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Behind the Scenes of a Product Launch

Alfred Lua / Written on 02 September 2020

Hello there,

In my last Weekly Note, I mentioned I have a product launch this week. When this note is published, it is exactly an hour to my product launch. I'll be launching our latest analytics feature, boosted post insights. As a product marketer (and even before I became one), I'm curious about how other companies plan and execute product launches. But few people go in-depth into their processes and share transparently. My goal today is to share what it looks like behind the scene.

Working with the product team

I'm a product marketer embedded in the product team. We discovered that this team structure prevents the situation where the product team builds in silo and "throw the feature over the fence" to the marketing team to promote it (which was how things worked here in the past). This also allows me to have a better sense of the progress of things in the product team so that I can better plan product marketing campaigns. But it isn't always successful.

This new feature was scheduled to be completed by July 31. We have never met our own estimates (and this seems to be the same for most software teams). So I decided to add a four-week buffer and aim for a product launch on August 26. But even that was insufficient. The product launch was pushed back to today (September 2) because we needed more time to complete the feature and didn't want to rush it.

This has been the most common challenge in my 1.5 years as a product marketer. We never seem to be able to hit our own deadlines because there always seem to be unknown unknowns that would only come up as we build the feature. Why don't we increase the estimation of time needed and give ourselves more time? We tried, and it didn't work. Parkinson's law states that "work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion". If the work should only take four weeks and we give ourselves five weeks just in case, we will almost always take five weeks. This is assuming we can even accurately estimate the work would take four weeks. One thing we tried is to have two deadlines: one for the team, an internal ship date, and one for the product launch, an external ship date. While it has not perfectly solved the problem, it has made planning a bit better and reduced how much we needed to postpone product launches.

Why don't we finish the feature then decide the product launch day? For me, that's because it can take a few weeks to prepare for a product launch. I need to give our marketing designer enough notice to work on the visual assets. I need to prepare the marketing materials. If we are working with partners, they would need time to prepare for it, which means planning ahead. If we only start preparing for the launch after the feature is completed, we are essentially delaying when our customers can get value from the feature. Ideally, we want the feature completion date to be close to the product launch to minimize the delay. We have tried rolling out new features to customers first and launching it later. This takes the pressure off meeting a strict deadline while knowing there are many unknown unknowns and also lets customers get value as soon as possible without waiting for the launch. The downside is that it weakens the launch by removing the newness factor. When people already knew and tried the new feature, there is less of a "new" factor for the launch and people will be less inclined to share and talk about it. The analogy I usually give is this: imagine using the new iPhone for a few weeks before Apple announces it. Not very ideal.

My work for product launches is tied very closely to the progress made by the product team. Until the feature design and functionality are finalized, I cannot really start preparing the marketing materials that explain the feature. Being in the product team has helped to foster closer communications but I think our collaboration can still be improved.

Getting support from the Customer Onboarding team

One thing I did differently for this product launch is to collaborate with our Customer Onboarding team for the preparation. We had always wanted to work more closely because that team talks to prospects and customers regularly and understands them well.

For this product launch, we found a few ways to work together. First, the Customer Onboarding team started a series of Feature Spotlight webinars, where they teach customers how to use certain features in Buffer and answer questions. I thought this is a great way to inform our customers about this new feature, in case they miss the news, and to educate them on how to use the feature. The webinar will be held at a later date, which will help to reinforce the message after the launch. The webinar can also be watched on-demand afterward, serving as evergreen educational content.

Second, this feature is something many customers and prospects have asked for. I thought a new opportunity is to reach out to them and let them know it is now available. Customers will be happy while prospects might finally decide to try Buffer. The Customer Onboarding team often has to tell people we don't have this and that feature (because there are always more features people want than most products can have and not because we have few features). Now they can share a piece of happy news.

One of my goals is to tighten the feedback loop between product marketing and customer onboarding at Buffer. While product marketers create the marketing materials, it's mostly the Customer Onboarding team that hears from our customers and responds to their questions. They have great insights on what our customers want, what confused them, what could be better, and so on. Our recent collaborations, this product launch and the new onboarding emails, have been fruitful, and I'm keen to keep it up.

Teaming up with the marketing team

Finally, most of the preparation was done with the marketing team. Because we have a small team of seven people, I take on most of the work myself. But I also have great support from the rest of the marketing team (who also have their own projects and goals to work on).

This is roughly how the preparation was done chronologically:

A few weeks ago, Julia, our marketing designer, has helped prepare the visual assets, using the initial design mockup of the feature. The feature looks a little different now but I could easily update the designs in Figma without troubling Julia. I wrote the announcement blog post, emails, and in-app messages while Ash, our editor, and Mike, another product marketer, gave me feedback. I also prepared some website changes, and Gisete, our marketing engineer, reviewed and approved my code. Sophie, our audience marketer, prepared a series of social posts to promote the feature for a few days (without repeating the exact same message). I also got advice from our data scientist Matt on setting up a dashboard to track various metrics (trial starts and feature adoption).

Something I have been working on is to get a budget that I can use for product launches and other product marketing work. (Yes, most of our marketing work has been all organic and we have a pretty low cost of acquisition.) Since we are a small marketing team and nobody reports to me, I think having a budget will allow me to scale product launches in non-traditional ways (e.g. have a big team to work on it). For example, I would love to get a freelancer's help to create sleek product videos for new features. Or I might try different types of advertising such as sponsoring communities or even running outdoor ads. Or I could visit a few customers and give them some swag in exchange for early feedback and testimonials. Or I could even host a meetup to launch the feature (when it is possible again). I want to keep pushing the boundaries of our product launches.

If you have any questions about this particular product launch or product marketing at Buffer in general, let me know.

P.S. If you see our social posts about the new feature, I'll be so grateful for a share or retweet. Thank you!