When you think of a “Product Launch”, most people think of the single moment in time when the proverbial rocket ship leaves the earth. But your product or app launch is more than this single moment. Launch includes everything that happens leading up to, around, and after that moment. To ensure success, you need to be able to navigate all these different stages and be willing to do your due diligence during each phase. You also need to be prepared for when things go wrong, because they will go wrong.
I recently had the pleasure of partnering with Robi Ganguly to present the final webinar in our Product Innovation Series. Robi is the cofounder and CEO at Apptentive, a customer feedback and analytics platform that helps enterprise brands measure customer experience through customer sentiment to deliver actionable mobile customer feedback at scale.
Robi and I shared not only our thoughts about the best way to approach a product launch, but also some of our own stories about how Apptentive and Rightpoint have helped customers make the most of their various launch opportunities.
Before Your Launch - Research Matters
While it’s easy to get swept up in the excitement of getting something to market, it pays to do your due diligence. There’s a lot of strategic planning you can do en route to a launch to increase your chances of success. Apptentive helps brands start off on the right foot by empowering you to communicate with your customers, identify customer needs, prioritize features (including the ones that are going to be decommissioned), and effectively pre-message users about upcoming changes in order to ease the transition from one version of an app to the next.
Robi shared a little about Apptentive’s work with the online retailer, Overstock. Overstock had a very successful application that had stagnated a bit and was ready for an overhaul. The challenge was to not only ensure a smooth relaunch, but to also migrate their existing users. Luckily, Overstock had the advantage of a large and engaged user base who were willing to answer questions about their experience with the app.
By working with Apptentive to tap into this valuable asset, Overstock was able to identify their strongest opportunities pretty quickly. They segmented the research data into three areas:
Their most loyal customers’ needs — They started by focusing on what drew users to the app (versus the website) on a monthly or even weekly basis as well as what users loved most about the existing app.
New features and technology that they might employ — There are always new things to add to an app, from tools and features to whole operating systems. The key is to spend your time and effort wisely and only integrate those things that are both advantageous for your business and desired by your customers. It’s never a good idea to add features simply for the sake of adding features. Overstock had a lot of ideas about how to evolve their existing app, but they made sure they only acted on the ones that intersected with things their customers had asked for.
Features that would be cut — Adding features on top of features without ever reassessing what customers really want or need is a recipe for disaster. Feature bloat creates navigation confusion and general frustration that can drive users away. It can also create a maintenance issue because of the complexity of having to manage code bases that are sometimes multiple years apart in terms of their generations. Apptentive worked with Overstock to validate with customers which features were most critical, and which might be better suited to other channels.
Even with all this up-front research and preparation, change is hard, so it’s critical to communicate with your customers about upcoming changes before they hit. You need to give people time to get used to the idea and—if needed—prepare for it. Apptentive helped Overstock draft and disseminate a helpful heads up designed to soften the blow of any lost features and get people excited about the new iteration.
Because they took the time to ask the right questions, analyze the data, and think through the consequences of certain choices, Overstock had a successful relaunch that drove heavy adoption, earned them consistent 4.5+ star ratings, and delivered meaningful results in terms of MAU and purchase transaction volume.
During the Launch – Take Advantage of a Phased Approach
One of the most common mistakes companies make when it comes to launches is thinking that they have to do everything right out of the gate. That is, however, usually a very risky strategy when it comes to app development.
The everything-but-the-kitchen-sink-in-version-1.0 approach is a very “waterfall” approach for development. What works better is a more “Agile” approach that gives you the flexibility to deliver value more quickly and adapt your plans along the way. Software is notoriously temperamental, which means that despite your best-laid plans, you are going to miss your dates. Embracing an Agile mentality makes it easier for you to operate successfully in the real world.
This means that you need to manage the expectations of internal stakeholders who may be stuck on the idea of launching with a full complement of robust features. You need to reassure everyone that you don’t want to kill any great ideas; you just want to deliver them in a more effective way over time.
The example I shared to illustrate how to manage this process is the work Rightpoint did with Six Flags. Six Flags is an entertainment destination theme park with about twenty-five properties across the U.S., Mexico, and Canada. They host approximately thirty million guests annually, and they came to us to help them build their first app.
Initially, they were so excited about all the potential opportunities that they were envisioning a big-bang launch that included all kinds of features and functionality in the first version. Over the course of discovery meetings, we helped them see that they were trying to do too much too soon in terms of the timing, the budget, and even the user experience. Our advice was to identify and focus on a few core features, and then build out a roadmap to cover additional iterations over the long term.
This phased approach had many advantages:
It made the initial launch much more manageable and feasible, which was key because timing was critical.
It allowed us to keep users engaged and delighted with a great series of additional releases.
It kept us from jumping too fast on features that weren’t fully baked and could have compromised the user experience.
In the end, we chose the four features that we knew would become the core of the application—park information (calendar, weather); ride, dine, and shop info; commerce (starting with a web view); and notifications. After successfully launching this core set of features, we developed a good cadence of regular releases to launch additional versions that included new features such as ride wait times, maps and search, different payment options, and more.
Another valuable benefit of this more Agile approach is the opportunity to give customers a voice in the evolution of the app. Getting feedback from Six Flags’ guests through surveys and other mechanisms made it easy for us to see which features were most interesting or helpful to users. We were able to chart our course based on what we were hearing from customers so that they were a part of the journey. The insights we uncovered helped us successfully shuffle priorities to everyone’s best advantage.
When Things Go Wrong – Be a Problem Solver
Things will go wrong. It’s inevitable. The important thing is not to avoid failure, but to learn how to handle it in a positive and effective way. When it comes to your plans going off script, it’s all about how you respond to the situation.
Robi and I thought the best way to illustrate this idea was to look at two examples of companies that faced great adversity and how their very different responses influenced the ultimate outcomes.
The first example is one most people know. In 2011, Netflix announced the highest price increase in its history. Unlike Overstock and Six Flags, who took the time to learn from their customers and make their launches a collaborative effort, Netflix dropped the price increase on users without having asked for any up-front feedback and with very little warning. As a result, customers started hitting the doors. Hard.
Netflix’s initial response was a harebrained scheme called Qwikster, which was their attempt to mitigate the fallout from the price increase by decoupling their DVD and streaming services. Unfortunately, Netflix made the same mistake with Qwikster that they made with their price increase: they failed to ask for customer input. Because they didn’t talk with customers, they didn’t understand what their proposed changes meant to customers. They meant a ton of hassle managing multiple subscriptions and accounts.
It didn’t take Netflix long to realize that everyone hated this idea. More cancellations started rolling in. Over a matter of a few short months, the stock prices fell from $237 to $55. Netflix CEO, Reed Hastings, authored an apology blog post, admitting that he messed up. The company reversed its decision and called the whole thing off. While it was good that Hastings responded quickly and was willing to cut his losses, the failure to gauge possible responses before the launch led to five painful quarters for the company.
On a happier note, there’s the story of Burbn. Most people haven’t heard of this location-sharing startup that appeared on the market back when Foursquare was cool. The concept was to provide a tool to help people make plans and coordinate getting together, but it just couldn’t gain the necessary traction. They had too much going on, starting with a website and then building a full app. They had a core group of early adopters, but not enough to build the kind of momentum they needed to keep going.
Instead of continuing to push on their original plan, the team at Burbn took a step back and looked at their usage data. Turned out that one feature—photos—was getting the most attention and adoption by a large margin. In a quick pivot, they put all their focus on that one feature, and Instagram was born. It’s a pretty amazing turnaround story that goes to show what can be accomplished if you are willing to listen to your customers and equipped to respond in a positive and creative way to “failure.”
The Life of a Launch - More Than Just One Day
Launches don’t happen in a day. They exist on a continuum that covers pre-launch planning, in-the-moment decision making and execution, and post-launch management and problem solving. Your success depends on your ability to see the full journey and all the different opportunities that exist along the way.
Take advantage of the help your “loyalist” customers are willing to provide by engaging them in the process. Ask for their input. Let them know their opinions and insights are valued. And keep that dialog going for the long term.
Don’t try to do everything at once. A launch doesn’t have to be a frantic race to the finish line. It’s actually better for you and for your customers if you can increase your release cycle to add meaningful changes with ongoing releases. Starting with a core set of features and then building out a strategic roadmap of well-planned and well-timed iterations makes things easier on your team and keeps your users engaged and excited to see what comes next.
And, finally, realize that you’re going to hit speed bumps and even fail spectacularly sometimes. It happens to the best of us, but the best of us know how to fail gracefully and turn even the bleakest circumstance into a new opportunity. Listen well, iterate carefully, and don’t be afraid to pull the plug on things that clearly aren’t working.
If you’d like to hear more details about these stories, be sure to check out the Vimeo recording of the webinar that inspired this post. You can also read about some of the other topics in our series including an overview of exactly what innovation means, the power of adjacency, innovation through implicit design, the importance of cultivating a culture of change, and the innovative power of rapid prototyping.
And, as always, we’d love to share more about Rightpoint’s digital capabilities and how they can help you drive innovation in your own company. Reach out any time.