This is the story of what happens in a typical product launch. Fellow entrepreneurs and people interested in the business side of what I do will be interested; others probably won’t.
I’m going to outline a few of the things I’ve learned in doing product launches over the years. With AONC I’ve done six of them so far (including the two non-commercial manifestos), but before that, I worked on dozens of others in my first decade of self-employment.
The Basic Principle
My friend Havi gave me the analogy that launching a product is like having a child. In other words, it’s kind of a big deal and something that is fairly time-intensive. When someone calls you up and say, hey, do you want to do something this week, you say, I’d love to, but I’m bringing a child into the world.
When they say, “Oh, if the morning’s not good, how about the afternoon?” you realize they don’t understand. Neither Havi or I have ever delivered a child, but I’d imagine that when it happens in the morning, the child-bearer probably isn’t ready to move on to something else in the afternoon.
The point is that a good product launch is a) a big deal, not just something that happens every day, and b) something that requires a great deal of work behind the scenes.
The single most important principle of product launches is to make them special. Over a period of weeks beforehand (sometimes longer), you want to tell people all about what’s coming, why they should care, and how they can help spread the word if they’re so inclined.
Most of my information products, especially Art and Money, Working for Yourself, and the Social Web guide, have taken well over 40 hours to complete. Art and Money in particular was in development for about 70 hours. With all the work that goes into them, I definitely don’t want to just pop up one day and say, “Hi everyone, I have a new thing out there.” Instead, I want to tell people about it in advance, usually several times, over the course of a few weeks before the launch.
Then on the big day, the message is, “It’s finally ready! Come and take a look.”
I prepare a landing page (also called a sales page or info page) that will be used both during the launch and afterwards for anyone who hears about it later. I used to host these pages directly on the main AONC site, but over time I’ve come to believe that setting up mini-sites is a better option. The cost is low and I like the idea of setting up a small-but-separate home for each product.
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The product creation and the launch are closely related projects. While you are working on creating the product, you also need to be thinking about the launch. In my case I write the draft landing page well before the product is built. It will be heavily edited later, and only 50% of the original copy will usually be preserved, but thinking about the marketing side as early as possible helps ensure that you create something that people actually want.
The landing page is important to fine-tune, because you want to simultaneously get the right people excited about the product, and “disqualify” other people who don’t need the product. Occasionally someone will complain that the text on the landing page is too long – but note that the people who complain are almost never the people who buy the product. Since part of my products are field manuals that contain 10,000 words of content (or more), I know that someone who thinks that 1,000 words of text on the landing page is too much probably isn’t the best fit for the product.
On the launch day, there are three groups of people who come over to check out the page:
- True fans who have already made a decision and are waiting to buy. The goal is to give them what they want as quickly and easily as possible.
- Tire-kickers who just want to see what you’re doing. The goal is to gently steer them away by explaining who it’s for and why. Some of them may come back later if their situation changes.
- On-the-fence readers or visitors from another source who are interested but need to know more. The goal is to transform the general interest into specific excitement – and if it’s right for them, a purchase.
Important: It is the third group that you write the copy for most of all. You want to answer their questions, reassure their fears, and get them excited.
In the launch and pre-launch marketing, I also like to think about telling a good story. Storytelling is an important part of most good writing, and copywriting is no exception. I don’t claim to be a master of the art form, but you can see a few recent examples I’ve done to illustrate the concept:
- Social Web – You have a message to get to the world. How will you get it out there? Check out this guide for a range of strategies and tactics. (Read more here.)
- Art and Money – 95% of art school graduates fail to support themselves in their chosen trade. What’s up with that – and what are the 5% doing differently? Check out this guide for the answer. (Read more here.)
- Working for Yourself – Escape the tyranny of conventional employment by creating your own very small business. You may not be able to start a million-dollar business tomorrow, but you can probably earn at least $250 a month with one or more microbusinesses. Once you accomplish the initial success, it’s usually not that difficult to scale up further if you’re so inclined.
[Note that I got a bit tired while writing the Working for Yourself page. Reading it again now, I think I’ll make some improvements and build out the story more when I have time. I did a better job in this pre-launch article for the guide.]
The Launch Day
In addition to everything needed to craft the messaging, there are at least 60 logistical steps in an average launch process. In true GTD style, it helps to capture them in the most basic form possible. Tasks can be divided into how necessary they are – I call this categorization the “Must Do / Should Do / Nice to Do” list. Here are a few examples for each one:
In the ‘must do’ list…
- Upload all deliverables
- Set up order links properly
- Ensure that the resource page (for buyers) is working
- Publish launch mailing through email + RSS
- Set up a new email list for the product
In the ‘should do’ list…
- Write to affiliates to let them know about the new product
- Get 125×125 image ad for site
- Promote the launch through Twitter (other people will naturally do this as well)
- Write messages #1 and #2 to the new email list
In the ‘nice to do’ list…
- Ask trusted outsiders to review the material
- Make a video to compliment the written sales copy
- Prepare for future content to increase retention and add value
- Write personal emails to 10+ partners to check on possible joint ventures
I try to launch my products early in the morning East Coast time. I’m on the West Coast, so that means I get up early – in the most recent case, at 5:15 a.m. last Tuesday. I’ve also done several launches at 8am EST, so that means getting up at around 4:15 in the morning. I’m not an early riser by nature (I usually get up between 7 and 8), but I’d rather set the schedule according to where the launch can have the biggest impact.
I’m always surprised when other marketers plan the launch around their own schedules. As I see it, the point is to focus on the customers. If a big group is awake and online at 8am local time, why do you want them to wait until 11am to be able to order?
Better to get a head start on the day and get some buzz going as soon as possible. Like other things in life, if you really want something, you’ll do what it takes to get it.
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Something Will Always Go Wrong
The Murphy’s law of product launches is that something, somewhere, will always go wrong. Always. That’s why you need to be especially careful to pay attention to the first few hours of the launch. Stay on the email and read messages as they come in. Sign up for notifications of every sale and make sure the pricing and thank-you message are correct.
A couple of other tricks help:
- Buy your own product, twice. I used to go through every step of the buying process except actually buying. Then I learned that it’s better to go all the way and buy your own product, because you want to make sure the post-sales delivery is working the way you want it to. After you actually launch to the world, place another order to make sure you didn’t mess up something else with any changes you made. You can always refund the purchases you made later.
- Launch 20 minutes before the announced time. If I say I am launching at 9am, my secret goal is to get the order page up and running at 8:40. This gives me another opportunity to make sure everything is working properly, since there will probably be a few people waiting for the page to refresh right before the launch. If something’s wrong, better to find out a few minutes before everyone else gets to the page later on.
Despite the precautions, you’ll still make mistakes. Last week, the first 15 buyers for the Social Web guide went on the wrong email list. Ack! My fault. I had to fix that quickly. The way it works is that you don’t usually make the same mistake again, but something else will go wrong. It’s OK, but that’s why you need to be on your toes.
Tools of the Trade
Here’s what I use to do everything:
Payment Process – I use e-junkie to facilitate payments and deliver items electronically to buyers. PayPal is the bank that takes the money. I’ve been using PayPal for more than 10 years now. There have been some ups and downs along the way, but overall I’m happy with them.
Newsletters – I create a separate email list for each product with Aweber and use that to deliver updates and additional free content to each group.
Web Design – There’s no magic bullet for design, so I write the copy in OpenOffice and send it over to Reese. See this post for why it’s so important to have a good designer.
Other things – Viddler hosts the videos I make. Survey Monkey helps me with product evaluation.
Optimization and the Next Steps:
What doesn’t happen before the launch day can happen later.
Ongoing updates – Thanks to the newsletter list, I can contact buyers at any time with news of new content or case studies. This doesn’t take much time to set up, but ends up building greater retention for the customers. If someone buys something from me, I really want them to put it to good use, so I try to build in a series of reminders and helpful hints over the first few weeks they own the product.
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Continued improvements – I’ll look back at the entire product and landing page a couple of weeks after the launch. By that point I’ll have heard enough feedback to know of a few changes I should make, and the act of setting it aside for a while also helps to see things I missed before.
I should mention that left to my own devices, I’m pretty bad about optimization. I’d much rather start working on something else than return to something that’s already been done. To compensate, for the past two product launches I’ve been working with partners. The partners are largely responsible for getting additional content over the course of a year, and because of the revenue sharing agreement we have, it is in their best interest to do so.
Zoë has added three new case studies since we launched Art and Money. For the Social Web project, Gwen has a list of people she’s working on for additional interviews. Whenever I get something from a partner, I add it up to the resources page, tell the current owners about it, and include it in a Sunday Store Update. It’s a nice value-add for the current owners, and increases sales from other readers who missed it the first time.
A lot more could be said about product launches, in fact, a lot has been said – there are entire books and $2,000+ products all about the psychology and project management behind getting something out to the world. My goal with this article is to provide a good overview of the general topic, and also to share my outlook on it.
This is the first in a two-part series about the business side of blogging. The sequel, coming next Monday, will focus on passive income (i.e., is there really such a thing), growth cycles, and integrating a business into a community. If you have any questions or topics you’d like addressed, just let me know. If you have other feedback on product launches or experiences of your own, feel free to share those too.
By the way, I don’t claim to be an expert in any of this, and a number of my processes are highly inefficient. I have been working on fine-tuning some of them, but I also believe that it’s better to make something awesome that is not hyper-optimized than to continually refine something that only a few people care about. In business language, I generally value effectiveness over efficiency.
Remember the most important thing: a good product or service helps people. The goal of my work is to help people live unconventional lives through various forms of self-employment and world travel. Whatever your work is, use your powers for good. Your customers will be better off for it, and you will be too.