Product Releases – Soft is OK but don’t be Squidgy

business hand pushing product quality on virtual screenWhat is a soft product launch?

Wikipedia has a definition of a soft product launch – here; which says: “A soft launch is the release of a website, hotel, or other Product (business) or service to a limited audience. Soft-launching is a method for gathering data on a product’s usage and acceptance in the marketplace, before making it generally available as a hard launch or grand opening. Companies may choose a soft launch to test the viability of a product or to fine-tune a product before implementing a larger marketing effort.”

Note this says – “limited audience”, “gathering data”, “test the viability”, “fine-tune” etc…. later on elaborated on “a small release being made to a limited group of individuals for beta testing.

Often soft launches take the form of “unsupported features” or “early access programs”. In my experience though I have seen a lot of something which I’m going to call “squidgy launches”.

What is a “squidgy” launch?

A squidgy launch is something where the product is released to the whole audience and market but a lot of the information and marketing around it is held back for a grand announcement at a big corporate event or to tie in with a product or financial announcement. The product surreptitiously appears as a new version on an Akamai or similar download site, available for the mass user base to download. This is typically because there isn’t a high-profile announcement opportunity and/or the product can’t be delayed until there is one because of financial constraints (revenue recognition, customer commitment), other product dependencies (i.e. it _has_ to be released in this release to allow another product to release, there’s no other release vehicle before the big show or because of a commitment to certain customers or sales).

Soft launches can be really useful

As a Product Manager, soft launches can be incredibly useful in many ways:

  • Quality control
  • Testing the viability
  • Getting quality feedback from selected customers

But I’m not a fan of “Squidgy” launches

These are technically full product releases, of the technical bits, but missing a lot of the overall _product_ whether that’s doc, feedback mechanisms and marketing explaining the positioning of the feature/product.

There is now this thing called the INTERNET…. if you haven’t heard of it…. It’s a mechanism by which your customers and partners can communicate directly with each other, cutting you out of the conversation. It also gives all those folk interested in your product a mechanism to broadcast whatever message they think is suitable about your product and a way of filling any “voids”.

Typically, a product will have a large number of independent consultants, partners, bloggers, channel partners and analysts with a significant interest in your product, keen to blog, tweet and communicate about it as soon as possible. These folk often have a strong vested interest in filling any information voids left by a launch to establish themselves as the de-facto expert in the field on _your_ product, to answer their customer inquiries when those customers get wind of a new release and to pick up traffic from google searches to their own company and personal websites and blogs, from searches like “is new product version xxx compatible with product yyy”, “should I upgrade to product version ddd.fff”.

It’s not unusual for a product manager/solution architect to get an email enquiry about something not well-documented/obscure and subsequently see the reply repackaged by an internet expert on their own blog! The illusion is convincing but the only real expertise is a knowledge of who to ask alongside cut-n-paste.  This also means that potential traffic, leads and customer conversations are diverted away from your own website.

Additionally, once the sales, marketing departments have negotiated a “squidgy” launch it can have the effect of refocusing deadlines and efforts on the “real”, “hard” launch. So much of the material is not actually available even internally let alone publicly when the product actually becomes available.

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