We’ve all struggled with an underperforming launch, usually because we forgot the number one rule about launches: launch readiness involves more than product readiness. This point was brought home in the spring 2014 issue of Pragmatic Marketer, and I couldn’t agree more.
Product readiness is just a small slice of the planning pie for product marketing. Launch readiness should trump all. By the time a product or feature is ready to ship, product marketing should have all our ducks in a row. But, how many product marketers struggle with launch readiness because they aren’t set up for it?
As a product marketer at HubSpot, I’m responsible for all feature or functionality launches in several areas of the marketing platform. I understand the fine line that divides a successful product launch from an underwhelming one. The big challenge: how to set up your employees—and yourself—for success.
Product Launch Readiness
HubSpot has created a proven formula for achieving product launch readiness. First, our team structure and responsibilities provide a strong platform for success. Second, we’re fortunate to have a strong company vision that drives all of our teams to market and sell a certain way. Third, we consistently use several tactics to better understand our audience. Fourth, we make communication, both internal and external, a priority. And last, but not least, we measure it all. These tactics also help strengthen our cross-team communication and relationships.
One thing I’ve learned about product— both management and marketing—in my career is that no two companies handle it exactly alike. A lot of factors play into this including the size of the marketing department, technical expectations for product team members, business philosophy and company goals.
At HubSpot, there are five of us who work directly with 10 product managers to launch new features and functionality, and grow the adoption of our product areas among customers. We’re responsible for all components of launch readiness, such as sales training, product positioning, content creation and internal and external communications. Although our team falls under the marketing department umbrella, we work more closely with developers and customers than other folks on the marketing team. It’s a special opportunity.
Successful product launches require a clear, well-articulated vision that goes beyond the actual launch. When I say “vision,” I mean the reason your company was created in the first place, and what your company stands for as it continues to grow. HubSpot’s vision and mission is to make the world more inbound. We want to change how companies market and sell their products or services based on the way consumers buy and shop online.
Making the world more inbound is the basis for everything we do. This consistency and reinforcement helps people understand how all the pieces fit together. It’s an underlying theme for our launches. It’s also the guiding light for product management as it creates software and for product marketing as it shares the product story with customers.
Understanding Our Audience
Understanding customers takes time. It isn’t something that happens in a week or can be achieved through one specific activity. My team and I do things every day to better understand our audience and strengthen our clearly defined buyer personas. In fact, buyer personas are such an important cornerstone of inbound marketing that we built a personas tool into our product. Customers requested it and we recognized the need.
Our product marketing team has unlimited opportunities to learn about our audience. We attend user testing with product management from the time that team is ready to show a new feature up until production. We are sometimes called on to participate in demos with our sales reps, which helps us better understand what material and content are needed. We also work closely with our customer marketing team, and contribute blog posts about new features and best practices. Sometimes, we’re even invited to be guest speakers and discuss new features at HubSpot User Group (HUG) meetups.
It’s in these practices that we really get to know the people who buy our product, and what they want and need from us to be successful in their marketing. We use these findings to inform everything we do, from positioning to content creation. These activities also help us define how we should talk about the product to our audience, an important nuance.
We use an approach called “working backwards,” which is actually the cornerstone of how Amazon approaches product management and development. In working backwards, instead of starting with a product idea and figuring out how the customer will use it, product development starts with the customer.
At the beginning of every launch, we collaborate with product management on a fake press release to customers about the new feature, explaining the benefits in a non-technical way. It’s a great exercise that helps product marketing and product management step back to look at what the feature means within the context of the HubSpot marketing platform. How does this feature help marketers who use our software do that better?
If we can answer that question with the press release, we know we’re on the right track with product positioning and messaging. But it’s not a one-and-done exercise; we’ll go through many drafts to really nail why a feature matters to customers. The best part is that by the time the press release is done, I’ve got a good sense of where customer trouble spots might be. And I already have a few ideas about how to nip that confusion in the bud.
When I talk to others in product marketing, I’m always curious to know what tactics they use for communicating feature releases, both internally and externally. In my opinion, it’s not worth informing our customers of a change in the product if our sales team, support team, services team and other customer-facing teams don’t know about it. Imagine if a customer calls a support rep with a question and the rep isn’t aware that the functionality exists. What if an employee speaks at a HUG but doesn’t know the latest and greatest information? If these things happen, I haven’t done my job.
My team uses some great tried-and-true tools to communicate feature releases internally. For example, we hold monthly “product nation” meetings for our respective product areas. A representative from each customer-facing team attends and we’ll go over that month’s release chart. We use the release chart to keep track of the state of a feature release, timing of the release and other pertinent information.
Most internal communication is through emails sent to internal distribution lists. They run the range from alerting co-workers about private betas that might only affect a few enterprise customers to announcing functionalities rolled out to all customers. We call these emails “prod-notifys,” and send out hundreds each year. They generally follow the same format, including a section up front that highlights the most important details for our internal team.
Externally, we’ve built mechanisms into our product and communications to help customers quickly and easily understand what’s going on. Our software includes a notification tool that alerts customers (iPhone-style badges) when new software functionality is available. We gate these communications so only people who need to see them, see them. It helps eliminate the “Do I have this?” question since we offer several product tiers. We also have a public-facing release calendar to which customers can subscribe. It allows us to give customers a heads up about things that could catch them by surprise, like changes to their navigation. We try to think of everything we’d want to know as a customer, and share that information.
To intelligently explain how a product works—and why it matters—product marketing must have an understanding that is both deep and wide. That’s why our team sits with the engineering team in our Cambridge, MA office. Working near co-workers who develop and create what you’re marketing not only helps with communication, it also helps create alignment on the launch.
We also use HipChat, a chat and video service that allows teams to “sit” in rooms by product area. These chat rooms allow anyone in the company, like sales reps or other marketers, to directly engage with the people who make a product and ask questions. Using HipChat helps me gauge if any of my materials are confusing, or if I haven’t included enough information about a certain feature. It also provides me with a daily log, so if I haven’t participated in the conversation that day, I can read about it that night and never miss a beat. Although we sit side-by-side, a lot of important information passes through our HipChat rooms.
Content creation, one of the guiding principles of inbound marketing, plays a huge part in our launches. We spend a lot of time preparing content for our launches that works for prospects and customers alike. It’s also one of the few things I can do ahead of time to support product adoption or lead generation.
Our goal is to provide content that helps educate our customers and establish HubSpot as a thought leader. For example, I might write about how social media can help marketers with their lead generation goals and how to best use social media for that purpose. This content isn’t solely product-focused and helps attract folks into our funnel. We write posts on our marketing blog and store evergreen guides in our free, public marketing library. This content also helps us further define our messaging and positioning when it comes to our tools.
In addition, materials such as product pages, customer stories and buyer guides help articulate product value, and they educate customers about how a product fits into HubSpot’s overall marketing platform. These materials also generate product interest with existing leads, and help our sales team with the lead-to-customer conversion rate.
As the launch approaches, we work with other customer-facing teams and product management to create product-heavy content that helps customers understand the new feature. Resources include help documentation, user guides and posts on our customer blog. Because similar content lives in different places on our website, we collaborate with other teams to ensure we all say the same thing in terms that are easy to understand and digest.
To deem a launch successful, you’ve got to first set goals for yourself, for the launch and for the metrics you’re responsible for in product marketing. This will vary from company to company. At HubSpot, the goals can change based on what’s being released, who has access to it and what we’re trying to achieve. In general, we look at three areas when considering success.
First, we look at the effectiveness of content created for the launch. We measure how individual assets are used, both internally on our sales and services floors, and externally by prospects and customers. We look at new contacts, reconversions, conversion assists, sales team usage, referral traffic—the works. This helps us understand what’s working so we can mimic it next time we have a similar release. Also, it allows us to determine the rough value of different assets in a launch. Sometimes, a blog post is the most-viewed content in a launch; other times, an email nurturing program works best. The only way to know is to try and track.
Second, we watch the lead-to-customer conversion rate on any assets we create. Every time a member of our sales team closes a customer, they send out a “DING!” email to a distribution list. This helps us see which assets the new customer viewed in the sales process.
The third metric we track is product adoption. Our team pays close attention to milestones including product usage within the first 30, 60, 90 and 120 days of a customer’s life. It helps us close the loop on a launch and follow it through the customer lifecycle. If we release a feature in January, we expect that a certain percentage of our customer base will have adopted it before summer hits. We also filter data to see what type of customers adopt the feature; it helps us know if we need to do another smaller, targeted push.
Every other Friday, our team meets during lunch to discuss the successful product launches at other companies, and what we can learn from them to be even more successful at HubSpot. Although we’re classified as a B2B company, we don’t discriminate; we look at all kinds of companies and what they’re up to. Everyone’s doing something we can learn from.
While the words “team bonding” can incite an eye roll, for us these Friday meetings go a lot deeper. Not only are they great for getting together to discuss day-to-day work, they’re also designed to keep us learning and interested in new product marketing tactics. The day-to-day workload can be all-consuming, especially at tech companies and start-ups. This team-time allows us to step away from our daily work and get some perspective. I always leave these meetings with a new tactic or strategy to consider for my next launch.
Before our customers even catch wind of an upcoming feature release, there’s a lot of planning, collaborating and communicating between the product marketing and product management teams. That’s because in product marketing we don’t focus on product readiness; that’s not our job. Our job is to ensure launch readiness, something that encapsulates more than just the product.