What type of customer research do you do pre-launch to help you have a great product launch?
Great question and glad to see people taking a customer-led approach to product launches. There are a few strategies I recommend here and they fall into 4 areas.
- Review the foundational research and insights that already exist - What you’re launching was built based on deep customer research and …ensure you’re clear on the insights that drove what you’re bringing to market in the first place. If gaps are identified, now is the time to identify and close them. It’s better late than never on the foundational pieces.
- Dig into early customer feedback - Talk to beta customers - what do they love, what’s missing, are they actually using the product with frequency and intensity? You’re a great product marketer, so you already have some customers on speed dial (OK…does anyone remember speed dial???) But you get the idea. Talk to customers!
- Qualitative and quantitative research with prospects/target audience - To develop great messaging, positioning and marketing plan, you need to know what work the marketing actually needs to do to convert your target audience. What are the perceptions, motivations, barriers, media sources, and buying process for your audience? All in the context of your new product. The keys to this research are to target a representative group of your audience, do the qual first to guide what you’re measuring in the quant, and leverage product prototypes for stimuli, so feedback is richer. And remember, focus groups and individual interviews are not perfect…I find they can identify big reactions - but are not likely to inform how people will behave in the wild.
- Market and competitive research - Do your diligence on what’s happening in the market. What else is your target audience exposed to? How will you create a breakthrough message? Big markets with lots of $$$ tend to be crowded and highly competitive, your goal may not be differentiation, but going to market with distinctiveness.
It is always a good idea to factor in some time for research pre-launch to make sure your messaging is resonating with your target customer. In the past, I've done this both via quant surveys (Pros: more data driven confidence levels but Cons: Finding the right prospect audience can be expensive) and qual (Pros: can learn more of the why and insights, Cons: lower levels of confidence). Another useful tactic is to loop in your GTM teams early on to get their thoughts on concepts/messaging. But ultimately, you shouldn't use these as a crutch, you should invest more energy and time up front to build the right strategy and make sure execution is able to ladder back to that strategy.
There are a number of ways to approach customer research pre-launch. At Webflow, we spend a lot of time with our community members to better understand their needs and wants as it relates to our product roadmap and their business needs. Really understanding specific audience segments and the why really helps our product marketing team with better messaging that resonates in the market. I've also been part of organizations where leveraging a cross-functional product beta program with sales, product, and product marketing creates a strong repository of not only customer feedback for product but also a feeling that the customer is part of the product development and launch process. From a marketing perspective, beta programs are a great way to tell customer stories during the actual product launch to amplify the effectiveness and reach of your product launch (I.e. think press, social media, blogs, analyst community, etc.).
Customer research is so critical to the success of a launch and the extent of it will depend on the size and scope of the launch. At a minimum, you'll want to do customer interviews to understand:
- The customer problem
- The value the product will deliver
- Who your target segment(s) and persona(s) are
These will serve as the inputs to your product or feature messaging and positioning. If you work at an enterprise-focused company, it's sometimes not so easy to get in front of senior buyers at the enterprise level. In these cases, you can leverage the feedback of CAB members and beta customers - if you feel this isn't enough or representative of the market, work with the field to get in front of the audience you're targeting. If you work at a consumer or SMB-focused company, you can also conduct surveys, but you'll usually still want to start with qualitative interviews to get inputs for the survey.
In addition to direct customer feedback, depending on the launch, you may also want to leverage other data sources such as in-product, competitive, SEO and/or CRM data.
I like to break this down into: product research, messaging research, GTM research.
Product research is research you do to inform the product the team builds. This almost always manifests in alpha and beta testing, but it can also be a specific research project you tackle.
Messaging research is research you do to inform how you talk about the product. It can be as simple as showing a few customers your landing page to as complex as testing different audiences with messaging options and ad variants.
GTM research is research you do to ensure you make money/grow because of the product. It can be interviews to learn how/where your audience goes to find products like yours or can be market research to help lock in the final pricing plans/structure you’ll launch with.
Honestly, it depends on the launch. But the higher the stakes, the more you should consider the above.
For clarity, I’ll draw a distinction here between product research and product launch research.
1) Product research happens before resources are committed to build the proposed product. Product research is critical to ensure that you are, to use YCombinator parlance, “making something people want”. This is frequently called validation research. You are validating that A) a customer need exists, and B) what you propose to build will meet that customer need. And you are seeking to understand the nuances around that customer need. Individual customer interviews are the main way that validation research is carried out.
2) Product launch research is conducted to ensure that your launch is effective in driving launch goals, which might be product adoption, increased customer acquisition, revenue from an incrementally-priced product, enhanced customer retention, etc.
While in early-stage startups a single person may have a PM and PMM role, in more developed companies it is typically the PM who is the primary owner of product research, and the PMM who primarily owns product launch research. (This fits with my general belief that the PM should own product strategy, and the PMM should own go-to-market strategy.) Thus, from here, I’ll elaborate more on product launch research.
The amount of dedicated research you do for a product launch should be commensurate with the importance of that launch. For more important launches, the research will likely include:
1) Customer research. Which launch messaging will most resonate with customers? What questions and objections are customers likely to have when presented with the launch messaging?
2) Competitive research. How differentiated will this new product be in the marketplace? How have competitors positioned similar products? What is the likely response from competitors once we launch our product?
The PMM’s launch plan should have sections that cover the above two types of research, summarizing the findings and making recommendations accordingly.
But here’s the thing: the reality of being a PMM in a fast-growing tech company is that the PMM’s window of time before launch is often quite brief. Even when the PMM has good lines of communication with the Product org, the PMM may only get a few weeks to prepare for the launch with the launch team they’ve assembled. For that reason, the PMM is often very limited in the amount of dedicated launch research they can do before they have to draft and finalize the messaging for the launch.
So what should a PMM team do, to ensure that their launch is well-informed with knowledge of the customer and the marketplace?
The PMM team should establish listening posts and intelligence-gathering processes so that, when it’s time to prepare for a new product launch, they’re already well-informed with regard to the usual research questions that surround a launch. These ongoing market research activities should be 80% of how a PMM knows about customers and the market — and the PMM can close the remaining 20% while preparing for the launch, to answer specific questions related to the unique nature of that launch.
What are some examples of those ongoing listening posts and baseline intelligence-gathering processes?
1) Listen in on product validation interviews the PM conducts with customers.
2) Listen in on calls the AEs hold with prospects, or the CSMs hold with current customers. (Additionally, if you have a sales call recording system like Gong, use keyword searches to scan through Gong audio transcripts to find conversations of note.)
3) Read posts in online customer communities, whether first-party or third-party communities.
4) Read popular third-party websites and blogs written for your target audience.
5) Survey the Sales and Customer Success teams to learn about their perceptions of customer needs, and/or hold roundtable discussions with them.
6) Survey or poll your customer base to get their perspective on chosen topics.
7) Read websites and sales materials from competitors to understand how they describe their offerings and how they position against their competitors.
8) Sign up to use competitor products, and conduct detailed product teardowns to understand the nuances of competitor product capabilities and shortcomings.
Love this question. I take a 1 is greater than 0, even if it's less than 100 strategy here. Talking to any customers is better than talking to no customers. Obviously if you have sufficient time you'll want to gather feedback (qual + quant) on both the product experience, the positioning, and any campaign messaging or assets that you have. I find that's rarely the case though and almost everything is done with half the time and a quarter the resources you'd like. In that case, I take a best guess at messaging and positioning - create some assets or tools for somebody to react to. Push notifications, an email, landing page, in-product copy - whatever - and get them in front of people. In a small sample and exercise like this, you're looking for responses on the edge - are there any words you use that are confusing? Are there elements that really resonate? Is the messaging clear, concise, and concrete? From there, you can take another crack at it, make revisions, and get ready to go.
I’m a big believer in customer research as a part of the overall launch plan. It’s tempting to make decisions based on “I think” or “I like” but in most cases, the PMM is not the target audience so it’s important to balance a convicted point of view with actual customer signal.
At Dropbox, we work with our Customer Intelligence team to do quant & qual research across areas like: value prop definition, messaging, creative brand and even perform research early in the pre-build phase to help inform the product roadmap in partnership with Product.
We also have a program called “real world Wednesdays” where we are able to connect with customers directly which is awesome.
We also do research, including conjoint studies, to inform our packaging & pricing when we are making SKU plan changes as part of a launch.
It depends on the launch, but I will usually do a mix of these:
Customer Research: Talk with existing customers, or survey your existing customer base (or a segment of it) if a solution your launching is directly related or adjacent to an existing product you have. If you need deep insight into the pain points a customer is facing a 1:1 conversation would likely be best. There’s no magic number of conversation to have - but once you start noticing trends in a lot of answers you can generally stop. In my experience it’s usually between 10-15, but can be more or less. If you are launching your first product, or entering a totally new market - refer to the other research types as well.
Stakeholder Research: Talk with internal stakeholders across teams. Ideally people who are customer-facing and hear feedback from customers day-in, and day-out. They can be a wealth of knowledge and give you really good feedback.
Analyst Research: If you work with Analysts they can be a great resource for insight into questions coming-up from buyers, and help you consider different product directions or messaging.
Market Research: Using various tools like QuestionPro, or SurveyMonkey, you can reach people in your target market that are not existing customers. This can be a fantastic resource to get broader insight into the pain points and challenges your buyers face, what they’re looking for, and trends in their business.
For a really large launch, I will usually do all four of the above and will lean very deeply into market research, and customer research. As launches get smaller, I will scale back the amount of research.
Also, I’d be remiss not to say if there are analyst reports or industry reports already published - read them! Use a filetype search in Google to dig-up some reports, look on sites like G2 or TrustRadius for actual user reviews to learn what people are experiencing (and potentially where your solution fits in). Lastly, look at what your competitors are doing. I want to be clear that I don’t advocate for following competition, but you should be aware of what they’re doing and how they are talking about their company/product so you can differentiate your company. Some of these “passive” methods of research can fill gaps, or replace some of the options above as well.
To answer this question, first ask yourself a number of questions:
- Business importance: Is this a smaller feature, or is it a big bet and large revenue driver?
- Risk: Even if it's not a large revenue driver, there may be a substantial reputational risk to getting it wrong. Is this one of those situations?
- Timing: When does this need to hit market? Can you convince management and stakeholders to wait for research, or do you need to act now? (Side note: Many projects will feel urgent, but it's rarely the case. Customers tend to forget who launches something first.)
- Budget: Do you have the budget needed to conduct new research?
- Current understanding: Saved the most important for last. What do you currently know about your audience, what they need, and what would encourage them to use your product more?
Using the above, let's consider a couple scenarios.
Scenario 1: Smaller feature, low risk, limited timing and budget
Let's consider a relatable situation: A partner team is already pretty far along in thinking through a feature but brings you in to help take it across the finish line. In this case you may just want to make sure the feature is best set up for adoption with a quick quantitative survey (e.g., to existing customers). Qualitative research is less likely to help you here because feature scope is already relatively defined.
Scenario 2: Big bet, meaningful risk, more resources to get it right
If it's a new offering, category, or product line, you have a good case for several rounds of research that will help you get stronger insights as you go. Oftentimes this follows an arc where you start with qualitative research to get a broad understanding and probe deeper with customers. Then you take what you learned and do rounds of quantitative research to get greater confidence in the insights you learned and to put different offering configurations in front of customers.
The #1 thing is listening to customer calls. Or beta calls if you have someone selling the product before the launch. We use Gong.io for that.
This is where I get most of the positoining. Copy and paste call transcripts into the positioning deck. Better to use their words than make up your own.
Once you have the positioning, you can pitch it to other customers. Get on a call yourself, test it out. So not only does your positioning originate with your customers, but it's validated by more of them.
If you're short on time, pitch the positioning to your team (CSMs, sales reps, support reps, people close to the customer).