“The launch cycle at Internet companies is markedly different. Launches and rapid iterations are far easier because new features can be rolled out on the server side, rather than requiring software rollout on individual customer workstations.” Betsy Beyer

“A startup is a human institution designed to create a new product or service under conditions of extreme uncertainty.” Eric Ries, The Lean Startup: How Today's Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses

The best product launches employ a three-step process: assessment, strategy, and execution/enablement. In her role as Vice President at SAP’s Global Corporate Affairs, Dorit Shackleton leads strategic integrated communications for the newest cross-enterprise topics at tech giant SAP. In the last of a three-part series, Shackleton shares her playbook for enabling and executing a big-stage product launch.

Here’s the thing about marketing and communications – everyone is an expert, or believes they are. When it comes to executing on a communications strategy, a prescriptive integrated approach that always keeps the end in mind and is inclusive of all key stakeholders, inputs, and outputs is needed. “The execution phase of an integrated communication plan is akin to orchestrating a symphony. Processes and tactics are sequenced with each key person playing to his or her strengths and role in achieving a masterpiece,” says Shackleton.

Like any good maestro, Shackleton created a well thought-out playbook that instills discipline and encourages people to codify along a set of guidelines. Rather than police the integrated processes, the playbook should provide transparency into the eight essential steps to successfully execute a communications strategy.

1. Work with outside experts and influencers. With the protection of a non-disclosure agreement, you should not begin to execute without first sharing your launch plan with the people who advise or influence your clients. “Put aside budget to pay for their insights into your market and the converging trends that will directly and indirectly impact your launch,” says Shackleton. Be willing to adjust tactics to accommodate new insights gained from these important meetings. You have come this far; don’t let your ego about your plan stop you from succeeding.

2. Create a tough FAQ. The FAQ should represent the tough questions you anticipate to be asked from press and analysts when you launch. This may be a painful step, but it’s a crucial one. “This is where you over-prepare. Trust me, you want the first time your spokespeople face the toughest questions to happen inside the walls of your conference room,” says Shackleton. Gather a list of brutal questions that are informed from your meetings with outside experts, competitive landscape analysis, and your product and market experts.

3. Conduct hot seat training. Taking a note from the playbook of pilots, simulation training is an essential component to being ready for any possible situation. “Keeping the toughest journalists in mind, role playing media interviews provides a powerful mechanism to identify and prepare for any potential weak spots in your storyline,” says Shackleton. Streamline the process by role-playing the interview, read out where there is work to do, and identify when and where journalists are not going to buy the answer.

4. Prepare visual content. Launching a product is akin to telling a story. The challenge in telling your story is the competition from the rampant noise on every traditional and social media channel. “Videos, gifs, infographics, and pictures outperform text-only content,” says Shackleton. Look for ways to show the story instead of telling or preaching. You will garner more attention if you entertain and engage as you inform the market.

5. Monitor social channels. Thanks to online monitoring tools, you will get real-time feedback. “Set up a war room for the day you are going out with your big announcement so you can keep your finger on the pulse to know what is resonating and where there may be issues,” says Shackleton. Competitors will look for ways to undercut and attack your product and your business. A rapid response and crisis communication plan should be in place. Ensure that the plan includes risks of the social media strategy, key content, proof points, and team members who are responsible for mitigation.

6. Check-in one last time. A few days before the big day, gather your executives one last time. “You must have this meeting. It’s the only way to ensure that your spokespeople feel comfortable with the plan,” says Shackleton. Flag any last minute activities, and make sure no potential challenges go unresolved. Create a punch list of all activities that must be completed to ensure nothing goes amiss.

7. Execute with confidence. The grand finale is finally here. You and your team have tirelessly built a plan. Once execution starts, you shift the focus to reporting on the results. “Have a visual template that allows you to keep an eye on the key pulse areas that were determined as success goals such as media mentions and social media engagement,” says Shackleton. Your after-action report can then be used as a diagnostic tool to determine lessons learned to inform the team of what can and should be done differently for the next launch.

8. Celebrate out loud. It’s quite common for team members to feel a state of euphoria post launch. Before moving on to the next project, it’s time to thank everyone on the team. “Glory is short-lived. It is so important to take a moment to for the team,” says Shackleton. Make sure to keep track of who stepped up. Have that captured somewhere. When you send out thank you notes, be careful to check your list. No one should get overlooked or forgotten. Public and private recognition means the world to the people who have contributed.

As the saying goes, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. “You need to stay flexible,” says Shackleton. The eight step process does not mean there are no switchbacks or add hoc decisions. Be willing to pivot on the tactics but never lose sight of the goals.

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