Before you continue, read Eric Ries’ excellent Don’t launch, where he questions the assumptions behind most marketing launches.

If you ask most entrepreneurs why they want to launch, you’ll get an answer like, “So people find out about my product — are you stupid?” But a thoughtful founder who read Eric’s article recently asked me,

The New York Times wants to write about my company. It will take me no time or money to get this press. What should I do?

You should still consider the downsides of launching:

  1. Launching a product that doesn’t solve a real customer problem establishes the wrong positioning in the minds of customers.
  2. You can only launch once. If you launch the wrong product or you have an un-optimized funnel when you launch, you just wasted a one-time opportunity to harvest and generate demand.

Launching isn’t the only way to harvest demand. You can reach customers through customer development: AdWords, search engine marketing, online ads, contacting prospective customers through LinkedIn, et cetera — get creative. Don’t launch just because everybody else is doing it — be thoughtful.

Generally, you don’t want to launch until,

  1. You’ve verified a customer’s problem by taking money out of her pocket.
  2. You’ve optimized your funnel so the money you spend on the launch yields the highest possible return on investment.

But doesn’t the traffic we get from customer development have the same problem as the traffic we get from a launch?

positioningYes. In both cases, (1) you’re going to mis-position our product, (2) you’re going to sell a product that probably doesn’t solve a problem, and (3) you’re going to have a funnel that’s sub-optimal.

The leads you get from customer development and the leads you get from a launch are going to have the same problem. But when you launch, there’s a difference in what you do to the customers who don’t become leads.

When you harvest demand through customer development, every consumer you contact is engaged with your product — for example, they visit your landing page. So you can learn from them. If you observe these customers and execute a feedback loop, you can improve your product, positioning, and funnel. It’s okay to expose these customers to the wrong product, positioning, and funnel as long as you learn from them. In fact, that’s the only way to test your hypotheses.

But when you harvest demand through a launch, you position your product in the minds of many customers who don’t engage in your product. They’re not interested in your product yet; perhaps they’re later adopters. But they still read your New York Times article and remember that “Technorati tracks blogs.” They don’t come to your website or call you, so you can’t learn from these customers. You’re imprinting the wrong positioning in the minds of these customers, but you’re not learning anything from them.

You can learn from the leads you get from the press and you can learn from the leads you get from customer development. But when you launch, there’s a difference in what you do to the customers who don’t become leads.

And by the time you do want to launch, you may be the business that “collects, organizes, and distributes the global online conversation.” But everyone who read your article in the Times still thinks you’re in the blog tracking business. It’s tough to change your positioning in their minds and the Times won’t be interested in helping you fix your positioning because they already “launched” you. Do you have a clear idea what Technorati does anymore?

How did people come up with the idea of a launch in the first place?

Before the Web, it was a lot harder to harvest demand for products. Distribution channels like the shelves at K-Mart were locked up by big companies. Television commercials were expensive. Large newspaper ads were expensive. It was hard to set up and track small ads in newspapers and the Yellow Pages.

So I think young companies routed around these channels by going to the press, which consisted of a small number of influential newspapers. Startups harvested demand for their products by getting the press to write about them.

These days, we can harvest demand through customer development — we don’t need to launch. So we usually reserve a launch for (1) generating demand from people who have a problem but don’t know they have the problem and (2) harvesting demand from people who know they have a problem but aren’t actively looking for a solution.

How do I deal with a reporter who wants to write about our company?

First, the press will often approach you for a comment. Second, we’re no experts on working with the press, but here are some untested hypotheses.

Try saying, “We’re not ready for press yet. We would prefer if you didn’t write a story about our product right now. In exchange, let me tell you about what we’re ready to have you print right now. And we’ll put you on the very short list of people we contact when we launch.”

If that doesn’t work, try giving them a teaser, “In exchange, we’ll give you exclusive information about the company that you can write about…” The exclusive shouldn’t imprint your positioning in the minds of readers. Try something like, “we just hired Bill Gates.” The exclusive might generate too much hype but, at this point, you’re controlling the situation as well as you can.

If that doesn’t work, try showing them something that no one outside the company has seen, “This is off-the-record, but I want to show you this cool demo, and we will give you an exclusive when we launch it.”

Where can I learn more?

Read Sean Ellis’ blog on Startup Marketing. He has launched two companies that have filed for IPOs and he now works with Dropbox, Xobni, and other startups. Sean says, “I am insane enough to believe that I can change the way most VC backed startups are launched.”

Here’s a presentation from Sean to get you started:

Slides: Startup Marketing (ppt)

Topics Customer Development · Launch

3 comments · Show

  • Tony Stubblebine

    We launched twice, both times on TechCrunch, and it wasn’t a problem at all. The first launch was widely ignored, it produced the usual TechCrunch tire kickers, but it didn’t produce any actual customers or serious inquiries.

    My observation then, is that there are free launches and expensive launches. Our free one on TC just got us quick customer feedback and was part of our development process.

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