In 1906, after a small vessel entered a creek that separated Atlantic City from the rest of New Jersey, a newly constructed railroad bridge was put back in place so that normal rail traffic could resume. But the first eastbound train to cross the bridge, a three-car passenger train, derailed and plunged into the water below, killing fifty-three people.

Two days later, Ivy Lee, a public relations expert with the Pennsylvania Railroad, issued a statement to the press about the accident, which the New York Times printed word for word. Thus the first press release was born.

This is the first documented example of a company successfully using a press release to communicate a point of view to a mass audience. Eventually, the technique of using the media to reach customers was adopted by companies with goals other than damage control. For example, they used press releases to turn their product announcements into news stories.

For decades, B2B companies relied on press releases to launch products. They notified various media outlets and hoped the information could be considered newsworthy. Because every industry had its own trade publications, they were the principal way companies got their messages out. 

The role of the press release has changed in the past twenty years. First, in 1996, Google started sharing its press releases with the public. Until then, releases normally had been reserved for journalists. With everyone having access to the same information, journalists then preferred to rely on them less. Second, as the cost of issuing press releases plummeted as the process became digital, the number issued skyrocketed, making it hard for any particular release to stand out. In 2013 alone, the largest press-release services—PR Newswire, Business Wire, and Marketwired—sent out roughly 642,000 press releases.

What’s the modern way to launch something that doesn’t rely on a press release? Apple set the standard in 2005 by conducting a live event—essentially a presentation to a large gathering of carefully selected journalists, influencers, and customers. Since Apple announced the iPhone at Macworld Expo in 2007, the worldwide live-presentation format has worked wonders for Apple. About two million people tuned in to the webcast of Apple’s live event for its iPhone 11.

Few, if any, other companies have Apple’s resources and cachet and can only dream about attracting such crowds. The best alternative is to attach your product launch to an event where your customers will already be. For example, if you're in the consumer electronics business, you’ll most likely launch at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, attended by 182,0000 people and 4,400 companies with exhibits that fill the space of about fifty football fields. The people you’re trying to reach are far more likely to be there than to show up at your company’s own event.

A successful product launch depends on more than when and where your company hosts an event. So much depends on how the company tells its story. Most companies default to the typical story line: Here's the problem. Here's the solution. Buy our product.

Even though that’s ultimately the message you want customers and prospects to take away, you can tell the story more creatively. The following are examples of two different approaches, one better than the other. 

In 2015, Apple launched an upgraded iPhone camera that took better photos. Phil Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of worldwide marketing, started his presentation by showing what he described as a photograph taken with a high-end camera. The composition and lighting were beautiful. The colors were crisp. The background was blurred to draw more attention to the subject’s face. Calling the photo was the gold standard, he then said, “I’m going to bring up a picture that was taken with a very high-end camera . . . and so it will help us illustrate the feature we’re trying to achieve.“ Bringing up a stunning picture of a man in sunglasses, he continued, “The quality of the background blur, that’s what’s called ‘bokeh.’ And the higher quality of the bokeh, usually the more advanced and higher quality of the lens and camera system. . . . It feels almost 3-D, like the person is popping off the screen. It’s a beautiful photo. So our goal is to try to do something like this, using the two cameras in the iPhone 7 Plus.”

After describing how the new camera feature works, Schiller paused and said, “Now I’m going to show you the first picture we’ve ever shown the world of a depth-of-field photo taken from an iPhone 7 Plus. Before I do, I have to come clean on something, because I wasn’t entirely honest before. The picture I showed you before . . . was taken on an iPhone 7 Plus.”

The audience suddenly realized it had been duped—but in a good way, one that brought a playful and optimistic energy to the room. Everyone was thinking, “Wow, the new camera takes pictures that are just as good as a professional camera.” Mission accomplished.

Contrast that approach with how Google announced a software feature at its 2018 I/O conference. CEO Sundar Pichai demonstrated a use case for how artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning could make appointments. Pinchai said, “Let’s say you want to ask Google to make your haircut appointment between ten and noon. What happens is the Google Assistant makes the call in the background for you. So what you’re going to here is the Google assistant actually calling a real salon to schedule an appointment for you. Let’s listen.” He then played a recording of how it worked. 

The software was impressive, but why not use a more dynamic, story-telling approach? Just as Apple’s presenter did, all he needed to do was hold back some of the information and said, “Let’s listen to a recording of a phone call you and I make every day. These calls are boring. They take time. You’d rather be doing ten other things.” He could have gone on to describe the feature and then said, “Remember the recording I played at the beginning? Well, it wasn't actually a person making that call. It was our software.” Far more dramatic and memorable, such a presentation would have had greater impact. What's the lesson here? Think about the best way to tell your story. 

As press releases and live events have been used to get companies’ product-launch messages out, content marketing can help you launch your product. Even though the specifics of each product launch are different, you can use the following seven-step overall framework to complement your company’s launch.

Step 1. Develop a timeline.

The first thing to determine is how many weeks the entire product-launch campaign will require. Some product life cycles, such as those in the aerospace and automotive industries, can be as long as three years. The planning for most launches starts six to twelve months before the official launch day. Consider the events coming up in your industry. How can you attach your company and product or service to those events? 

Start by having an honest conversation. How good is your product or service, and what is its financial upside in the marketplace? Based on the answer, classify the launch and prioritize it appropriately. Don't assume that every launch should be treated the same way and allotted the same amount of resources.

Also, should you launch the product or service nationally? Or is it better to test it in specific markets, or with a handful of customers? Don't make the common mistake of going too big too soon. The last thing you want is a product that fails because it didn’t meet the expectations set by your marketing. The other benefit of starting small is that the product can be tweaked before it’s rolled out to everyone.

Step 2. Select two or three clients to pilot your offering.

The most effective launches I've seen are ones that involve real clients. Having customers tell your company’s story has real impact. The story is more believable coming from them than your company. Who would you trust more to tell you how great a product is: the company that produced it or the company that has actually used it?

Select a few existing clients who are likely to see great results to try out your product or service, and document their experience. What did they enjoy? What surprised them? What features did they love? Take a journalistic approach to capturing their experience. 

Depending on your business, you can have some fun with the launch. For example, for website builder Squarespace’s announcement of an updated platform, its content marketers created a humorous website called “Dreaming with Jeff,” starring actor Jeff Bridges. The website opened to text reading, “At Squarespace, we believe that even the wildest ideas should come to life in a beautiful way.” When it was featured in a Super Bowl ad, people flocked to the joke website. The company hoped that those who went for the comedy noticed that the website was really well done.

Step 3. Create content based on the pilot’s results.

Now create various types of content that bring to life the results of the pilot. Shoot videos of the client interviews. Write case studies from each client's perspective. Show the actual results they experienced. You will be pleasantly surprised by how much content you capture by spending only one or two hours interviewing a client. 

Then translate the content into multiple forms. Don’t create just a one-minute video. Turn that into quotes to use in social media. Create an infographic that lists what clients love about the new product or service. Write a case study about each client in the pilot.

Step 4. Hold confidential meetings with existing customers.

Before the launch of your product or service is officially announced, meet with your customers. But this isn’t a normal meeting, because it will include a bit of showmanship. 

Three or four weeks before the meeting, tell your customers you have a one-week window in which to schedule a confidential meeting. Tell them you can’t talk about the meeting until that week. Tell them you’re launching a new product and want them to be among the first to know. They will be intrigued. You ask them not to mention this to anyone else. You could even take this a step further and ask them to sign a nondisclosure agreement (NDA). Even with signed NDAs, this meeting is likely to leak to people in other companies—so don’t reveal anything that would be a real problem if leaked.

Once the meeting has been scheduled, the customers will be anticipating it, their expectations growing until you reveal the new product at the meeting. Customers will remember that they had an opportunity to see something before it’s officially available. 

This technique can be powerful, but bear two considerations in mind: First, you need to be sure you’re following SEC guidelines about insider information. If what you’re doing has a material impact on a public company, then don’t use this approach. 

Second, and this is the tough part about this technique: don't use it every time. Reserve it for big launches. If you use this technique and your product disappoints the customers, you and your company will lose a ton of credibility. What’s more, your customer won’t be interested the next time you use this technique.

Step 5. Take the story on the road.

Not everyone has enough time or interest to drop what he or she is doing to attend your meeting. Part of an effective product launch is taking the story on the road. This isn’t just about customer meetings. It’s about connecting into other outlets who can tell your story for you. 

Beyond using the traditional corporate marketing channels, think about how you can use the employees of your company for content marketing. For example, you can tap them for the fast-growing universe of podcasts. Did you know that in 2019, an estimated 51 million people in the United States will listen to a podcast? And 32 million will listen to one every month.

Have a subject-matter expert from your company be a guest on a relevant podcast. The focus of the podcast isn't going to be 100 percent on the product launch, but you can find a way to work that message into the overall interview. Podcasts are always looking to have interesting guests on their show. And as long as you can agree to the window of when the podcast will be released, this is another way to increase the chances of your success. 

Another idea is to create a barter agreement with the two or three clients you put in the pilot. For example, have them distribute your launch information through their social media channels. Or do a joint press release. Setting up a couple of these agreements can be very beneficial as it's a way to get free, relevant exposure.

Step 6. Make the announcement.

This is what you’ve been gearing up for; all your efforts have led to the official announcement of your company’s new product or service.

Create a specific event where the announcement is made. In the invitations for the event, play up how exclusive the event is. Feeling special to be invited will encourage people to attend. 

Apple is famous for doing a great job at this. Its invitations are always mysterious and tease the product just enough to evoke curiosity. For example, the invitation to the launch of the MacBook Air read, “There’s something in the Air.” The invitation to Apple’s iPad launch simply said, “Come see our latest creation.”

What’s the best place to hold your event? Not in a conference room, that’s for sure. A special venue conveys to the audience the importance of the launch. Think about how to tie your venue into something related to your product. Launching new software for elementary school kids? Have the meeting in a school. Launching new manufacturing equipment? Have it at the factory where it’s being produced. 

Once the announcement has been made, you’re not done. Use the event as an opportunity to capture more content. Ask people for initial reactions to the product. How might the new product benefit their company or make their lives easier? Capturing such information in real time will be required for an effective follow-up campaign.

Step 7. Conduct a follow-up campaign.

After the announcement is over, use the opportunity to maintain momentum. Take what you capture at the launch event to create content that you “drip” via social media or campaigns aimed specifically at those who attended the event. 

If the product is ready for sale, the sales force needs to be in high gear. The buzz about the event can be used to secure follow-up meetings. If your company has made a good impression at the event, it’s hard for a customer to refuse a follow-up meeting.

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