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13 min read

The art of not launching a product

Go-to-Market | Membership content

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We all find it pretty easy to talk about the things that have gone well in our lives, but what about the things that aren’t so successful? That can get a bit trickier.

With that in mind, in this article, I’m going to share the story of the time we at Sprout Social realized that not going to market with our product was the best decision, and I’ll explain the four important lessons learned through that journey.

It's really easy to talk about the things that go well in your life. Say you just got that awesome promotion that you want to talk about, or you just got engaged to the love of your life, or you've just come back from a great vacation and you want to talk about it. These are things that are easy to talk about.

But what about when things don't go well? What about when you fail in life? Those things are harder to talk about.

I'm Paul Lenser, I'm a Product Marketing Manager at Sprout Social. We're a B2B company in Chicago and for those who aren't familiar, we make software for social media management. So companies that want to manage all their social profiles from one platform.

I thought it'd be valuable to tell you about a time where we realized that not going to market with a product was the best decision for us as a company, and lessons that we learned along the way.

Our goal: create and market add-on feature packages

In 2018, we started doing our company planning for the year and as we put together our goals, one of our company goals was to create and market add-on feature packages.

Graphic which reads: Our goal, Create and market add-on feature packages.

What this would do for us is it would create value for our customers and it would create new revenue streams for us as a company. A win-win.

What do I mean when I say add-on feature packages?

If you take a look at our website, we have three core pricing plans at Sprout - our standard, professional and advanced plan.

Sprout Social pricing web page.

Within those plans, there's a lot of different features that serve a lot of different core use cases and jobs to be done. What add-on feature packages would allow us to do is take the features that are in these plans, or outside of these plans, and allow customers to access them without being tied to these core plans.

For example, there's a lot of great features in our advanced plan, but customers don't always feel like they want to pay for all the features in that plan.

Image of the Sprout Social Pricing Plan greyed out at the bottom.

Another way to think about that is like a cable TV package. If you sign up for cable TV, there are a lot of great channels and a lot of different tiers. You may really want some of those awesome channels on the highest tiers, maybe you just love those cooking shows, and you can't get enough of them. But you couldn't care less about the golf channel or the tennis channel.

The same kind of thing works in software, where we have a lot of great features in our highest plan, but they may not be for you.

Add-ons fix the bloated packaging perception

There's a perception from users where if they're getting a tonne of features in these packages but they aren't using them, it feels like I'm paying for them. It's this bloated packaging perception.

Image depicting logos from TV channels such as abc, FOX, NBC and TNT.

What add-ons do is fix this perception by allowing you to just pay for what you want. This was a really big deal for us as a company.

We have an email here from our CEO saying 'the introduction of premium add-ons will be a pivotal point for Sprout'. It was huge for us.

Mock up of an email from Sprout Social CEO Justyn Howard.

Therefore when we were doing our marketing planning for the year, specifically within product marketing, we decided that marketing our customer care add-on package was our number one go-to-market priority for 2019.

Image that reads: Marketing a Customer Care add-on package was our #1 go-to-market priority for 2019

What is a customer care add-on package?

When I say customer care add-on package, customer care is one of our core jobs to be done. We do some work with personas and jobs to be done, but customer care is one of them.

Within customer care, what that means specifically for social media is users who really care about customer service on social media. So when you're receiving a lot of messages on social, responding to them very quickly and efficiently with on-brand messaging is a top priority for companies.

This was a big deal for our users as well. Here's our standard plan, our lowest plan, and you didn't get a lot of customer care features.

Sprout social web page: Standard plan features.

But if you upgraded to our standard plan with this new customer care add-on, you get all these new features. Pretty big, right?

We got to work

We got to it, we started kicking off 2019 planning, and we had a kickoff meeting. This kickoff meeting included representatives from sales, success, all these different departments, and we aligned on our strategy and vision for how this customer care add-on was going to go to market.

Three people in an office boardroom, brainstorming.

Everyone was excited, like I said before, and we wanted to make sure that we were aligned as a company. So we sent out an email to the company saying, here's what the add-on is, here's what the pricing is going to entail, here's the timing for it, this is a big deal for us as a company.

How we were feeling

Let's take a temperature gauge, how was everyone feeling at this time?

  • Sales/success. They're pumped, they realize that they're going to be a lot more flexible with their pricing, they can package things differently and just impact their quota.
  • Marketing. We're happy too, we realized we had a new story to tell, we've done a lot of work on these jobs to be done and personas, specifically around customer care, and this was a great way to go to the market with this persona.
  • Product. They're pumped too, they realize that feature adoption is one of their biggest metrics for them and by getting this in the hands of more customers, they're going to drive that feature adoption, it's perfect for them.
  • Me, personally. I'm excited. This is a new challenge for me, a new challenge to take on. We'd done add-ons before, we currently have add-ons at Sprout but this customer care one was a brand new one, given that it was a combination of existing features, with net new features, whereas our previous add-ons were only net new features. It was a different type of launch for me.
Image of emoji's depicting how each department felt.  Sales (dollar sign eyes), Marketing (Hands outstretched and smiling), Product (stars in eyes), Me (Smiling broadly).

I started thinking about the challenges that would come with this, that would be fun to tackle. How would we position these add-on packages on our website where you clearly saw there are only those three columns? How would we go to market with our positioning?

We've done this customer care research, would we tweak that a little bit, or would we just wipe that fresh and start new given them how big of a package this was? So we dug even deeper, we did even more planning and like I said, after that kickoff meeting, it was important to meet with all these different teams.

One thing that you've heard a million times is how important product marketing is in that - we see everyone else's perspective, that not all the other teams necessarily see. We get a more complete picture by diving in with all these different teams that we work with.

What I'm getting at is that the lesson learned here is that you need to gather and share the whole story.

Lesson learned #1: Gather and share the whole story

Given that we have that perspective, we're gathering all this information; it's really important that we share that out with other teams. After our kickoff meeting, I met with these different teams and it felt like taking pieces of a puzzle and combining that full story together.

Image of puzzle pieces

I met with our product team, our marketing team, support, success, and sales, and everything started to come together. I got new perspectives from new teams that we didn't touch in the kickoff, and most of them were really positive.

Product, marketing, support, success and sales depicted as puzzle pieces.

But in doing so, this actually revealed some gaps that we hadn't seen before because it's not transparent until you start digging in with the different teams.

Specifically, one thing that happened was our product team realized that there was a technical limitation, they'd either have to really stall what they were working on, on the roadmap and prolong this customer care add-on or just really cut scope.

Product depicted as a puzzle piece.

What that scope was that they were cutting is that when new users would buy this customer care add-on, they wouldn't have the option to pick which users they purchased it for. So if you had 100 users on a package and only 10 really cared about these features, you'd have to buy it for all 100 users.

Our product team had met with our sales team, and they said, "No worries, we'll work it out."

We were still optimistic about this. I'm still excited about the launch. But I start actually digging in with other teams and tell them about these technical limitations. One team that'd be really impacted by this was our agency sales team.

If agencies are buying our software and passing those costs along to their clients, not all their clients are going to want to buy these features. Therefore these agencies didn't want to pay for this add-on. But like I said, still optimistic about this launch, we were going to make it work.

That leads me to my next point - being the empathy champion.

Lesson learned #2: Be the empathy champion

Again, we hear the word empathy all over the place, and it's great because as marketers, that's a skill we need to lean into. Seeing this unique perspective from all these different teams gives us a vantage point that we need to share with other people.

One thing I did is put together some documentation around the launch itself. I put together the objectives and the challenges for each team involved. Spoiler alert, I'm going to show you an internal document I put together.

Normally, I'd never shared this externally but you can look at it. It's this ugly document.

Customer care add-on overview example. 

What I was doing was consolidating all this information from different teams and really boiling it down to its key points, and making sure everyone could see it. One of the key things I did with this is highlighted what we had learned in the kickoff and what our sales team was excited for and highlighted their biggest use cases.

They had four really big use cases that they wanted to bring to market. But after discovering more about these technical limitations those four use cases actually turned into one use case. It just wasn't as exciting for them anymore.

New attitudes

Now if we're going to do a new temperature check…

  • Sales/success. They weren't that excited about the launch anymore given this wasn't really gonna impact their quota.
  • Marketing. We were a little bummed too, we didn't have as big of a story to tell.
  • Product. There's not that feature adoption, they're just not gonna get that.
  • Me. No one's excited about this launch anymore but I need to keep everyone's spirits up and no launch is gonna be successful unless everyone's excited about it.
Emoji's depicting each teams mood as outlined above.

Lesson learned #3: Be the objective voice

From here, I decided that I needed to be the objective voice. Given these different perspectives we had, I needed to turn that into some of the ways we needed to be cautious in our recommendations from product marketing.

We were seeing this vantage point that not every team was seeing so therefore, we were at liberty to make some recommendations. We put this all together, sent it to leadership and we wanted to see what they would say.

One of the key questions we asked was, now that we have the full picture, does this still meet market demands?

Image that reads: Ask this question: Now that we have the full picture, does this still meet market demands?

I was at the Product Marketing World Summit in New York back in March and I was actually really fortunate to learn something there that I brought back to my team.

What I learned was the difference between MVP - minimum viable product, and the MMP - minimum marketable product. One of our recommendations for this launch was that while the product team may feel that this meets MVP criteria, we didn't feel like it met MMP criteria or minimum marketable product.

Our recommendation for the launch was, if we're gonna go live with it, we can keep it but we're gonna hide it, and not go to market with it until it's more robust. We put these recommendations together, sent it to leadership, they mulled it over, they talked about it for a while, and then we got word back that we weren't going to go forward with the launch.

This is how I felt at my desk at the time.

Black and white image of a man sitting on a chair with hands clasped, far away.

This sucked. Every team had put so much work into this but I mean, even though I was the one who made the recommendation to not go live with the launch, I felt like I was the one pulling the plug on it.

I started to think about all the people I'd let down, all the teams that had been working so hard on this, for what seemed like nothing.

 Small squares containing images of people.

But the show had to go on, right?

All these people were working on it, I'm one of the very few people that knew that we weren't going live with the lunch, so we needed to think about how we were going to communicate this to the company.

Communicating the message

What I did is I put together a small comms team with different stakeholders from different departments, and figured out what our strategy was to message this out to the company. We decided that one of the key things we needed to hit on was empathy.

Knowing how hard teams had worked on this, how much work they had put into it, and just showing this is not an easy decision for us. What we did was we sent an email from leadership to the entire company but we followed up with team-specific emails going into why specifically we did this, and how their team would be impacted.

We included stuff like sales and success, we gave them external messaging, we weren't going to leave them high and dry, we wanted to show them how to talk through this to customers.

The result

We sent out these emails, and again, it's a gut punch, I did not want to send out these emails. But in reality, these actually went well.

Seeing that full perspective of why we didn't go forward with the launch, teams actually started to nod and say, 'I'm okay with that'. I got a lot of direct messages to my inbox being like, 'thank God, we didn't go live with that launch'. No one wants to launch a half baked product.

It was actually really helpful in that leadership noted that some of our recommendations in product marketing are what caused them to not go live with the launch. Now granted, this is something that they put on hold, we still may go live with this sometime in the future. I showed you the value that it can bring to our customers, but it just didn't make sense for our business this year.

Lesson learned #4: Turn lemons into lemonade

Now that we've sent out this email, I'm feeling a little better, what we needed to do was turn lemons into lemonade.

Not all the work we'd done was completely for not even though it felt like it. We needed to take all the work we'd put in and find ways to make use out of it. And we did.

One use case for this was we've done all this research into our customer care users, started putting more positioning around personas, we've actually been able to incorporate that in our marketing website and other areas where we talk about it.

Potentially, the most impactful thing that we did is used this as a pivotal moment to say product marketing needs to get involved earlier in decision making. Something that all of us are fighting for, as product marketers is to be involved in earlier decisions.

What we did is say, 'if we were able to identify some of these issues earlier, they potentially wouldn't have been problems'.

Lessons learned

Going back to lessons learned, I know I've taken you on an emotional roller coaster. Lessons Learned are:

  1. Gather and share the whole story. You need to make sure that you're aligned internally from the time you get that project on the roadmap to when you go live and beyond.
  2. Be the empathy champion, you have those different points of view, now you need to collect those and find a way to share them out with the organization.
  3. Be the objective voice. We as product marketers have great recommendations and being from that high vantage point, we can take some feelings out of our decisions, and really share the key points and why certain decisions we think should be made.
  4. Finally, find ways to turn lemons into lemonade. Like I said, not all hope is always lost, you can find value in some of this.
Lessons learned graphic: Gather and share the whole story. Be the empathy champion. Bethe objective voice. Turn lemons into lemonade.

Since this didn't go live, we've been involved in earlier decisions from product marketing, and it's been really helpful for us.

In fact, we have a launch coming out, I don't know how many of you are Sprout Social subscribers, but we have something pretty cool coming out that's going to impact you no matter what pricing plan you're on.

Yes, I'm biassed, I think it's cool because I'm leading the launch for it. But regardless, you'll all enjoy it and we think that in terms of what people will perceive about the launch, instead of being bummed about it, it'll turn out a little more like this.

Image of two people hugging at a party as three people look on smiling.

Thank you.

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Written by:

Paul Lenser

Paul Lenser

Product Marketing Manager at Sprout Social.

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The art of not launching a product