While established orgs and their newly-found counterparts may differ in terms of overall experience, their respective product marketing teams will always strive to deliver product launches that’ll blow away their competition and leave their customers lapping up their latest offering.

Mary Sheehan, Senior Product Marketing Manager at Adobe, lifted the lid on the approaches companies adopt when launching a new product, whether they’re big or small.

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Q: At what stage of the planning cycle do you get brought into new product plans? Currently, at my company, the PMM team is massively suffering from the time old 'being brought in at the last minute' problem. What would your advice be to garner a more collaborative approach from the get-go?

A: This is a great question and a frustrating challenge. For major releases, product marketing should be brought in as early as possible in the research or validation phase (before all of the features are defined). Here's why:

PMMs represent the customer's voice, and we can help make sure that this POV is carried throughout the entire product process. If you're brought in at the last minute to "put lipstick" on whatever launch is happening, the PM is missing the strategic value of PMM.

But it's one thing to say this, and another to be brought into the folds early. Here's what I would recommend:

  1. Write out the product life cycle at your company, and understand how your team can add value at each stage. For example, in the early research phase (what I call ‘market problems' ' or ‘market validation’), PMM can assist with competitive intel, or helping to run interviews or surveys (including the PM at every step along the way). Then, you can help package some of the analysis for them to help influence the product.
  2. Find an eager PM who wants/needs your help, and start early with them adding value in the way only PMM can. It will undoubtedly go better than if they ran it themselves.
  3. Package up the results, share them with everyone (PM team included), and treat it as an internal case study to show what PMM can do. You will probably have them knocking down your door to get help!

Q: How do you prioritize your launches at Adobe? I've seen the T1, T2, T3, T4 framework quite a lot, but I was wondering if you had a different approach? And also, who's involved in those discussions? I think we sometimes suffer from bringing too many people into the process which then inevitably draws things out.

A: We use the tiered approach at Adobe, and I've used it at every company I've worked for - whether it's 100 employees or 20,000 employees. I think a tiering structure is critical to get everyone on the same page. Time, resources, and budget all come into play here when you're thinking about the activities.

Here's an example of how you can think about the tiers:

  • Tier 1 - A product that is strategically important to the business that we want everyone, internally and externally, talking about. Example content: Go big with a client event, custom video content, press, and executive sponsorship internally.
  • Tier 2 - A product or feature launch that will impact many customers. Example content: "The basics"—a blog post, new web page, sales collateral.
  • Tier 3 - Products or features that are mostly an upgrade or affect a small subset of customers. Example content: A blog post announcement and an internal heads up in the internal sales bulletin.

Ideally, the PMM is the decision-maker, with the product manager an influencer. Make this clear; you own the launch moment, so you own the launch size. The PMM should ultimately understand what will be received best by the market, so they get the final say.

If you're starting from scratch and are having a hard time getting on the same page with stakeholders, I would take the small, medium, large, extra-large (T-shirt sizes) examples, and maybe pull in some outside / competitive launches you've seen that fit the bill. Showing some examples can help the teams understand why you are making the choices you are.

Q: How have your launch plans changed since all the changes around COVID-19? Have you put some launches on hold? And for the ones that have gone ahead, how have you maintained that communication and collaboration while working remotely? We have a launch looming and would love any advice in the run-up to that.

A: Launch plans have changed for us around COVID-19. We had a large bundled launch planned around our annual in-person Summit event (end of March), and we had to change tack after speaking with some journalists, understanding that there was no appetite for coverage unrelated to COVID-19. That is since relaxed quite a bit, as there is fatigue with the new.

As far as changing, we planned to have the announcements and activations live at a 20,000 person event, which we made completely digital (we made the shift in 25 days, I might add). We postponed the press launch to a later date because of the timing with COVID.

But we also leaned into some new content surrounding COVID-19, including new strategies and recommendations for brands.

To keep in touch and communicate internally, we’re leaning into digital tools. We’re planning all our launches using Monday.com, keeping in communication with BlueJeans, Zoom, and Slack, and also utilizing new 1:1 tools, like WorkPatterns.

Q: How long do your launch cycles typically last? And especially for long cycles, how do you communicate out your progress and ensure everyone's on track and maintaining the role they play?

A: There’s no “one size fits all” for launch cycle timing, but I’ll try to break down for the tiering size, and for communication as well.

When I think about a launch cycle, I’m thinking about the entire lifecycle of the product pre-launch, since PMM should be involved in the market validation, beta period, and owning the launch.

Often, for smaller launches, this aligns with your engineering team’s sprint cycles (which are generally two weeks in my experience) - so you may hear them say “1-2 sprints,” which equates to 2 to 4 weeks.

I’m a big believer in transparency in internal communication and communicating what you know and what you don’t know (e.g., if you’re not sure of the timeline yet). Externally, I try to keep things within reason and share our 6 month + roadmap with trusted customers. Most customers should just see the 3-6 month roadmap, or even just the in-quarter roadmap if you’re unclear.

Tier 1 - A product that is strategically important to the business that we want everyone - internally and externally - talking about. Example content: Go big with a client event, custom video content, press, and executive sponsorship internally.

  • Time - this one can be the largest, anywhere from 3-18 months (or longer) if you’re doing considerable R&D. You want to start ramping this up internally 6-8 weeks before launch to make sure everyone is trained and excited.
  • Communication - Highest communication. Utilized all internal channels (email, all-hands meeting, slack reminders, roadshows, etc.) and high communication for the top customers (e.g., inviting them into the Beta program or giving a sneak peek).

Tier 2 - A product or feature launch that will impact many customers. Example content: “The basics” - a blog post, new web page, sales collateral.

  • Time - generally six weeks - six months. Usually within the quarter.
  • Communication - Medium level communication, but you will need to get your ducks in a row. Often the launch isn’t the splashiest, but something essential to your account teams or customers.

Tier 3 - Products or features that are mostly an upgrade or affect a small subset of customers. Example content: A blog post announcement and an internal heads up in the internal sales bulletin.

  • Time - 2-6 weeks (1-3 sprints).
  • Communication - Low level, but make sure you communicate these in product release notes or in-product guides.

Q: How much of your product launch process do you standardize? Each launch will be unique, but are there any templates/frameworks, for example, that you use as standard, but just adapt to each launch?

A: I think it's imperative to standardize your launch process and have everything documented, so you and your stakeholders know what's coming. I usually like to have a launch process for each "tier" of launch that we're running. But, as they say, "constraints breed creativity;" within these parameters, how can each launch be different?

An easy fix is to push the boundaries of what you usually do with a new visual approach or new mediums. Never tried a video before? Try it out now!

I always love a good brainstorm session with people outside of those I typically work with on product launches. Grab your content marketer, the creative lead that you don't usually work with, and anyone else you like working with and have a session on what you could do with a launch. Since we're all virtual now, I recommend using tools like Miro (online whiteboarding) - which I just tried out for the first time yesterday and loved!

I'd also recommend looking at AdWeek and AdAge and seeing what the big brands are up to - this is a great way to get the creative juices flowing.

Q: I feel like all too often, a lot of energy and focus goes into the run-up of the launch but then not nearly as much post-launch. Once that launch day has hit, how do you shift your priorities? And what is it you're then mainly focusing on in the days and weeks after the launch to ensure sustained success?

A: I 100% agree. Often it feels like the launch moment happens, then it's "on to the next thing" before you've had a chance to celebrate!

However, post-launch momentum, what I call "Rolling Thunder," is one of my favorite topics! I think a lot of times, people throw in their hats when the launch moment is done, but this is when it's just beginning.

A good strategy is to take some of the "core" assets you've created for the launch (e.g., a case study, presentation with new stats, a blog post) and to chop them up and use them in many ways. An excellent way to frame it is: How can you reuse and improve the content over and over again to hit your launch goals?

For example, take your "stump" deck and use it at speaking events, and webinars. Take your launch blog series and turn it into a gated whitepaper or ebook. Take those great customer case study stats and quotes and share them across your company's social channels.

As far as owners, I see product marketers as the driver but not necessarily the person building each piece of content. Hopefully, you have partnerships with the marketing team or external vendors. As a PMM, you are responsible for the launch goals, so make sure you're driving that plan along!

Q: I know this will vary from launch-to-launch, but I would love to get an idea of how you benchmark a 'successful' launch at Adobe. What sort of metrics/OKRs do you use?

A: The metrics differ launch-to-launch, but we're trying to roll up to OKRs set at the organizational level.

As for specific launch metrics, at Adobe and other companies, I've worked at, you need to take a step back and evaluate the challenges you were trying to solve in the first place to set the goals. Were you trying to increase engagement? Tracking daily, weekly, or monthly active users would be an excellent goal to set off the baseline you already have.

Are you trying to save customers' time? Then you might want to see if the time spent on your platform has decreased. Other metrics to consider are the number of users, number of downloads, revenue, etc. If you'd like to see more on this, I did a presentation for the PMA called "PMM Metrics that Matter" in Feb that is worth checking out!

As for overall goal ownership, ideally, it's a combination of the GM, product management, and product marketing. The GM would set the overall business goals for the year or quarter, including revenue. The PM often drives the product launch adoption and revenue goals for that product. PMM often builds the plan with the metrics to help back into those goals.

The important thing is that if you see a gap, make sure that someone owns all of these goals; otherwise, it will be meaningless to have launch metrics.

Q: Which press release distribution agency do you use? (If you use one) and how do you get a launch to have that 'viral' effect? Meaning, for people to share, talk about it, etc.?

A: On the Adobe team I work on, our press is in house, but I’ve had a good experience at two smaller companies with a PR firm called Lewis. Making something genuinely viral is hard (take a look at all of the attempts at Super Bowl ads, and you’ll quickly see a few winners and many losers), but the biggest impact launches I’ve worked on have had:

  1. An executive-level internal spokesperson
  2. For B2B, a brand spokesperson (quotes/content work great) or if you’re on the B2C side, an influencer/celebrity
  3. A multi-prong approach. It can’t just be press or a blog - you need a trained sales team, assets for them to feel enabled, social posts you’ve written up, website updates, maybe video content or a whitepaper - whatever you can do

Also, don’t forget about rolling thunder/post-launch activities. One of the best launches I ran at SocialChorus was a bundled launch we called “Innovation Lab” that brought together many of the medium-sized features that had launched over the previous quarter. We pitched it to Amplitude since they had an award series, and we won an award for the launch! So that helped us keep the momentum going and have something to “talk” about.