That’s how every single product launch I planned went.
I wanted Clair De Lune, but I always got Crazy Train.
In fact, that became my coping song for every time something went wrong, so at least I could laugh a little.
But that’s the reality of a product launch. It doesn’t matter if you’re a startup or an incumbent — there’s always something that won’t go as planned. Here are 10 reasons that product launches I’ve been a part of have failed and the lessons that came with them.
1. The engineering team didn’t deliver. Two weeks before a big event which was to be the unveiling of a freemium product, the head engineer sent an email. Subject line: Jesus has left the building. Unfortunately, all of the creative was sent and printed, including everything on the booth.
Lesson learned: Organizational commitment and accountability should be required to plan product launches. Sometimes we find out the hard way that it’s not there. Press hard to feel assured there is accountability, cross reference that with evidence that launch dates are delivered, and if you’re feeling at all uneasy have a fall-back strategy.
2. The scope decreased, and no one told me. As with any launch, once the plan and date are set, product marketing starts working backwards and starts with messaging and positioning. If done the right way, the stakeholders buy in to the value proposition in a messaging guide before any other launch materials are created. Then the train leaves the station and web copy, slide decks, email campaigns, and even tweets are all created. One time, there were three main value propositions, and I was told very late that one of the three was no longer going to be in the product at launch.
Lesson learned: Product management and product marketing need to be tightly aligned. It’s the product manager’s responsibility to make sure the product marketer is abreast of any changes in product strategy, so they can adjust accordingly. The best way I’ve found to hold everyone accountable is a working backwards press release. Before anything, product management and marketing write the press release. It helps you work out messaging early, and if something changes prior to launch that modifies the release, it should be up for discussion if a major launch is still possible.
3. There was no alpha or beta process. Ever launch a product that should never have seen the light of day? I have. GA, baby! Sometimes we get caught up in our markets and competitors, and think we can launch something similar-ish in order to remain competitive. It backfires. Every product worthy of a launch should have alpha and beta customers so it can be tested before supplied to the masses.
Lesson learned: This one is tough, because the learning comes in the 18-months post-launch. After months of customer success heroics trying to get customers live & happy, you’ll realize how badly you f’d it up. This is both a lesson in making sure your product is ready to hit the market before launch, and knowing what markets you should/shouldn’t be in. Sometimes you just have to try and fail in order to learn.
4. There were no referenceable customers. I’ve made this compromise too often: launching without publicly referenceable customers. When you say this is ok, you also say it’s ok not to have a tight beta process. You say customers aren’t the most important thing, driving demand is. It’s the true cart-before-the-horse scenario. What comes after launch? The press and analysts ask to talk to your customers.
Lesson learned: De-prioritizing the importance of customer references is the root of all launch evil. If you get references, you’ve done the hard work and listened and created a great product or service. When you decide it’s ok to launch without a customer reference, you say it’s ok to skip the hard work.
5. I didn’t get the necessary buy-in on the name from the HiPPO. Familiar with the term Highest Paid Person’s Opinion (HiPPO)? I wasn’t, until someone let me know that’s where I made a big mistake. I didn’t vet the name with two (the two) HiPPOs early. Just imagine having to change a product name two weeks before a launch.
Lesson learned: Do that earlier.
6. I neglected to talk to legal about the name. CMO: “Did you check to make sure the product name isn’t already in use?” Me: “Nope.” Turns out it is…and you already launched with it!
Lesson learned: This is not hard, takes very little time, and saves you and your company the embarrassment and cost of screwing up.
7. The pricing discussion went on too long. Ever launch a product in front of the sales team and say “we’re still working out pricing, but will get back to you soon”? Yikes. I have. As the product marketer, it’s your job to ensure all the pieces come together when they need to in order for the launch to be successful. Sometimes, one aspect will take more wrangling than expected, and pricing can blow up, fast. What’s not fast? Getting it back to a good place. When you launch without set or approved pricing, you lose confidence from the sales team, which is extremely hard to recover.
Lesson learned: Before the launch takes off, you need clear ownership on who will get pricing across the line. Product management or product marketing? It’s one of the two, and should not be both as the ultimate owner. It’s going to be a hairy mess, no matter how “fool proof” your process is, and someone needs to dedicate so it doesn’t slip between finger-pointing.
8. The importance of pre-briefing customers and partners is underestimated. Your best source of leads will always come from your current customers. The conversion from up-sell and cross-sell pipeline vs. net new customer pipeline is ridiculous. Further, these people already pay you, and you owe them a sneak peak. They deserve to see new products first. And whether indirectly or directly, your partners also pay you. Nothing ticks off your agency and integration partners more than being asked by their customers about a product of yours they haven’t heard about yet.
Lesson learned: Take the time to pre-launch to your most important audiences first. It strengthens relationships, and opens up the higher converting lead funnel.
9. The importance of enabling the customer success team is underestimated. Customer calls support saying, “I can’t get X working on this new product, can you help?” Customer support rep says, “I’d love to, but I’ve never heard of that product.” One time, a support member created a scathing email made entirely of GIFs to explain how frustrated they were to be find out about something after customers. It was in the checklist, but not identified as a launch blocker.
Lesson learned: Enabling the customer success team is, in fact, a launch blocker.
10. You didn’t push back hard enough. I can count on one hand the amount of times I launched a “product” when I shouldn’t have. Once I launched a re-packaging of a current product, not a new product, in seven days because we heard a competitor was going to launch something similar. What happened? The competitor didn’t launch anything, it was a rumor. Also, the “launch” was a mess–there wasn’t enough time to do anything well. It was a waste of our time, and distracted us from getting more important things done.
Lesson learned: You need to find a balance between standing your ground, and not getting fired. I know enough now to see a failed launch ahead of time; and will use that experience to save myself and the companies I work for strain. Sometimes you’re too junior, and the person pushing is too senior, and it is what it is. But as you build up experience, give yourself credit for what you’ve learned and speak up before it’s too late.
Regardless of what happens, good things will happen with future launches as long as you’ve learned and don’t make the same mistake twice.
Bonus Content: Here are seven steps to follow to make sure that your next launch will be successful and drive demand. Download this free product launch guide: