For those of my friends in technology companies you know exactly what would happen to us if we were responsible for the planning and execution of the ACA 1.0 launch. It would be short and unceremonious. Turn over your building keys, ID badge, gather your possessions, adios.
Let’s put politics aside and look at the launch purely from an execution point of view; completely non-partisan. To do that we need to find dimensions that can keep us honest. Remember they’ve had over four (4) years to plan, evaluate contingencies, and consider alternatives.
Ability to Execute
We are understandably sympathetic to those who try their best and work hard, but when the stakes are as high as ACA 1.0 an ability to deliver results matters the most, especially with a critical market segment that can make or break the entire program.
The scope, scale, and complexity out-of-the-gate for the online application is way beyond the teams assembled. We’re talking about an application that could be simultaneously used by tens of millions of people. Users (citizens) want it to be bulletproof and secure. No doubt the technology staff designing and building the healthcare exchanges understood the complexity at the conceptual level but in day-to-day practice they lacked the requisite expertise.
Companies like Google, Apple, Yahoo, Netflix, and Amazon have the experience to deliver large-scale applications and learned over many years by trial and error how to get it right. This includes the technical infrastructure to ensure it runs smoothly and securely, as well as a user interface that is friendly and intuitive. State and federal government teams, while well meaning, lack the commercial design, build, delivery, and customer support experience of the aforementioned tech giants.
Many consumers are technology savvy and demand that apps work right the first time, especially the most critical market segment: younger, healthier consumers. If the app doesn’t work as advertised they will return it, delete it, or demand a refund. From a market dynamics perspective it’s important to keep in mind that purchasing on the ACA 1.0 exchange is mandatory for many consumers, which means there should be great sensitivity to getting it right the first time.
Promotional programs have been amateurish. Plus it’s impossible to deliver a consistent message when you have a Congress and Executive branch full of stakeholders, so I’m highly empathetic to those who are charged with the go-to-market strategy (assuming there is one). It’s a no-win situation to even attempt to keep the message on point.
With over 4 years to educate the public of the various options and benefits of ACA 1.0 there is absolutely no excuse that can be presented that the market did not know about it or or unfamiliar with its benefits. All indications are that at best a “let’s throw it on the wall and see what sticks” GTM strategy is being followed.
If you have a high-risk product launch scenario with something your team has never had experience delivering, you would implement steps to mitigate that risk, especially when your most important measurement of success is getting younger consumers to purchase health insurance on the health insurance exchanges. This is not new territory and there are many good examples to follow.
An important context is in order that relates to overall success of ACA 1.0 and a factor in a launch strategy: participation of younger, healthier consumers. It balances out the insurance risk so insurers are more inclined to participate. It’s an easy assumption that people who need health insurance will participate, so energy should be focused on reaching that critical market segment that is commonly referred to as ‘Invincibles’; many who believe they don’t need health insurance.
Given the complexity of a national healthcare exchange and the risk of failure, the last thing we’d want to do is roll it out to all 50 states at once. That would be suicidal from a technology and customer service standpoint. We would start with a beta program with a handful of willing States that represents a good mix of consumers. Our goal would be to have success early at all levels. We would learn from that experience, make adjustments, then expand with an early adopter program adding a few more States. We could incorporate citizen advisory panels to get feedback to make improvements and solicit testimonials.
Perhaps over a couple of years we would have expanded ACA 1.0 to cover all 50 States (or faster as experience is gained). We might wait to hit the most populous States until we had the confidence to pull it off.
The launch strategy for ACA 1.0 appears to be everything for everybody all at once. The communication strategy has been disjointed at best. They have not created a compelling reason for younger, healthier consumers to camp outside on the sidewalk for days waiting for the health insurance exchanges to open.
Without a doubt the expectations for ACA 1.0 is has been set very, very high. This may very well be the most problematic issue of all. If ACA 1.0 were launched by a private company within the United States there would be wall-to-wall law suits.
Truth in advertising laws alone would shut ACA 1.0 down and drag on for years. There are too many incriminating statements that have been made publicly. The evidence is overwhelming.
Marketers are often criticized for over-hyping their products in the hopes of getting attention for subpar products. When customers buy these products and find out they don’t meet the expectation that has been set, they get angry and take action by returning the products and demanding refunds.
I’m not sure there is one. Speaking at a college makes little sense, at least to me. Why would you hype up a bunch of students who are likely on their parent’s health insurance policy? The most important market segment is the younger, healthier consumers and that should have been the thrust of the promotional strategy; reach these consumers where they hang out, get news, tweet, YouTube, watch TV, attend sporting events, and listen to music (South by Southwest anyone?). Assuming they will signup because they are required is arrogant and risky. They needed to get way out in front of it to ensure a successful launch, but they didn’t.
They have not created a compelling reason for younger, healthier consumers to camp outside on the sidewalk for days waiting for the health insurance exchanges to open. This is arguably the key to the long-term success of ACA 1.0. And even if they did camp out for days, the frustration of poor response time, inadequate customer support, and general lack of operational readiness would have turned them off immediately.
HHS as a Technology Company
So if Health and Human Services were a technology company, what would the market be saying about them the day after the launch?
Industry press – “Promising, but off to a rocky start. If HHS can take corrective action they may have a shot at making it work. Short of that it’s down for the count.”
Industry analysts – “Poorly planned and executed, we highly doubt HHS have the ability to correct the flaws in ACA 1.0 without significant investment in people, technology. This will take time, unfortunately time we don’t believe HHS have on their side.”
Company CEO – “We couldn’t be happier with the results of the introduction of ACA 1.0. Like any large enterprise rollout you have to expect some glitches, but we will work through those quickly and deliver a hot fix in a few days.”
Competitors – “Do you really want to risk your health insurance to that extent? Seems scary to me. Let me show you a more rational approach, with significantly less risk.”
How would you rate the launch of ACA 1.0? Was I too kind? Too harsh?
Let me know, but be forewarned. I didn’t intend for this post to be a political statement and won’t publish politically oriented comments. I hope you understand.
In July of this year Pragmatic Marketing introduced a big change to our curriculum that reflects the feedback we’ve received over the years. Many of you have asked “What’s new? What’s different?”. I’ll give you a high-level overview in this post. The new curriculum consists of five classes, anchored by a prerequisite class titled Foundations. As the name implies, Foundations covers the foundations of Pragmatic Marketing and teaches the core concepts that are needed for the other four classes: Focus, Build, Market, and Launch.
This post focuses on an overview of the new curriculum with an emphasis on the Market and Launch classes.
One of the important improvements of the new curriculum is flexibility. You start by having your team trained in the Foundations of Pragmatic Marketing. This class has been designed for a broad audience, not just product managers or product marketing managers. In other words attendees are not going to hear a bunch of industry lingo they won’t understand. If your desire is to build an organization that identifies and responds to market needs, everyone needs to understand what that means and how they can contribute.
A second big improvement is that each of the five classes now have certification exams! It’s now possible to become Pragmatic Marketing Certified in five distinct areas, not just one.
Understand the Curriculum Flow
The easiest way to think of the new Pragmatic Marketing curriculum is that it forks after Foundations into two directions. One is for product management (what to build), the other product marketing (taking it to market). However, once you’ve taken Foundations you are free to take any of the other four classes.
The implication is tremendous flexibility to choose the classes you need, whether you choose one day or five days of training.
After taking Foundations, the Market + Launch path contains the two classes that cover go-to-market and launch. I like to refer to these as the product marketing path because the classes start with an assumption of a market-driven context.
While highly complementary, Market is not a prerequisite class for Launch. Many technology companies throw good money after bad experimenting blindly with promotional tactics. It’s one of the key reasons why marketing teams get a reputation for ‘wasting’ money.
The Market class emphasizes a strategically-oriented approach to building a solid go-t0-market plan. The topics covered in the Market class include:
- Connecting business goals with marketing execution
- Building Buyer Personas – the people who influence a buying decision
- Exercise in building a Buyer Persona
- Buying Process – understanding how your buyers in a market segment make a buying decision
- Identifying the Target Buyer within a market segment
- Prioritizing marketing programs
- Identifying marketing asset gaps – what’s missing that buyers need
- Optimizing content for purpose
- Measuring the impact of marketing through return on investment (ROI)
- Developing a marketing plan
The time horizon for the Market class is assumed to be 12 months, as we typically build marketing plans that cover a year. The Launch class focuses on a specific launch instance within that 12 month window. Mostly we will be discussing product launch, but the methods used in the class are equally effective in launching other initiatives (think pricing, licensing, changes in corporate direction, etc.).
Without a doubt the most common problem with product launches in technology is a lack of organizational readiness: the product is done but Sales doesn’t know enough about it, Marketing is not ready, Finance can’t book a sale, Customer Support can’t help customers. Sound familiar?
The Launch class explores marketing execution in general, as well as operational readiness for a launch. The topics covered in the Launch class include:
- Why standardized launch checklists are insufficient
- Connecting execution with strategy
- 7 Launch Strategies
- Exercise in choosing launch strategies
- Assessing operational readiness
- Understanding organizational constraints
- Developing a launch readiness scorecard
- Enabling the sales channels
- Understanding Sales Resistance and how to address it
- Leveraging Marketecture in the development of marketing assets
BTW, if you’re wondering why Positioning is missing from Market and Launch, it’s because it’s now in the Foundations class. It is such an important core topic we elevated it and teach it to everyone, it’s not valuable just for messaging. We refer to Marketecture and Positioning throughout Market and Launch, leveraging what was learned in Foundations.
If you have any questions about the Market and Launch classes please post your comment below, visit the class pages on the Pragmatic Marketing website, or call our office at +1.480.515.1411.
I hope to see you at a Foundations, Market, and Launch class sometime soon!
I’m about to tell you something that might not be so obvious to you, but it could be the difference between a successful launch and a failure.
Carefully Consider the Implications for the Channel
When planning a product launch it’s important to carefully consider the implications for your sales channels. Glossing over this crucial detail by assuming the channel can sell anything may result in a big surprise (and not a good one). OK, I get it, the product is the coolest thing ever and you can’t imagine why the channel wouldn’t sell tons of it. I’ll tell you why; it’s when they start putting effort into selling it and the market doesn’t accept it.
The Problem of Product Avoidance
Product avoidance occurs when people within your sales channel believe a product won’t sell. Put another way, they don’t see how they (the sales people) can make money so they back off, focusing their energy on other products. They avoid selling the product believing that other products in the product portfolio give them a better chance at reaching their sales quota.
Get It Right the First Time
The first, and most important, consideration to prevent a product avoidance problem is to deliver a product the market actually values and is willing to pay for it. This is a foundational concept in what we teach at Pragmatic Marketing. Delivering a dud product guarantees product avoidance in the sales channel.
The next consideration is to ensure your sales channel understands the problems the product solves for your customers, have confidence the product actually solves those problems, and have proof.
Your sales people have a mission; to bring money into the company by delivering something of value to people who have the money. By throwing the product over the wall to your sale channel assuming they’ll figure it out may result in a #launchfail that will ensure you will lose credibility with your channel and get the attention of management (and not the good kind of attention).
Have you ever had the “Why aren’t we selling as many of these as you projected?” question?
When you attempt a fast-paced launch within a slow moving business, you’re asking for trouble.
Businesses, like people, tend to have a pace. Some businesses operate at a fast pace. Fast can be exhilarating or terrifying depending on your perspective. Some businesses operate at a slow pace. Slow can be exasperating or comforting. Consider that business cultures of technology companies that serve risk-averse markets often mirror the markets they serve (they are not all face-paced just because they are in tech). In the early, startup stages these companies can be very fast paced but over time settle into a pace reflective of their customers’ pace.
Who Sets the Pace of Your Business?
The pace of your business is set by the CEO.
Over time the people within the business settle into that pace in much the same way cars maintain the speed of other cars on a highway. Those who attempt to break away from the herd and exceed the pace are branded heretics (“It’s not the way we do things here. Slow down!”). Those who go slower than the herd are helped to overcome their deficiencies or worse their slower pace is accepted and slows the rest of herd.
How Far Can You Push?
A fast-paced business expects a fast-paced product launch; a slower-paced business not so much.
When launching a product it’s important to understand the pace of the business and plan accordingly. You may be in a position to push the boundaries somewhat, but unless you have the express approval from the top, be careful. The natural order of things will work against your well-intentioned efforts and frustrate you. While there may be individuals within your company encouraging you to pick up the pace and push harder, the business has its own inertia you have to work within.
Acknowledge Barriers to Success
As part of good product launch planning, it’s necessary to identify the barriers to success. Below are a set of questions to help you get started.
- How long does it take us to get things done?
- Where are the bottlenecks? Why?
- Which functional areas or individuals will slow us down? Why?
- Are we capable of executing within a timeframe that allows us to hit the market window?
- Have we done this before?
As you build your product launch plan list the barriers to success (risks) so others are aware of organizational shortcomings.
Making it Work
Most CEOs want better performance from their teams and encourage employees to push the boundaries. Be realistic in where you can affect change and understand the source of bottlenecks.
As Dad would say, “Pick your battles wisely.”
During the feverish pitch leading up to the launch of a new product or new version of an existing product, it’s easy to focus on the obvious: product, sales channel, and marketing. You may be overlooking an important product launch resource available to you that could have a big impact on your next product launch. That resource is your customer support team.
Often the fastest way to achieve product launch goals is to target your customer base: the folks who love you and your products. Of course you’ll want to be sure the customer support team is ready to support the product being launched, but they can also be a very effective evangelical channel to get information to customers about new products and services. Every day your customer support team is engaged with assisting customers with a variety of requests which translates into opportunities to talk with them about new stuff.
Particularly with technical products, customers often seek opinions from customer support representatives. “Should I upgrade to the new version?”. “Should I configure it this way or that way?”. Bonds of trust are built between your customers and your customer support team. You can leverage this relationship to deliver information about new and improved products in a way that doesn’t make customers feel like they are being sold to.
Consider your customer support team as an important resource in your next product launch and provide them with a way to engage customers about new products and services in a way that is relevant, timely, and genuine.
On my home I have a roof that includes a flat area, which is very common in the kinds of home built in the Phoenix, Arizona area. I was told that it’s a good idea to recoat the flat area every 5 years to ensure a good moisture barrier in the (rare) event of rain. Believe it or not roof leaks in our area are very common due to the brutal heat.
It seems like a reasonably easy job, but I wanted to get an idea of the steps involved. If the effort was more than I was willing to put forth, I’d hire a contractor. Before hiring the contractor at least I’d know what was involved and could make an informed decision.
I went online and did a search and discovered Canyon State Roofing & Consulting. The search took me to a page on their website with an article titled “Do-It Yourself Foam Roof Recoat”. The page provided step-by-step instructions on what is necessary to do the job properly. Brilliant.
You might wonder why a roofing contractor would do such a thing (as I wondered)? The good folks at Canyon State Roofing spelled it our for us…
“You may be asking yourself, Why are we giving you this free guide? Isn’t this causing us to lose business? The answer is, yes, it is probably costing us. However, it is extremely important to us to keep to our core values and mission. Canyon State Roofing’s core value include EDUCATING our customers and the general public as much as we possibly can in our trade. Education is empowerment, and we strongly believe that if we help to empower our potential customers, they will appreciate and remember us if they ever need a roofing contractor in the future. So to you weekend warriors out there, enjoy this guide!”
The question I’d like an answer to is how many people read their DIY article and then choose Canyon State Roofing because they were so forthright?
I just returned from Product Camp SoCal 2012 held at the Cal State University Fullerton campus. The turnout was impressive with over 400 attendees and equally impressive enthusiasm (this was a Saturday!). The facility at CalState Fullerton was ideal and provided plenty of meeting space and room to mingle.
If you’re unfamiliar with Product Camp SoCal (or any Product Camp for that matter) you might wonder why anyone would give up their precious Saturday to attend one. Product Camps are crowd-sourced events (to the extent this is possible). They’re free and all volunteer based. The sessions are proposed by attendees, who then vote on the sessions they want to hear. The types of sessions vary from how-to presentations, to panel discussions, and facilitated discussions. What is not appreciated are vendor pitches.
The typical attendees of a Product Camp are product managers and product marketing managers. All attendee to learn, to share, and to network. Product managers are looking for ways to help them deliver products better and faster. Product marketing managers are looking for ways become better marketers of their products.
Highly memorable for me at Product Camp SoCal was the opening session where we were introduced to Hunter, Bear, Ranger, which is a Chinese variation of Rock, Paper, Scissors only much more animated. It got things started with a bang (no pun intended). I found a YouTube video here to help you get an idea of what it’s about. Now imagine 400 people doing this at once!
If there was any concern among Product Camp attendees it was not being able to attend all the sessions. There were lots of great topics but only so much time. A new addition this year was a partnership with the SoCal Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, which was warmly received.
I attended “Survey Research for Product and Brand Success” by Ray Benedicktus from OC Marketing Analytics and “Your Blog as a Product” by Dori Gilbert at Storycology.com. Both sessions were informative and engaging. My only regret is not attending more of the many great sessions.
My session was titled “5 Reasons Why Begging and Pleading for Customers No Longer Works” and was targeted at product marketing managers. The product marketing community is one I wish I would see more of at Product Camp. If you’re in a product marketing role you owe to yourself to check out a Product Camp in your area.
New tools I picked up at Product Camp SoCal 2012 include InboundQ (finds tweets that contain keywords you care about), InboundWriter (help you write blog content that is search engine friendly), TwitterFall (gives you a running list of tweets based on a variety of search criteria, and the Smart SEO plugin for WordPress (finds keywords in your content and suggests links).
The all important milestone of a product launch plan is the launch date. For many product launches establishing a launch date in the product launch plan involves a lot of discussion, negotiation, and gnashing of teeth. Sometimes the launch date appears to be arbitrary while at other times is carefully planned to coincide with an important market event, like an industry tradeshow. While the ‘perfect’ launch date for your product launch plan could be debated ad nauseum, I’d like you to consider one often overlooked, yet critical technique.
Each week I have the priviledge of teaching our Product Launch Essentials class and the topic of establishing a launch date for the product launch plan always comes up. Through the years I’ve learned great techniques from others and there is one thing I had to learn the hard way, that I want to share with you. And that is, before you recommend a product launch date, consider where it is within the fiscal quarter.
The bulk of my career experience has been within the software industry. I’ve done just about everything in a software company except accounting and legal stuff. I’ve seen a lot of product launch train wrecks along the way and I’ve had the joy of seeing some successful product launches. Setting and managing expectations is a big part of a product launch owners success. The secret? Establish a launch date for your product launch plan at the beginning of the quarter. Never at the end of a quarter.
Why, you are probably wondering should the product launch date be at the beginning of the quarter? There are two important reasons to have a product launch date at the beginning of the quarter.
If you have a launch date at the end of the quarter in your product launch plan and you have a development delay your product launch is now pushed into the next quarter. While that may not seem like such a big deal on the surface, the sales momentum that was hoped to be generated can be significantly impaired. When your product launch plan launches at the beginning of the quarter, you still have the flexibility of launching in the current quarter.
Lost Sales Momentum with Early Adopters
I’m not a proponent of allowing the sales team (or channel partners) to sell what isn’t shipping. That said, enterprise software companies with complex and long sales cycles have long discovered that preselling can be very effective in building sales momentum. If the launch date is at the end of the quarter and there is a slip in the launch date, deals in the pipeline that were ready to close are now pushed out into the future. This can have a devestating affect on the sales channel. I can assure you if the launch slips, the sales team’s quota won’t be reduced. When your product launch plan launches at the beginning of the quarter, you still have time to recover lost momentum and regain mind share with the sales team.What product launch challenges are you struggling with? Let me know either by commenting below or sending me an email at email@example.com .
As it relates to your sales channel and channel partner readiness, there are two things to consider when developing your own product launch time line. First is the size of your sales channel. The second is the complexity of the sales cycle. By focusing on the sales channel and channel partners you address what is typically the most time consuming and riskiest part of a successful product launch.
Size of Your Sales Channel and Channel Partners
Get your sales channel and channel partners ready for product launch is often the most critical and time consuming part of product launch. You can deliver the best promotional programs on the planet but if the sales channel and your channel partners aren’t ready (or haven’t embraced the new offering) your success in the market could be severely impacted.
The size of the sales channel and channel partners has a direct relationship to the amount of time it takes to prepare it for launch. Let me illustrate.
When the sales channel is limited to 6 direct salespeople in one office, you can get them together over lunch. But when the sale channel is a combination of direct salespeople and channel partners scattered across three continents you have to plan ahead. Sometimes months in advance.
Let’s say that Acme Software has a direct sales channel of 300 salespeople in North America, EMEA, and Asia Pacific. They are in 15 countries and speak equally as many languages. Additionally there are channel partners in 10 other countries.
In the case of Acme Software you may need to start the product launch planning process of sales enablement training 6 months in advance of the target launch date just to coordinate training dates. If you have the added constraint of not being able to get everyone together in one place at one time, consider traveling to them or conducting sales enablement training online.
The Complexity of the Sales Cycle
The complexity of the sales cycle can introduce another dimension into your product launch planning. Products that are relatively simple to understand and sell, lend themselves to a much easier sales enablement training regiment and therefore a shorter planning horizon. On the other hand complex products take longer to understand and require much more involvement from buyers before a purchase decision can be made require a longer planning horizon.
Complex sales cycles require much more training about the problems addressed, who is impacted within the buyer’s organization, and what will they need to know in order to make a recommendation to buy.
Let’s build on our Acme Software example. Assume Acme is launching a new solution and for the first time will introduce to the channel a product with a complex sales cycle. Management is anticipating a 9 to 12 month sales cycle with no fewer than 8 to 10 people from the customer’s organization to be involved in making a decision to buy.
We’re presented not only with a new product to launch but a change in the way our sales channel will sell. This introduces risk. In order to minimize risk we may have to consider sales enablement training a year in advance by focusing on the problem, the market, buyers, and how they buy.
Another consideration here worth mentioning is sales culture. It’s not uncommon to see a sales culture where it’s OK to sell what’s not yet available. It’s another opportunity to introduce risk. Only this time the risk is about negatively affecting current sales before product launch. When we start sales enablement training we may run the risk that salespeople start talking about the new product immediately and inadvertently stop the deals they are working on today.
While I’m a strong advocate of a sales culture what sells what we have, I’m also a realist when it comes to long, complex sales cycles. If we wait until the product is announced we’re starting from scratch to build a pipeline. If we have a sales culture that sells futures, we start building a pipeline for the new product but run the risk of reducing the size of the pipeline for current products. Sometimes we’re in a no win situation. Err on the side of getting the sales channel and channel partners prepared to sell and leave the problem of selling futures to the VP of Sales and the CEO to resolve.
What are you struggling with?
Let me know by leaving me a comment below or sending me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Marketing to B2C buyers is the same as marketing to B2B buyers, right? Not one bit and to understand why you need to start by examining the buyer.
In a B2C market the buyer is spending her own money.
In a B2B market the buyer is spending his company’s money.
In a B2C market the buyer makes the purchase decision without needing the input of others (except maybe my wife).
In a B2B market there is likely multiple buyers fulfilling different roles: the one with the budget, the ones who will use the product, and the ones who have to make sure it will work.
In a B2C market we connect with the buyer’s pain, fear, and guilt.
In a B2B market we connect with a business problem that needs to be solved.
Trying to use B2C marketing approaches in a B2B world (and vis-a-versa) can be costly and ineffective.
The moral of this story is to get a deep understanding of your buyer and what makes them tick before you waste your company’s resources.