Scaling product launches

How to evolve product launches as you grow

Main illustration: Aimee Brooks

As a product-first company, new product launches are a core part of Intercom’s DNA – which means there’s always an abundance of juicy launches for us product marketers to work on.

Given our cadence of launches and updates, we’ve developed a pretty well-oiled launch machine over the past few years. Yet, as we’ve grown, we’re having to evolve our approach to deal with new challenges:

  • We’re shipping more than ever – both smaller updates and big, high-impact features and products.
  • Our go-to-market teams have grown immensely, meaning more specialists and larger cross-collaborative teams for each launch.
  • We’ve expanded our product offering and the customers we target, meaning we’re marketing to new and more varied audiences.

The problem with the “old way”

We’ve talked in the past about our rubric for launches. It’s a simple framework for defining the tier of a launch where P1 refers to the biggest launches, P4 refers to small updates or improvements and P2 and P3 cover everything in between. These tiers helped to define what activities we’d do around launches and this could include everything from updating the changelog to posting on social media, creating video content and more. 

Initially, this was a very successful framework for us. It helped us set expectations about the “size” of a launch and made sure we were prioritizing the highest impact announcements rather than inundating our customers with updates. It also served as a good checklist for Product Marketing Managers (PMMs) – especially those new to the team – to help them understand what was needed for each launch.

In addition to the list, each time we’d try a new tactic or two. This could be something small, like a new type of display ad or a new video style for LinkedIn, or something bigger, like a live launch announcement. These then ended up becoming part of the de-facto list of launch activities, so the list began to grow.

“We found ourselves falling into a trap of ever-bigger ‘cookie cutter’ launches”

You can probably tell where this is going. As we grew, we found ourselves falling into a trap of ever-bigger “cookie cutter” launches. Not only had product launches become a Herculean task, we’d lost sight of why we were doing particular activities. Don’t get me wrong, these launches were generally successful – but we didn’t know why or which activities were having the most impact. That meant we were spending time and energy on less-impactful activities at the expense of higher-impact ones, as well as struggling to show how our efforts tied into our higher-level marketing goals.

Clearly, this wasn’t sustainable. Nor did it align with how we’d started to think about our target audiences and goals. Following a significant project to better define our target customer segments, we now have clear, differentiated goals for each of those segments – as well as a deeper understanding of each segment’s needs and behaviors – to align our marketing strategy and activities around.

3 tips for a successful product launch plan

So, over the past few quarters, we have taken a step back to rethink how we do launches. We’re still reworking our framework and recognize that it will never be “done’” per se, but here are three tips based on what we’ve learned so far:

1. Prioritize based on impact

The first part of the framework that you should tackle is the rubric to determine the tier and the amount of resources you need to put into a launch. The aim is to focus more on the business impact of a new feature or product, so you have a better idea of the return on any resources put into marketing it.

You should start by asking yourselves some questions to understand the impact. Some of the questions we have asked ourselves are:

  • Will it help us grow revenue? If so, how – net new, expansion or cross-sell?
  • Will it increase engagement with our products, and therefore reduce churn?
  • Is it a differentiator for us or something innovative in the market?
  • How big is the audience? What percentage of our customers is it relevant to?

Based on these responses, the launch gets a score, which translates into a tier (1-4). We’ve built this as a nifty little automated “app” in Coda, but you could do it manually too. Features or products that land in Tier 1 are those we expect to be most impactful and generally are going to be tied to a direct revenue goal. Those in Tier 4 tend to be smaller updates or improvements that are relevant to a subset of our customers.

Tier 1 announcements are naturally going to get more resources and budget than Tier 4 ones. But before you start to think about which specific activities you’re going to do for the launch, your next step should be to get alignment on the broader goal of the launch, again using the answers to the above questions.

Here are some examples of high level goals to consider during the pre-launch process, but you may have other goals, such as entering a new market or re-engaging lost customers:

  • Net new revenue (new customers)
  • Expansion revenue (existing customers)
  • Feature/product adoption (usage)
  • Reducing churn
  • Brand awareness

Once you have your goal, you can start planning launch activities, remembering that different activities suit different goals and avoiding the “cookie cutter” trap! For example, if the launch goal is to attract net new revenue – because this new feature means you can now sell to a new market or maybe it will unblock upmarket deals – you’re likely going to want to focus on reaching those new prospects through things like ads, influencer marketing and content.

On the other hand, if a launch is unlikely to attract new customers on its own but has a big opportunity for increasing engagement among your existing customers, spending a ton on ads that send traffic to landing pages isn’t going to be that effective. In this case, customer message campaigns, webinars and help content will be more effective.

2. Bundle features for stronger announcements

If you’re in a fast-growth product company, it’s likely that your R&D team is shipping regularly and, of course, you’ll want to let your customers know about all these great new features. But at some point you risk overwhelming and annoying your customers, and they may start ignoring your announcements altogether.

By bundling related features into one announcement with a specific theme, you can not only avoid this over-communication, but also tell a much stronger, more cohesive story.

“One-size-fits-all messaging doesn’t cut it anymore”

Here’s a recent example from us about updating two of our apps and releasing a new calendar feature. We bundled these into one announcement about making it easy to book calls and demos, so you can focus on selling rather than scheduling, as they all help with this goal. By doing this, we have a stronger story than one of these features on their own.

This approach only works if the things you’re bundling actually make sense together, so be thoughtful about your bundles. Here are some tips for effective bundling:

  • Don’t just bundle a random bunch of features together for the sake of it if there is no cohesive story. Bundle features that fit within a theme, whether that’s a specific outcome, use case or workflow, etc.
  • If one feature in the bundle is more impactful than others, consider leading with that as the headline and mentioning the others as secondary parts of the announcement.
  • Don’t bundle too many features together. This can result in some of them getting lost and your customers feeling overwhelmed.
  • Make sure the features in the bundle are coming around the same time. It’s fine for some things to be already released and others to be coming soon as long as it isn’t months before or after your announcement. This requires a good level of confidence in shipping dates so you should get your product team on board with this approach so they understand the benefits and the potential impact of bad estimates.

3. Get super targeted with your messaging

We’re big believers in “right message at the right time”, which means messaging only when it’s relevant and useful. This is especially important if your product is used for different use cases or by different types of customers.

Of course, using our own product helps us with this immensely, but as our audience has grown and become more diverse, targeting is more important than ever. Our solutions serve multiple teams – sales, marketing and support – in a wide range of company types and sizes, each with different goals, pain points and use cases. This means that one-size-fits-all messaging doesn’t cut it anymore.

So how do you handle messaging when your customers are so varied? One way that we have managed this is by honing in on one specific segment of our audience and targeting just that segment with the relevant announcement. Other times, it might mean announcing the same feature to multiple audiences, but with different messaging for each. For example, Intercom’s Resolution Bot is useful for both sales and support teams, but for slightly different goals, so when we launched, we tailored the messaging for each audience.

“Get over the fear of missing out on a wider audience and identify the best channels for reaching your target audience”

This requires some discipline and getting over the fear of “missing out” on a wider audience, but we have found that you get much better results this way and you avoid falling into the trap of  bothering other customers with things they don’t care about.

As well as tailoring the messaging, you should also try to identify the best channels for reaching your target audience, rather than just announcing on them all and hoping for the best. For example, there’s traditionally a strong “founder” audience on Product Hunt, whereas sales leaders are more likely to be on LinkedIn or GrowthHackers. Establishing this prior to launching will help you focus your resources and avoid alienating audiences with mismatched messaging.

Switch it up

Hopefully these tips help you evolve your own launch processes to plan more effective announcements. For us, the evolution never ends and we’re always looking for new ways to improve what we do. We would love to hear how you find these tips if you try them out, or if you have your own tips to share!

Intercom on Marketing – Desktop Article – horizontal 2019