As product marketers, when we’re faced with a product launch we want to make it the best it can be, and to achieve that we look to others for examples of how to succeed.

But best practices don’t always work, they’re riddled with subjectivity and bias, and in this article, I’ll share three examples of times in my career when adhering to best practices hasn’t worked, and how creating your own customer-first playbook will lead to more effective product launches and better outcomes as a PMM.

My name's James Doman-Pipe and in this article, I'll be talking about what happens when best practices don't work.

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As product marketers, there's nothing we get more excited about than big, new, groundbreaking product launches. We all want our product launches to be effective. We want them to explode onto the scene, make a tonne of money, and build that elusive buzz in the tech industry.

When these opportunities arise, we pour our hearts and souls into them. Not only are they fun and exciting projects to work on, but they're an opportunity to show we are experts in our field, we can project manage, we can be strategic, we can execute well, and get results. We want to prove our worth, our value.

So when we're tasked with a product launch, and we want to make sure it's really strong, what do we do? We look for examples of how others have done them.

We read blog posts, watch conference talks, work with consultants, and ask in communities - we look for best practices. Luckily, there's more information available now than ever before. Product marketing is finally having its moment in the spotlight.

When I started in product marketing eight years ago, there were no communities like the Product Marketing Alliance, and there were no resources. There has been a huge increase in the number of product marketers.

The number of product marketing roles continues to increase every year

According to LinkedIn, product marketing is one of the fastest-growing roles increasing by over 30% every year.

As we all become experts, we want to pass on our knowledge so we write about it. A quick Google search shows there are over 240 million results for product marketing best practices.

Of course, they're not all going to be useful but some will have gravitas, some will have authority, and some will have clout. They will all promise to show you the way, ‘do this and solve all your problems’.

They'll proclaim they have the only solution to unlock millions of dollars in revenue or the one thing you must do to delight your customers. Those approaches are dangerous.

There's too much content out there that's written as if it's a definitive guide when is only an example, an example that's subject to cultural and personal interpretation that was viewed in hindsight as a success and that was affected by multiple cognitive biases, changing the way the story was told.

Create your own playbook for effective product launches

In this article, I want to talk about my example of a product launch that was not effective and I'll explain how we turned it around.

I want to talk about how you can find your own exclusive path to execute effective product launches with best practices, customer insights, and iteration at its core.

With product launches, we all start off with good intentions but we're human, we’re as susceptible as anyone else to FOMO - the fear of missing out.

We want to appear as smart as others so we copy ideas, processes, and strategies. We might be unsure what to do so we rely on public information as a safety net. That's where our problems start.

Best practice: a definition

The definition of a best practice is a professional procedure that is accepted as being correct or the most effective.

A definition of what best practice means according to James Doman-Pipe


There's one problem - being correct is not the same as being effective. We've conflated the two meanings. If I need milk, I could go to the supermarket or I could go and find a cow. Only one of those is actually effective.

The majority of advice available today is not best practice but merely a practice that has worked. Those practices probably come from companies that are very different from yours. Companies with their own culture and different problems.

How to create your own playbook

To create your own customer-first playbook for effective product launches I want to offer three examples and three key points.

Best practices are inspiration, not instructions

Firstly, best practices are inspiration, not instruction, analyse them, adapt them, and tweak them. Sure. But don't blindly copy processes that won't be right for your business.

It is tempting to do it. They are shortcuts. But shortcuts cut corners and diminish the quality of your decisions, your execution, and your results.

Let your customers lead you

The only answer is to go back to basics and understand your customer. We need to let our customers lead us, we need to understand who they are as people, we need to understand their mindset.

The tactics and strategies you apply to your business must be built from this foundational understanding. That won't be right from day one so we need to learn to adapt.

Flex your iteration muscle

We have to flex our iteration muscle and get better at managing change. As product marketers, we are the voice of our customers and we will fall further and further behind unless we are continually building our customer understanding and adapting our go-to-market approach.

Unfortunately, I learned all three of these lessons the hard way and I want to offer three key examples. But first, some context.

Context

I joined a company called Kayako a few years ago as the first product marketer, and I joined at a really exciting time, we were building a brand new product that was completely different from everything else out there.

No longer would customer service teams have to treat customers as tickets. Instead, they could create an effortless experience, however their customers communicated with them.

We wanted to use the product launch as a rebranding opportunity to move away from a technical audience to a more growth-oriented persona. We wanted to launch everything at once with the goal of creating a big bang and building that elusive buzz.

I'd been a product marketer for a few years at that point and we knew what we needed to do. We went away, we did the work, we launched and it completely failed. We were losing customers, losing money, and we weren't growing. It was visible immediately.

We had gone from adding 1000s of dollars in new revenue every month to hundreds instead, it was bad. We identified three areas that were seriously problematic:

  1. Pricing,
  2. Positioning, and
  3. Onboarding.

Pricing

We had worked with a consultant who had developed best practices and strategies from his time at Microsoft. He was great, we learned a lot, it was really productive. We felt confident and assured that it would work.

The process involved carrying out a survey to understand the value customers gained from our product. It included a big spreadsheet that listed out every single feature with a dollar value against it, depending on how big of a draw it was. We looked at competitor pricing to understand how we compared.

Best practices are inspiration, not instructions

In hindsight, we should have known that a pricing process developed from a trillion-dollar business like Microsoft could never have worked for our $5 million startup.

We launched with a standard pricing structure; good, better, and best. It was similar to our biggest competitor, only a few dollars cheaper and it wasn't effective.

  • Nobody was signing up because they were put off by pricing on the website.
  • Nobody was converting to a paid account because they didn't see the right plan for them.
  • Nobody was renewing because they weren't experiencing the value they expected for the price they were paying.

Why?

We needed to understand why. We managed to pick up calls and interviews with customers, prospects, and anyone that would talk to us. The results were really interesting. Our suspicions were confirmed.

Customers weren't signing up because they didn't see the right plan at a reasonable price that represented good value for them. We went back to the drawing board.

Let your customers lead you

Who were our customers? We created a spectrum from individual users looking for a simple live chat tool to companies looking for an enterprise-level platform. We loosely followed a value-based pricing strategy with three stages.

Firstly, quantify your personas.

  • Who are they?
  • How profitable are they for you?

We did this with data we already had.

Secondly, ask your customers which features they value the most.

Lastly, ask your customers four questions on price to understand their acceptable range:

  • How much is too expensive?
  • How much would be expensive but not out of the question?
  • How much would be a bargain? And
  • What price would be so cheap that you would begin to question its quality?

When we analyzed the results, we found everything aligned with our customer spectrum. Individual users looking for a simple live chat tool wanted something very cheap, or free. Companies looking for an enterprise-level platform were willing to pay significantly more.

This was a fantastic achievement. We had turned our innate understanding of our customers into quantified evidenced results as the basis for our pricing strategy.

Flex your iteration muscle

Our original plan had been to evaluate pricing every six months. If we had waited that long, we would have been in serious trouble. Instead, after we implemented the new pricing, we continuously gathered feedback and monitored metrics to understand what was happening.

Over the coming months, we adapted and tested our pricing several times, sometimes with a free plan and sometimes without. We changed the numbers, the layout, the format, based on what we were hearing and seeing. We forced ourselves to iterate and that wasn't easy.

Every change took at least a day's worth of work from three people just to implement, let alone the time to plan, agree, and announce. But our ability to react quickly to the information and feedback we were hearing was literally the difference between our success and failure.

Positioning

We were also struggling with positioning. A common best practice is to lead with aspirational world change messaging to create a category that you can own. We wanted to do this as part of our product launch to stand out from our competitors.

Andy Raskin has a great series of Medium posts on how to do this. His key to creating a category is to define the promised land, the world your customers can achieve only when they have your product.

Naively, we followed this format as instruction, we tried to create a category around effortless customer experience and we described it in a really human way. The end of being treated like a ticket number, no more having to repeat yourself across departments.

When we tested this with customers and prospects, it really resonated. So we went heavy on it. It was on our website, in our sales deck, and in all our messaging.

Best practices are inspiration, not instructions

After we launched, we discovered it wasn't actually effective. We discovered we had focused almost exclusively on this high-level world change so much that we hadn't covered the functional benefits our customers expected to see and in some cases prioritized more.

We were alienating our customers with high-level messaging and although we had done testing and research, we had biassed ourselves towards executives and decision-makers in more mature businesses without realizing they weren't actually our customers.

Let your customers lead you

Armed with the contacts we had from our pricing research, we were able to pick up interviews and calls with those customers that were interested in Kayako. Often, they were smaller companies, with co-founders looking for a good product they could easily set up and helped them and their team deliver personal customer service.

Flex your iteration muscle

So we flexed that iteration muscle again We were able to test, update, and rollout messaging really quickly. Sometimes we would do it every day with small tweaks, rewriting headlines, or trying something completely different.

We worked really closely with our sales and success teams to try new messaging, test different demo formats, and try different ways of presenting our value. We tried to get out of our heads, put aside our bias, and really get into our customers and understand what they wanted.

Onboarding

In the run-up to our product launch, we had researched best practices for SaaS onboarding. The majority follow a simple rule called time to value, it's a pretty good rule, it means you don't have to focus on helping users set your product up.

Instead, you can focus on getting them to a point of success and satisfaction, as soon as you can.

Our product required a lot of set up before you could experience value, you had to set up your support email address, connect your social accounts, and invite your team. This was way too much work for anyone to do, especially when they were just trialing the product.

Yet, we still followed this rule as an instruction, and obviously, the results were not effective.

Best practices are inspiration, not instructions

Leads were signing up for a free trial, looking around for a few minutes before leaving straightaway. This couldn't go on. It meant all the hard work we have put in to get visitors to the website, the work we have put in to iterate our messaging, and the huge strides we had made with pricing were all for nothing.

We were falling down at the last hurdle. We needed to understand why.

Let your customers lead you

We used a tool called FullStory to review what people were doing in their first experience.

We found that 99% of people were going straight to the worst place in the product, the place where nothing looks good, where no attention was paid, and where things can get confusing very quickly. They were going to the administration menu.

We had no idea people would go there within a few minutes of signing up. What was it that people were trying to learn there that they couldn't find elsewhere? We followed this line of investigation in our calls and interviews and the results were really interesting.

People said they wanted to see the features we had, and how flexible and configurable it was. They said they had been interested in the website and now they wanted to see not just the product, but its potential.

How could we help people understand the potential they could achieve with our product?

Flex your iteration muscle

The answer for us was education. As soon as someone signed up, we showed them a two-minute intro video and then we hit them again with three key points.

We added better information to the admin menu, describing not just the technical detail, but making it clear what the potential usage of each feature is. And we added dummy data and empty states to showcase the full capability.

We wanted to get to a point where a user could see what working in the product was like from the moment they signed up. We worked really closely with our designers and developers to iterate.

Some of the feedback we received was not good, as we tried something weird or just different. But most of the feedback was positive, as we focused on distilling complexity.

FullStory was also really great to see results, we could instantly see how people were using it and whether they were being more successful with each version we tried. When we looked at the data, we found a clear connection between the educational onboarding experience and higher trial conversion.

The outcome

It took us about six months of righting these wrongs and over that time, we managed to increase the new revenue we added each month by over 80%.

Within 18 months of launch, Kayako had become a $2 million recurring revenue business for us and was soon acquired on the strength of its growth.

How a strong product marketing strategy can positively impact monthly reucurring revenue (MRR)

Key takeaways

I hope you can see how in each of these examples, we were able to pick up a struggling product launch and put it back on track. And I hope it serves as an example of how you can create your own customer first playbook for effective product launches with these three key points.

Best practices are inspiration, not instructions

Firstly, remember that best practices are inspiration, not instruction. The same goes for any advice, tips, recommendations, even this article, there are simply too many variables, too many unknowns, and too many inherent biases at play to take a process from one company and expect it to work well in yours.

But that's not to say we can't take inspiration from them. A few years ago, Intercom wrote about their feature release matrix and I bet that at least half of the product marketers reading this article have read that article and tweaked it to suit their own needs.

We can also go a step further and apply some light critical analysis to the advice and recommendations we might hear. We can ask ourselves questions like:

  • Why was this successful?
  • What would prevent it from working well in my business? And
  • How are these situations different?

Let your customers lead you

Secondly, we need to let our customers lead us. This might sound pretty obvious, but doing it can also feel pretty strange. After all, there's a quote that people often attribute to Henry Ford, that makes a lot of sense. "If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse".

Especially if like my product launch at Kayako, you're moving towards a new type of customer that you don't know well enough yet, it can be tempting to put something out that you think will work like positioning based on your internal understanding or pricing based on your competitors.

As product marketers, we must continually build our understanding of our customers all the time, we have to talk to our customers through continuous research, not just one-off projects, we really need to put aside our bias, get out of our heads and really get into theirs.

Flex your iteration muscle

Finally, we need to flex our iteration muscle. I've called it a muscle because unless you do it often, it will be hard, it will be uncomfortable, and it will hurt.

But we have to keep stretching. As marketers, I think we're conditioned to prefer one-off Big Bang launches. We do it, launch it, move on to the next thing and we will revisit at some point in the future.

But in 2021, nothing lasts six months anymore. Your customers’ goals, pains, gains, and initiatives change much more often than you think and so does your business strategy. What was true and worked well yesterday, might not work so well tomorrow.

Implementing pulse checks can be really valuable. With small polls, real-time feeds, or regular evaluations to check two things, whether your understanding is still correct, and whether your execution is still effective.

To build your own customer-first playbook for effective product launches remember:

  • Best practices are inspiration, not instruction.
  • Let your customers lead you, and
  • Flex your iteration muscle.

You'll be able to demonstrate the unique customer-centric problem-solving value of product marketing and ultimately prove your worth as a valued product marketer too.

Thank you.

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