As a marketing communications director for Silicon Valley startups, I’ve worked on a dozen or more marketing product launches over the past few years. Releasing new product features to market is an intrinsic and vital part of the startup journey. The engineering team has been working on these updates for months: gathering requirements, writing the code, testing, getting customer feedback, rewriting, testing again. As a SaaS provider, if you aren’t continually enhancing your product in the ways that matter most to customers, you’re not relevant.
But this part is just the beginning. Now it’s up to the marketing department to tell the right story and in the right way. Your audience, after all, is not just the customers who will be upgrading but prospects, media, analysts, potential investors, partners, employees and the talent you hope will want to come work for you later. Here are the elements that matter most when it comes to a public launch for a startup or smaller software company.
Meet with Product Management
It’s common for marketing people (and founders) to get ahead of their skis with news. You’ve heard rumblings about something new and cool coming from engineering, and you’re ready to announce it to the world. But wait, before you do anything, get your product management leader on the phone or Zoom for a debrief. The purpose of that first call is to get clarity on the announcement – what it will enable and why it’s happening – as well as timing and any risks. Is the story newsworthy enough to plan a launch? It may be that the upgrade is less than you had dreamed or that there are roadblocks delaying it for another month or two. Determine whether the update is a major tier 1 or smaller tier 2 launch – which will guide the deliverables.
The product management team is closest to both the customer and market as well as engineering and should be able to shine light on what’s most important (or not) about the product update. Ideally, you’ll have a product marketing director/manager on staff who is the main liaison with product management and who will lead the marketing launch.
Hold a Product Messaging Session
Gather your top influencers from marketing, product management, engineering and any others in the know to discuss how you want to describe the new release, product name if applicable, and what the storyline should include. Go as deep as possible so that you have all the elements required for the various assets you want to create: the press release (high level) to the FAQ and any technical documents such as a white paper. Do research before the call to understand what similar features have been announced by your top competitors.
If you’re creating a new product name, research ideas that come from the call to ensure that you won’t be violating any copyrights. Get your legal team involved, if needed. Messaging calls are best when you pull in people from different viewpoints (engineering, sales, executives, field support) but it also means you’ll have a longer process to develop the storyline and a second call might be required.
Create a Launch Plan
While this may seem obvious – a thorough plan with deliverables and key dates isn’t always something that we think about in a scrappy, startup marketing team where decisions and pivots are made quickly through Slack, text and email. A marketing launch plan may include the following elements:
- A “what’s new” webpage
- Blog post
- Press release and media pitch plan
- Updates to any related product pages affected by the update
- A slide deck for sales enablement plus another deck for analyst briefings
- A short product demo
- Technical white paper
- Social media plan
- Internal FAQ
- Media/analyst briefing document
- Website promotional copy/graphics and overall design strategy
Depending on the elements you’ll include and the importance of the announcement, you’ll need four to size weeks to execute and weekly meetings to keep everyone on the same page with deliverables. A dedicated launch channel on your internal messaging tool (aka Slack) helps streamline communications. Your launch team will likely include at least one of the founders, your head of engineering, representatives from product management and the key marketing folks.
Giving beta access or a short presentation and demo to select customers can be extremely valuable for a launch. This gives customers the opportunity to provide any feedback on what you’re releasing, which can inform messaging and the overall launch strategy. As well, customers may agree to supply a quote for the press release and be available for media interviews, which lends considerable credibility to your announcement. Customers will also appreciate the early information for their own planning purposes. Be sure to have your customer success team involved in these discussions.
If you have subscriptions to popular analyst services such as Gartner and Forrester, you’ll want to engage them for a pre-launch briefing if possible – for similar reasons as you’d engage your customers. They will likely have a fresh perspective on your go-to-market plan and may also supply a quote for your press release or website. Such briefings typically are about 30 minutes and are a super way to keep in front of analysts and make sure they understand your latest marketplace offerings for when their customers are seeking recommendations. Small analysts that don’t offer subscriptions will also appreciate your news. Of course, they will try to engage you in paid programs such as custom research or white papers–and you may want to participate in those as budget allows. Many analyst firms will include you in their own research studies, even if you’re not a subscriber, so it’s important to keep the communication lines open and provide timely information to support their work.
The Press Release
Public relations is a central part of the promotion plan for a product release; after all, PR is by far the most cost-effective and influential way to share the news. Start drafting the press release after the messaging call. A best practice is to create the longer internal FAQ document first, after which you can pull from it to create your PR draft. There are plenty of resources online about how to write a solid press release, such as this one from Hubspot. What’s most important is to avoid jargon and acronyms, be clear and succinct on your news, write a compelling headline, and within the first paragraph make sure you can answer the “who cares” question that every reporter looking at your press release will have: Why does it matter, why now, and how does it hook into current trends and customer pain points. Shorter sentences are better. If you can’t catch their attention quickly and without requiring someone to reread the copy multiple times to understand what you’re announcing, you’re toast. Reporters cover many companies and topics and they won’t “get” your news without context and clarity.
Count on two weeks to share the draft internally and attain the proper feedback to create an excellent press release. Engage top executives early, as its not uncommon for a CEO or founder to come in at 11th hour and radically change the entire message. Getting customer quotes are golden; work in more review time if you plan to reach out to customers for help. Finally, make sure you have a clear pitching and media relations strategy.
The Media Pitch
An experienced outside PR firm or consultant is well worth the money. They will know how to reach the right reporters and understand the finer details around embargoes and pre-pitching your news to better the chances of quality coverage on launch day or soon thereafter. Identify an internal spokesperson to be available for interview requests – typically one of your founders – and make sure to prepare that individual prior to any calls. It’s not a bad idea to have a practice interview so you can coach the executive on how to answer questions in ways that are compelling—hooking into larger industry trends and customer pain points—and with anecdotes or metaphors that will stick.
The Briefing Document
Create an internal media briefing document covering the key aspects of the announcement which the spokesperson can refer to before and even during the call if needed. This will help the executive stay on target during the interview and give him/her some talking points if they get stuck on a question. Keep in mind, that in today’s difficult media environment publications are understaffed and don’t have much time to spend on a single story. Most reporters will not ask for a live interview but will either run the news without further input or will ask for questions via email. Fortunately, with your briefing document, you can respond to those email requests quickly. As well, the briefing document will help your PR team with the pitch.
Pitching your internal audience is as important as the external pitch. Your sales team, including BDR and Sales Engineers, needs to not only understand what you’re announcing but how to communicate it persuasively to prospects and customers. Create a two-page solution sheet and/or a short slide deck with images or screenshots and data points to help tell the story. Your sales team can use these materials for live meetings or as a follow-up email to a sales call. Additionally, hold an internal meeting where your product managers can explain the new product or update, conduct a short demo and answer any questions. On launch day, include Sales on your outreach plan—sharing the press release and any other assets you’ve created such as a blog post.
Website and Social Media
Promote your product news front and center on your home page. One way to accomplish this is by updating the Hero image and copy with the launch graphics and links to the press release or blog. As well, you will (obviously) want to promote the news on your social media accounts the day of launch. Don’t forget that messages need to be repeated a few times to resonate and reach different audiences. Consider doing social media posts related to the launch several times over the month following your launch date. For tier 1 announcements, consider scheduling follow-up events, such as a video interview with an executive or a webinar. Keep the buzz going – this is not a one-day event!
As you can see, there are a lot of pieces that go into a marketing product launch. The earlier you can prepare, the better, yet also be aware that last-minute changes happen with product releases. Sometimes, an important feature must be held back or bugs delay releases. Be flexible and supportive of the product team as they work through these final changes. Have fun with your launch: innovation is what startups do best and marketers play a fundamental role in creating excitement around the next phase of your product roadmap.