If you want to be a bad product manager, publicize your launch date well in advance. Your customers need to know when they can expect a new product or product enhancements. They’re going to ask anyway, so you might as well just start publicizing it. Plus, if you get any pushback from engineering/development/production on the launch date, you can tell them that you have to make the date because you’ve already told customers about it. Having a launch date that everyone knows about is a great way to motivate the team to get the project done on schedule.
If you want to be a good product manager, be very careful in how you promote your launch date. Obviously you want to let customers know about new products and new versions of products, but that doesn’t mean you need to publicly commit to a specific date months in advance of the actual launch.
Over at brainmates, Fern Jones-Middleton offers five fantastic suggestions for Launching New Products Successfully, including:
Don’t release a launch date in the market unless you’re 110% sure you’re going to make it. Your company can look pretty silly in the eyes of a customer if it’s not available when you say it will be available. Also, look out when you use ‘Coming Soon..’ How soon is soon? I’ve seen companies advertise a new product on their website when ‘soon’ is 6 months! That’s not very soon in my opinion.
If you are the product manager for Windows Vista or the Nintendo Wii or the next version of the T-Mobile Sidekick, there may be a good reason to plan around a release date and make it one you are sure you will meet. Major media plans must be aligned and distribution channels need to be prepared. Some launches are events more for the celebration around the launch than for the product itself.
For most products, though, the launch date is less important from a pure publicity standpoint. In those cases, the decision about how to publicize the launch date really depends on a consideration of the product, the market, your customers, the distribution channel, and a myriad of other factors. A decision around how to promote the launch date of a new software product would be different than a new version of a stapler. Business-to-business sales with close customer relationships deserve to be considered differently than mass market consumer packaged goods.
The question about whether or not to publicize a launch date extensively really comes down to the benefits of that promotion and the potential drawbacks. What do you gain by telling customers about the explicit launch date? Do they need to know the date specifically? Are there major purchases, product integrations, or other decisions hanging in the balance? Is there danger of missing the date? What would be the impact if you did not actually launch the product on the date you promised? Is your product so compelling that customers would want to count down the date to the launch, or is that something that only people within the company would care about?
If you feel the need to provide some date for the market but do not want to commit to a specific date, one of these alternatives should provide much of the benefit while at the same time not opening you up to potential problems:
- Provide an accurate but non-specific date, like Coming This Fall or New Version in 2008.
- Commit to a “by” date by which time the product will be launched, such as By September 1 or By the fourth quarter of 2007 (a combination of “by” and an accurate but non-specific date).
- Describe the date relative to other events, whose dates can either be fixed or variable. Examples of fixed dates are Soon after the SXSW Conference or Within weeks of the Fall election. Variable dates can be statements like Three days after Apple’s new product announcement or Two months after we obtain regulatory approval.
Not all of these are launch dates you would want to explicitly publicize (an ad for a new product with “Available two months after we obtain regulatory approval” in big letters would probably not work well) but they are options for communicating through other channels, such as only when customers ask or in one-on-one discussions with key partners.
It is important to have a consistent message around your launch date — you do not want your web site to mention that the product will be available By July 15 but have your sales channel committing to a launch on June 30.
Regardless of what launch date you choose, you need to consider the pros and cons of releasing a specific launch date. If you decide not to publicly promote a specific date but still need to provide some time frame for the launch, consider one of the options above which will allow you to answer questions from customers, partners, and other external stakeholders but still provide you with some flexibility around the actual date.