The Emergence of Launch Practices
A decade ago, the practice of product launch was not even recognized. Companies somehow got their products to market, but no one really knew how they did it. Today, companies must be smarter. If products aren’t properly launched, companies can’t generate revenues, grow, or even survive. With today’s dynamic economy and the pressures to be more competitive and profitable, solid launch processes are even more critical.
Product launch is not well understood. Some people think of ‘launch’ as a one-time announcement. In fact, the practice of product launch includes all of the work done during the three months before a product is made available to the market. Product launch is usually homeless; it doesn’t quite fit in the marketing or product management groups. Because businesses are in such a hurry to get to market, product launch may be done by whoever is available, and with no documented processes to follow. In the case of startups or entrepreneurs, the problem is worse because there are fewer resources and no business processes. Successful launches require a solid mix of project management and marketing skills, and a simple, realistic process to follow.
The Need for Process
Mention the word process to any launch team, and you are likely to hear: “Who needs processes? Don’t we have enough to deal with already with trying to get this product out the door, and now we have to create and follow some convoluted, bureaucratic process? By the time we do all of that paperwork to figure out the process and follow the process, the launch could be done!”
Whether you are part of a large launch team or a lonely entrepreneur launching your first product, having a simple process will, believe it or not, save you time and sanity in the long run. By its nature, launching is chaotic. Often, people don’t know where to start. Do I do market research first? When do I write marketing materials? Do I wait until the product completes the final testing? It seems as if everything happens at once.
You have to know where to start because no matter when you start the work of launch, you’re always in a schedule crunch – it’s just the nature of the beast. Having a general knowledge of the process steps, a marketing plan, and a launch plan will save you lots of pain. An established launch process and set of plans also help the team better address crises that come up. By knowing what is affected downstream, plans can be adjusted accordingly.
It takes a village to launch a product or at least across-section of the village. Some companies assign the task of product launch to a specific functional group within the company; others set up ‘virtual teams’ that come together to implement a launch. Whatever the approach, six key functional groups should be represented on the launch team: Marketing, Engineering, Sales, Customer Service, Public Relations (often a vendor), and Channel or Strategic Partners. Sometimes these functional areas are within the company, and sometimes these functions are represented by outside vendors (channel partners and public relations).
Some of these groups may be needed throughout the entire launch process; others may be involved only during the launch planning and implementation phase. Most launches involve marketing and engineering, but the sales organization is sometimes left out. In fact, the involvement of the sales organization is especially critical during the entire launch process – to provide feedback regarding existing customers and identify the marketing and sales materials that may be needed for the launch.
There are three main phases of the process, each with several steps:
- Data Gathering and Analysis Phase:
- Product Definition
- Strategic Objectives
- The Customer
- Market Analysis
- Distribution Plan
- Market Strategy and Programs Phase:
- Market Strategy
- Message Development
- External Marketing
- PR and Advertising
- Internal Marketing
- Marketing Plan
- Launch Planning and Implementation Phase:
- Planning Process
- Launch Team
- Launch Schedule
- Launch Budget
- Launch Plan
- Launch Implementation
First There Was a Product (or Was it a Market?)
The first phase of the launch process is the Data Gathering and Analysis Phase, and the first tasks are to assess what is being launched and how much of the work has been done so far. Sometimes the initial analysis and strategy have already been done as part of a ‘marketing requirements’ document before the product was developed and may just need to be updated. Quite often, however, none of the marketing work has been done at all because the company may be operating under the ‘product push’ rather than ‘market pull’ philosophy (common in high-tech). Whatever the case, it’s imperative to develop a crisp and detailed description of the product or service being launched, and then the rest of the steps can begin: the strategic objectives; analyzing and characterizing the customer and market; a thorough competitive analysis; and developing a distribution plan.
The Strategy Drives the Marketing Campaign
The Market Strategy and Programs Phase relies upon the results of the Data Gathering and Analysis Phase. From the results of the competitive analysis and the customer characteristics, the overall market strategy, positioning statements, and a hierarchy of key messages are developed. The next step is identifying the right marketing programs and venues for reaching the target customer and convincing them to buy the product or service. Marketing programs include External and Internal Marketing, PR, and Advertising. All of the results of the first two phases are captured in the marketing plan, along with a narrative that ties everything together and tells a story. This plan is not only useful for the launch team to use as a guide during launch, but it is also a very useful document to share with outside vendors who may be helping with the launch, such as website designers or P.R. agencies.
These first two phases of the launch process are critical because they help the launch team think through the launch before the work is done and the money is spent.
Firming Up the Launch Plan
The launch plan is the ‘project management’ document for the launch. The first part of this plan consists of allocating the resources (the launch team and other human resources) to the launch deliverables (the marketing programs identified in the marketing plan). This is captured in a spreadsheet called the ‘resource allocation’.
The second major piece of the launch plan is the schedule. This consists of two parts. The first is a one-page launch timeline, that shows the major launch deliverables (marketing programs) and who will be doing them plotted along a timeline demarcated by weeks before the launch date. The other part is a detailed schedule that shows the due dates for all deliverables, the overlaps, and the precise order in which they will be done. The timeline can easily be done in PowerPoint, and the schedule can be done using a simple spreadsheet program like Excel, or project management software such as Microsoft Project. The spreadsheet method is easier, and it has the added utility of being able to turn it into a weekly status report by adding columns for owner, status, and comments.
The third part of the launch plan is the budget displayed in a spreadsheet, with estimates for each deliverable, and arranged by week or by month (usually launches take place over a few weeks, not months, so weeks make more sense).
And Now the Hard Work Begins
The final step is implementation, which can be chaotic if there are a lot of deliverables being developed at the same time (which is usually the case!) If the launch plan is solid and thought through in adequate detail, however, the plan itself will really help to manage the bustle of activity as the launch date nears. One way to make this last phase easier is to identify the review and approval process for launch deliverables such as website content, printed materials, etc. ahead of time and build that into the launch schedule, along with time for key people who might travel, go on vacation, etc. These are the situations that can hold up the launch during the implementation step.
How Long Does the Process Take?
The first two phases of the launch process can take anywhere from just 2 weeks (if some of the analysis has already been done) to 6 weeks if everything has to be done “from scratch”. The launch plan may take 2or 3 weeks to put together, especially if multiple outside vendors are involved; it takes time to get bids in, choose vendors, and get people to commit to a schedule and deliverable. Launch implementation may take several weeks, depending on how many deliverables there are and how long it takes to create them. Websites, for example, will take several weeks, but a simple printed brochure may only take a week or so. If this process is followed consistently, the entire launch can be completed in 8 to 12 weeks.
A Repeatable, Efficient Process
It’s important to follow a consistent process every time.This realistic but simple 3-phase process seems to work very well not only in terms of getting everything done, but also keeping the entire team (and management) informed and in the loop about critical decisions that may need to be made during the launch.