product launch and a product release.

In today’s world, most SaaS companies have a CI/CD process that allows product and engineering to release multiple times a week, or even multiple times a day. These releases can be anything from bug fixes to backend changes to major feature updates. As a general rule, it’s good to communicate something about every release, especially if the release includes code that impacts the end user experience. That said, you never want users to feel like they’re being spammed, so it’s usually up to product marketing to determine which product releases warrant a launch. Or, in other words, which of these releases deserve a distinct marketing moment and all of the fanfare that accompanies a well executed product launch.

So that this distinction is always clear, I’ve found it critical to ensure product, engineering, and product marketing are not only all aware of this distinction, but also consistently using the correct language, especially during planning cycles. Here’s a quick cheat sheet that you can copy and paste to your team:

  • Product release = any code deployment to production; releases are driven by product and engineering
  • Product launch = a go-to-market (GTM) moment including single or packaged releases intended to make a splash for a given audience in the market; launches are driven by product marketing

As a new PMM, don’t fall into the trap of trying to turn every release into a launch. Not only will this leave you exhausted, but you will also quickly begin to see end user fatigue. An endless barrage of communications erodes the trust between your company and its users and, as these users begin to question which comms are important and which aren’t, they will simply begin tuning out more and more successive launches.

2. Tiering

Once you decide something is worthy of a marketing moment and begin to plan a launch, it’s important to determine the size of the launch, and thus how much effort and planning will be required. I find “tiering” the launch to be most helpful. Intercom has developed a framework for determining if your product launch should be a tier 1, 2, or 3 that I highly recommend: Prioritizing product announcements in a SaaS world.


Here’s the TL;DR:

  • Tier 1 is the largest, involving net new functionality that will be impactful for the top of your funnel (i.e. announcing an entirely new feature set that’s core to your product’s value prop)
  • Tier 2 usually includes net new functionality or a significant product update, but likely for functionality that will be most impactful to your existing users (i.e. a major update to a current feature or functionality that is very popular across your user base)
  • Tier 3 is a table stakes improvement that, while important, is only something that will impact and be noticed by existing users, if anyone at all. (i.e a subtle UI change that power users have been asking for)

The template I’ve created and shared below is focused on a Tier 1 launch, as those are the launches that take the greatest amount of preparation, coordination, and overall work. The template is inclusive of every tactic that a product marketing team may utilize for a launch of this magnitude, as well as the appropriate timeline needed to properly execute on each of these tactics.

3. Cadence

Launch cadence is an interesting topic, and definitely something that every PM and PMM team should try to align on as closely as possible. In short, the cadence is dictated by your product roadmap and how often your engineering teams are making production-ready deployments. However, remember that it is ultimately up to you, the PMM, to decide which of these releases you choose to promote, what tier to classify each of these releases, and when that promotion happens.

While again I will note that launch cadence varies from org to org and company to company, here are a few basic rules of thumb that I use during planning:

  • At a bare minimum you should plan to have at least one tier 1 launch per year and, product roadmap permitting, should ideally aim for two.
  • At a bare minimum you should plan to have at least one tier 2 launch per quarter and, product roadmap permitting, should ideally aim for at least two.
  • The timing of the release vs. the launch don’t have to go hand-in-hand, and if it makes more sense to have the product launch a month or two after the release, that’s completely fine (and don’t let anyone in your business try to tell you differently!)
  • Rolling up multiple tier 3 releases into a monthly (or quarterly) roundup is an easy way to ensure there’s a fairly steady string of updates throughout the year
  • Unless absolutely necessary, don’t plan any launches in July, August, or December, as most people are out of office due to summer vacation and the Holidays
  • Unless absolutely necessary, don’t plan any launches coinciding with global events (i.e. elections), as it will be difficult for you to gain proper attention

Launch cadence is a critical topic for PM and PMM teams to discuss and agree upon every quarter, as it takes alignment from both parties to properly execute. From the PMM perspective, I would advise that it’s most important to continue showing forward momentum. This is especially true for SaaS products. At the end of the day your users care less about what tier each release is, and far more about knowing that your company is continually developing, iterating, improving, and providing value to them. And a vital piece of a PMM’s job is to do that.

3 tips for great product launch execution

1. Segment your audience and pick a target

Once you’ve got a date for an upcoming launch and you’ve classified it tier-wise, carefully consider the different audience segments you wish to reach and ensure that, as needed, your message to each audience, and the tactics you use to reach them, is slightly modified for maximum impact.

At a very high level there are at least three audience buckets you should consider for every product launch:

  • Existing customers: users who are already paying to use your product
  • Competitive customers: users who are paying to use a competitive product
  • Prospective customers: users who are not yet using you or a competitive product, but who are interested in the space

Each of these three buckets can be further segmented quite a bit, but for starters it’s a great idea to identify who the primary persona is that you’re targeting with a given launch. Or, at a bare minimum, acknowledging that a launch is actually going to be targeting more than one audience.

Existing customers

For example, if the goal of the launch is to get existing customers excited about and engaged with a brand new feature, your messaging might be focused on how much more efficient and effective this new feature is. You’ll want to ensure you allot enough time to creating great enablement materials for sales and post-sales to help them expand accounts and train users. You’ll also want to over-index on your email messaging and in-product messaging. A common goal for a launch that targets existing customers might be to increase MAU, grow MRR, expand certain accounts, or even drive renewals. All of these factors are going to be essential in defining the right message you wish to promote during your launch.

Competitive customers

If the goal of a given launch is to reach competitive customers, and entice them to use your product instead, your focus areas and messaging will probably be quite different. For competitive customers you’ll need new or updated landing pages that position you as a superior product. You may want to consider publishing a new customer story about someone who switched from the competitor to you, as well as briefing the press on how you’re going directly after a competitor to steal market share. Launches looking to entice competitive customers often involve paid campaigns to capture competitive traffic, promotion of discounts for those customers looking to switch, and definitely new (or updated) landing pages with feature comparisons and stats that reveal how much better their new feature/product is. Again, all of these factors will be crucial as you dial in the perfect messaging to reach the intended audience, and ensure you’re spending your time and energy on the most impactful tactics.

Prospective customers

To reach prospective customers it’s important to take a big step back and ensure your messaging and tactics focus more on the problem space than on any specific new feature or functionality. Prospective customers are still somewhere in the funnel above the evaluation stage, and therefore your goal and tactics should be focused on how, with this launch, you’re innovating in a problem space and solving their issue in an effective and efficient way. Yet again, reaching new prospects also involves different tactics, and you may find yourself spending far more time on thought leadership content (this could be blogs, webinars, or videos), utilizing press and analysts, leveraging partner channels, and even modifying existing top-of-funnel landing pages that are already driving traffic to your site.

In short, one size definitely doesn’t fit all, and picking a target will ensure you’re able to focus your team’s time and energy, maximize your splash, and ultimately hit your goals.

2. Break your launch into phases and overcommunicate throughout each one

There are three phases in a launch timeline: Planning, Creation, and Execution. Each phase requires a heavy amount of communication, and the more you communicate, the smoother every launch will be.

Planning

The planning phase is about collecting necessary knowledge, setting correct expectations with stakeholders, scheduling check-ins, and making necessary upfront decisions around scope, timelines, dates, and so on. This phase often requires alignment across the cross-functional stakeholders, but is well worth the investment to ensure all parties are aware of what’s happening when and the role each will be playing. During the planning phase, you’ll want to ensure all relevant launch materials are organized in a single place, and that stakeholders have a channel to view regular updates and ask questions.

Creation

The creation phase begins immediately after your official kick-off meeting. It’s all about designing and creating the content you need for the launch. From emails to landing pages to enablement materials to videos and webinars… the list goes on. The creation stage is also when anyone who needs to review messaging, or any other material for that matter, does so.

Execution

About a week out from the launch you enter the execution stage. The execution stage is when finalized materials go into staging on your CMS, new videos are uploaded (and left unpublished until launch day), your press pitch is sent out to media outlets, final enablement and training sessions are held for the rest of the business, and you create a runbook for launch day. In the execution phase it’s all hands on deck to ensure every last I is dotted and T is crossed.

Communicating throughout each stage

In terms of ensuring that everyone stays aligned and nothing slips through the cracks in the run-up to a launch, we use LaunchNotes to communicate our progress throughout each of these three phases. Within the release in LaunchNotes I link to all assets related to my launch (including the below launch template that my team reviews in our weekly Monday status check-ins), and then every M/W/F I provide short, bi-weekly updates on the status of the launch via notes on the LaunchNotes release. LaunchNotes then routes and shares these updates with anyone across the business who is subscribed to my release and wants or needs to know how our launch is progressing. If anyone has questions, the LaunchNotes + Slack integration allows them to easily engage with the correct stakeholder within Slack.

Having this single source of truth for all launch progress is key, but it’s equally valuable to know that as I share updates on launch progress, these updates are reaching the right people and providing them the information they need at the right fidelity. Again, communication is essential, and when in doubt I’ve learned that overcommunication results in far less hiccups.

3. Implement a DACI framework to avoid confusion

The faster teams are moving, the more important it is that clear roles and responsibilities are defined. Without them you’re setting your teams up for friction and frustration, both of which will slow you down. To avoid this, as part of the planning process, utilize the DACI framework and ensure all parties are aligned on who is driving, who is approving, who is contributing, and who needs to be informed across each workstream. I believe in this framework so much that I built it directly into my launch template.

For anyone not familiar with the DACI framework, here is a TL;DR:

  • D = driver, or the person responsible for driving and delivering a particular item of work or workstream
  • A = approver, or the person who ultimately approves the work being driven
  • C = contributor, or anyone who is contributing to a particular item of work or workstream
  • I = informed, or anyone who needs to stay informed of the progress being made

Top 5 product launch pitfalls to avoid

1. Being a “do everything” driver

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned managing launches is that the driver is only as impactful as the weakest link. If your launch involves a dozen stakeholders, two dozen moving pieces, weekly deadlines, and the expectation that your launch is going to be a grand slam, you must have every single stakeholder rowing very quickly in the exact same direction to be successful. As a result, the driver must first play the role of a well seasoned project manager and, only when necessary, a high output individual contributor. Success requires delegating as much work as possible and then quickly unblocking anyone or anything that gets stuck along the way. 

2. Leaving cross-functional stakeholders in the dark

Because of the many moving pieces involved in any launch, it’s nearly impossible for anyone not directly involved in day-to-day stand-ups — or weekly status meetings — to stay up to speed on what’s happening. Although this may not negatively impact the success of the launch itself, it usually results in two things:

  1. Endless questions coming from every which direction on Slack, which is an enormous distraction and causes lots of unnecessary context switching for you and your team
  2. The chance that someone, or some team, who needs to be kept in the loop misses an important update, and ultimately isn’t prepared on launch day (meaning a poor experience for your end users)

In order to avoid this, and as a best practice, it’s imperative to ensure no one that needs or wants to be informed is ever left in the dark. Communication is key. LaunchNotes is a perfect solution to this problem, as anyone who wants to stay informed can simply subscribe to receive my M/W/F updates. Additionally, I also set up a public Slack channel for each launch and ensure all communications related to a launch occur in a single place. This prevents endless 1:1 Slack questions hitting me and my team, and also gives any informed party who wants to get in the weeds the ability to do so.

3. Not setting clear expectations for success

Earlier I mentioned the expectation that every launch is going to be a grand slam. On this topic, it’s very important to set clear expectations with the business for what constitutes success of a given launch. Depending on the tier of a launch, as well as what audience you’re targeting, there are a number of different metrics you can use to define success: product usage, evals, website views, ad click-throughs, incremental MRR… the list goes on.

The most important thing is that, prior to the launch, you’ve agreed upon one of these metrics as the primary goal, a reasonable goal/number to achieve, and when you’re expected to reach this goal. These conversations can be tricky, but as the launch owner it’s vital that you’re proactive and drive this conversation during the planning process.

4. Allowing scope creep to overwhelm your team

The infamous scope creep. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not just a PM/engineering thing. Scope creep plagues us everywhere. One thing I wish someone would have told me when gearing up for my first launch as a PMM was that part of my role was also to say no to stakeholders. The larger your team and organization, and the more stakeholders involved in your launch, the more ideas you’ll be presented with. 

While usually well intentioned and often good ideas, there are only so many hours in the day and it’s impossible to invest in every content request, interest in more specialized enablement collateral, idea for creative co-marketing opportunities, new creative ad concept, and so on. Use the lenses of how much time you have, how many resources you have at your disposal, and what your ultimate goals are, to prioritize the work that will return the highest ROI. Then help your team focus, focus, focus, and don’t be afraid to say no to everything else.

Once you’ve committed to goals, timelines, and deadlines, and as soon as you’re out of the planning phase, any additional work should be considered scope creep. Preventing this scope creep will ensure quality control for everything you have committed to doing for your launch.

5. Not being able to explain new features to your grandparents

I work for Lightstep, a software performance and reliability company, and the features we develop are all very technical. Coming from the product side, it’s especially easy to fall into the trap of over-explaining. Or, what I often refer to as "devsplaining" (don’t hate me, engineers... I love all the detail... but there’s a time and a place!). As a PMM, never forget that it’s your job to translate what was built into compelling messaging about why it was built, the value it’s going to bring to your customers and the market, and, most importantly, ensure you can do all of this as if you're explaining it to your grandmother or grandfather. If you don't think they'll understand it, there's a good chance your users won't either. I've found the grandparents rule is a great litmus test!

Over time, I’ve gotten better at connecting the dots between understanding exactly what’s been shipped and building messaging to ensure customers know exactly what value it will deliver to them. One of the resources that helped me improve this skill is this HBR video The 5 Whys, which helps you learn how to break complex ideas down to their core elements. This skill is especially crucial if you’re a PMM at a company selling technical products or services.

The ultimate product marketing launch template

Now that we’ve gone through some pre-launch considerations, tips for great launch execution, and a few major pitfalls to avoid, it’s time to share my product marketing launch template. Hopefully using this template as a guide will help you not only nail your first launch as a PMM, but also put into practice the things  I’ve discussed in this post.

Obviously every organization, and every product launch, is different, so you should consider this template a baseline that you can build on. Off the top of my head, two areas that are fairly light in this template are Partnerships and Pricing, both of which you can and should break down into further detail if your P1 launch involves heavy work in either area. So once you copy and paste this template into your own spreadsheet, please add rows, remove rows, and edit it so that it’s as useful to you and your team as possible. That’s the end goal here!

You can access the template here: The product marketing launch template

Thoughts? Questions? Feedback? I’d love to hear from you! Reach out to me anytime: talia@lightstep.com

Conditional formatting

Often times when this launch template is copy and pasted into another Google Docs spreadsheet the conditional formatting for both the launch countdown and the status indicators gets erased. If this happens, here's the formatting the you'll need to make each work:

Days until launch:

  • =DATEDIF(TODAY(),"12/31/2020","D")

Status (red, yellow, green):

  • Format > conditional formatting
  • Apply to range: Bx:Bz
  • Text is exactly: red
  • Formatting style: select shade of red and set fill color = text color
  • *apply for yellow and green

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