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Being More Strategic About Product Launches

Alfred Lua / Written on 22 July 2020

Hello there,

Last week was another busy week as I continue to help make product stuff while the product manager was out. That includes scoping three upcoming projects, planning a change in the date range options of reports in Buffer, and compiling feedback for the Facebook and Instagram product managers. Tom, the product manager, is back this week, so I'm enjoying a lighter week.

I also recorded a short podcast episode on measuring social media success.

In other news, I got promoted! In case you missed it, I wrote about some career growth lessons I've learned at Buffer over the past five years.

Onto this week's note!

Strategic product launches

Over the years, we at Buffer had accumulated too much technical debt that shipping new changes became complicated and slow. So we spent about two years rebuilding our entire product from scratch.

That meant the marketing team didn't have much product-related news to talk about for those two years. Whenever we did get the chance, any chance, we will try to make a big splash, using every tactic and channel possible. Shout on social media, write a blog post, email customers and blog subscribers, try and get press, buy ads, and so on.

But even after we got over that phase and started shipping improvements to our product regularly, we kept the same mentality. A new feature? Big splash! A small improvement? Big splash! I believe this would annoy our audience because we are shouting about big and small changes to them every so often. Also, this didn't feel sustainable for the team because it takes a lot of effort to promote something through all our marketing channels (social, blog, email, etc.)

Big splash campaigns might be good for startups that ship less often and have an early-adopter audience who wants to hear about every single update. More mature companies ship changes much more frequently, and have a broader audience from early adopters to late majority.

That's when I realize I should be more strategic about my product launches.

Focus on one goal

The best way I've found to be more strategic is to think really hard about the goal. Focusing on only one goal is harder than it seems. Our natural tendency is to use our product launches to get as much reach as possible so that we can acquire as many new customers or leads as possible. The thinking usually goes like this, "if this new feature is adding new value, which of course it should, then it will attract new customers, right?"

No. Let me share a recent example.

In March, we added a new analytics feature that predicts the best times to post on Instagram for maximum reach. It is better than other social media tools because the predictions are based on not only the account's previous posts but also its follower activity. My first instinct was to promote this feature to acquire new customers. But after studying the market, I realized that might be the wrong move.

Here's my thought process:

  1. Many other tools already provide a similar feature. Even if ours is better, marketers would not switch tools just because of this one feature. It is only a tiny part of a social media analytics tool. So it is unlikely we would acquire new customers through promoting this feature.
  2. The most effective thing to do is to use this feature to retain existing customers by letting them know the additional value they are getting. For subscription software, we want our customers to subscribe as long as possible.
  3. The next best thing to do is to cross-sell our existing customers to try our new analytics product Analyze. They are already bought into the Buffer brand and are more likely to switch than non-customers.
  4. Finally, promoting the feature to increase brand awareness will be the least effective because it is not a major feature and isn’t that innovative to generate press or word of mouth. Even if it were to generate press or word of mouth, again it’s unlikely people will switch analytics tools just because of this feature.

My number one focus for that product launch was to reduce churn.

Here's another example (we have not even rolled this feature out yet): Soon our customers will be able to see insights of their boosted Facebook and Instagram posts and compare the organic and paid results. For this, trying to acquire new customers makes more sense. My reasoning is that people who boost their posts are not using our analytics product at all now because we are missing the data they need. When I looked through our support emails, I also noticed people who asked about such a feature are prospects and not existing customers. For example, “I am looking into Buffer and wanted to ask whether I can see organic social media performance separately from paid social media performance?" People who are not our customers will probably be more interested in this feature than our current customers. So I should focus the product launch on attracting new customers rather than informing existing customers.

The exception to this guideline is major product launches, such as launching an entirely new product or a major feature. For those, I might want to have multiple goals such as maximizing brand awareness and customer acquisition.

Different goals, different tactics

There are generally four main goals for product launches:

  1. Brand awareness: Launching something innovative is a great way to generate attention because customers and the press would talk about it. It is also "high-quality" awareness because people aren't just talking about your brand. They are talking about your product.
  2. Acquisition: If the new product or feature is much better than what's on the market, you could use the product launch to attract new customers to switch from your competitors.
  3. Retention: You could increase retention by educating existing customers about the free added value to the product.
  4. Revenue expansion: If you are adding a new feature only on the higher-priced plans, the product launch could encourage customers on the lower-priced plans to upgrade. If you are launching a new product, you could get existing customers to pay you more by subscribing to more products.

Each of these requires a different set of tactics. Instead of using everything every time, I carefully allocate my efforts on the more important tactics.

For the best time to post launch, the goal was retention. The focus was on educating our existing customers about the feature. Instead of the typical external-facing marketing such as advertising, my tactics were internal-facing—targeted at existing customers. For example, customers saw an in-app message about the feature when they logged in to their Buffer dashboard. We also sent customers an email on how to use the new feature and not just announcing it. Our Customer Advocacy team also included this new feature in their regular webinars. Finally, I also updated the trial onboarding emails so that new trialists would also learn about it. We also shared the announcement on social media and our blog but most of the effort was spent on the retention tactics.

For the boosted post insights launch, the goal is acquisition. I will be spending most of my efforts on the announcement blog post and promoting the feature on social media. I might also send an email to our blog subscribers, who often aren't our customers yet.

For revenue expansion launches, I might want to focus on emailing customers who are mostly interested in the new feature or product based on their product usage behavior. I might also hold a webinar to walk through the new feature or product.

For brand awareness launches, I might want to emphasize on getting press mentions and getting listed on Product Hunt. These tend to get more reach but the audience is less specific.

Evolving product launches

There is a lot more to learn about being strategic with product launches. Jasmine Jaume, a group product marketing manager at Intercom wrote a great article on How to evolve product launches as you grow. As Buffer grows and we introduce more products or ship more regularly, this framework might not work as well. And I'll need to update it.

How do you think about product launches at your company?