Product launches are definitely one of the sexier aspects of being a product marketer. And nothing feels better than nailing your big day after months of exhausting planning, coordination and work.

One of the questions I get asked most frequently is “how do you plan for a product launch?” Everyone is searching for the silver bullet launch template. The one process or checklist they can carbon copy for every product launch. Monthly Google search queries for “product launch plan” or “product launch process” number in the tens-of-thousands.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned after quarterbacking dozens of product launches, it’s that there is no “one size fits all” template. Each launch is different. Compare them to snowflakes, fingerprints, whatever. Sorry, no easy answer, no golden launch template.

Every department in your company is affected by a product launch.

I’ve noticed growing chatter around “launch checklists.” This concerns me. I see people falling into the trap of thinking a 10-20 point checklist can yield a product launch rivaling that of Apple’s iPod. Don’t give into this illusion! Don’t think a one page checklist can replace thorough planning and produce an effective launch.

Checklists are meant to be fail-safes. They will never replace thoughtful go-to-market planning. Instead of checking the boxes on the most basic tactical items associated with a launch, step back and ask yourself if you’ve “checked the boxes” on fully understanding the 3 critical dimensions governing your product launch: goals, readiness and constraints. These determine your go-to-market strategy, what the launch plan (and checklist) look like and the ultimate success of the launch.  

You say you know the goals of the launch. Are you sure?

It’s funny how the simplest of things are the most easily forgotten. The concept of goals is something we’ve been familiar with since the third grade. Perhaps that’s the problem. Or perhaps the problem is we hear them once at the beginning of the quarter and never again.

Whatever the case is, for the love of god, please start with goals. Don’t do or commit to anything without agreeing on what success looks like. Is it revenue, awareness, customers/users, etc.? What lift or improvement are we looking for? Over what time period?

I had a rather rude awakening to this, midway through an announcement earlier this year. What appeared to be a late-stage debate around messaging angles was actually a manifestation of a critical fault. As I rifled through my memory, my stomach churned and I became light headed (imagine thinking you lost your phone). I realized we hadn’t clearly defined, agreed upon or documented the goals for this announcement.

I felt like an idiot. Maybe we had and they got lost in the shuffle or people agreed and then changed their minds. Regardless, let this be a lesson of what happens when you don’t solidify and document the goal of an announcement or launch. Goals beget strategy and strategy begets tactics. Make sure you have the first piece so you know which strategy to employ.

Machiavelli would have made a great product marketer when he said “the end justifies the means.”

What does readiness look like and what will it take to get there?

The product is only the first domino in the domino path that is your launch. If there’s a gap between product readiness and organizational readiness, not much is going to happen after you flick that first domino and it falls short of the rest.

Every department in your company is affected by a product launch. Customer Support, Legal and Finance matter just as much as Sales and Product. Have you accurately scoped their needs and identified what it will take to get everyone ready? Have you budgeted the time?

Sadly, we product marketers don’t have an American Express “black card” when it comes to product launches. Resources are finite, and I’m not only talking about money.

Don’t find yourself in a place where you launch, start selling and then find out you can’t process orders because the product wasn’t loaded into your accounting system.

The best way to avoid this? Make sure you’ve assembled a cross-functional launch team with representatives from every department in your organization. They don’t have to attend every meeting or sign off on every item but having the list in front of you and involving them at the right time can prevent disaster.

What constraints exist and how are they affecting the other dimensions or the launch overall?

Sadly, we product marketers don’t have an American Express “black card” when it comes to product launches. Resources are finite, and I’m not only talking about money. I once had an executive begin listing out all his expectations and vision for the launch. I quietly pulled out a piece of paper and drew a triangle with the words “good,” “fast,” and “cheap” on the points. I then flipped it around and said, “Pick two.”

This final dimension of product launches is the most overlooked. Product marketers are usually pretty decent at building strategies and timelines once goals are outlined. It’s easy to back into timelines. But what most people fail to consider up front is constraints. This is problematic because constraints (time, money or people) can derail achieving your launch goals in the specified timeframe.

Best way to avoid being blindsided? Take constraints into account at the same time you’re examining goals and readiness. All three dimensions affect each other. Lofty sales goal but you don’t have enough reps? Recalibrate your revenue goal. Need a laundry list of marketing assets but you only have one designer? Recalibrate the timeline.

Call out your constraints in your launch planning document to help you manage expectations. Conduct a quick and dirty gap analysis and document what it will take for you to achieve what’s expected. This makes it easier to ask for resources in the beginning or cover your ass when you weren’t given them and are being held to the same goals.

Checklists are meant to be a fail-safe

I hope that by now it’s evident that a 10 point checklist is nowhere near thorough enough to consider or address all the above. It’s critical to examine and account for each of these dimensions during launch planning. These dimensions govern your go-to-market strategy.

The beef I have with checklists is that they’re reactive, not prescriptive. They’re meant to be a fail-safe to make sure you didn’t miss anything. Pilots use them to make sure they put the landing gear down before they land, not to help them consider exactly when they should put it down. Should they do it 5 miles out? 10 miles out? Depends. Just like what happens in our launch timeline and when, depends.

Checklists are great for “checking your work” but don’t believe for a second they can replace thoughtful go-to-market planning.

It’s your job to be prescriptive. Much like a doctor prescribing meds based on his patient assessment. A checklist may make sure he covered all aspects of his examination – temperature, blood pressure, test results, etc. But it’s on him to interpret those dimensions and decide on a course of treatment.

Same thing for your product launch. Be its doctor. Interpret all the vitals and then decide on your course of action. Don’t give someone the wrong prescription dosage because you’re blindly following a checklist. Do your craft and then use a checklist to make sure you stitched the patient up after surgery. And then document. Document everything in your launch’s “patient chart.”

The bottom line

Checklists are great for “checking your work” but don’t believe for a second they can replace thoughtful go-to-market planning. Have you considered all dimensions of your product launch? Are goals clearly defined? Have you scoped what it will take to achieve internal readiness? Have you identified any constraints and determined their impact on goals and timelines? Be thorough in your planning, prescriptive in your strategy and surprise-free at launch.