Prelaunch: Build Anticipation and Comfort

  |  September 2, 2004   |  Comments

Launching a new product, service, or site? Properly prepare (or even titillate) customers.

At the New York piano bars I frequent, someone always sings the song from "The Rocky Horror Show" that includes the line, "I see you shiver with antici..." (the crowd chimes in with, "Say it, say it!") "pation." It's a dramatic climax to the song.

Indeed, building antici- (pause) pation is a terrific way to build a product or service launch. There are two main reasons to design a rollout strategy: to build anticipation and to hold users hands through changes that may be confusing. A Web site or product launch will fall flat if you fail to whet users' appetites or explain how to use new or updated features.

It's a Launch, Not the Big Bang

A common mistake when launching a new product or service is companies often follow the big bang theory. They think the world will stop and take notice on the launch date if there's an avalanche of advertising on that day. What these companies don't do is really prepare consumers for the launch. Launching products or services out of nowhere limits the amount of enthusiasm you can generate.

Of course, sometimes enthusiasm is good, sometimes not. Too much buzz can hurt if expectations are set so high the product or service can't possibly deliver. On the other hand, new products or services that represent a complete paradigm shift (as opposed to an evolution) require more handholding so as not to shock users. Let's look at examples.

Sony Vaio Launch

Sony's launch of this year's Vaio models was very well done. It's no longer online, so I'll describe it. The Vaio Web site (IE's default home page on all new Vaios) began a "teaser" campaign about three weeks before the new models were introduced. A Flash banner, saying something like, "Coming soon... A new look" occupied at least half the page.

The computer world's fashionistas (myself included) hold very few aesthetic allegiances: Sony Vaio laptops, Apple iPods and computers, and various stylish mobile phones (especially Siemens European models). We're as diehard as fans of the BMW Roadster, new Beetle, and MINI Cooper (often, we're the same folks). A new look for the Vaio is a big deal. Sony knows that. So does Apple (witness the iPod's integration with BMW cars and the new Beetle).

The Flash ad on the Vaio site revealed tiny details of the new laptops' edges, much as a BMW or Jaguar spot will show only small parts of a new model. The details appeared so briefly, you really had to watch and replay the ad, trying to concentrate more on what you saw each time. This builds high levels of anticipation -- and salivation -- in Vaio fans (well, in me, anyway).

The ad, if I recall correctly, came in at least two stages. The first didn't show any images; it just said a new Vaio was coming soon. The second, a week or so later, showed those tantalizing detail photos.

As no launch date was given, I checked almost daily to see when the new products would arrive. That campaign was extremely successful in preparing the customer base, getting customers excited, generating buzz, and making the launch much bigger than it would've been if the only ad had been, "The New Vaios have arrived. Click here to see them."

New Web Site Launches

Every company redesigns its Web site eventually. Sometimes, changes are minimal (new features, new functionality). Other redesigns are dramatic (completely new look, feel, and information architecture). How a new site is launched depends on a few factors: How different is it? Do the new features warrant fanfare? Do users care that much about the site? Are users savvy enough to understand the redesign without explanation?

EBay's newly launched bidding page is laid out quite differently than the previous one. Realizing an abrupt shift would cause headaches for (dare I say "slower"?) customers and increase call volume, eBay did something smart. It added big notices on the site that things were changing. It let users preview the new look. Each page annotated what was different, why it was better, and how to use each feature.

The campaign wasn't about anticipation. But it served a similar purpose: to prepare users for what was to come. For a utilitarian site like eBay, a prelaunch campaign is more about reducing confusion than sparking desire.

ShopNBC.com, one of our clients, will soon unveil a new information architecture and site design. Our work involved rethinking the site's basic structure (case studies to come) and strategizing an effective prelaunch marketing plan.

Like eBay, ShopNBC.com will introduce new ways to find products. There's an entirely different look and feel from the current site. To prepare users for these changes, ShopNBC.com has started running "coming soon" marketing messages on the site as part of a larger, prelaunch strategy. The messages inform users a new way to shop and a "fresh new look" are coming soon. The messages and corresponding landing page are designed in the site's new style to visually prepare people.

Use a Launch as a CRM Tool

Who cares about your new site launch or product line? Ardent fans and devotees, that's who -- your most important customers! You should have relationships with these customers. In all the above examples, each company should collect email addresses and conduct interest-based surveys of users who indicate interest in the launch or new product. The benefit to users is being the first to know of the launch, which makes them feel special. The company can add to its mailing list users who are waiting, with bated breath, to transact with the company.

Good Things Come to Those Who Wait (Usually)

The downside of this type of rollout? It's when the new product or site isn't worth it. Set appropriate expectations when creating these campaigns.

I know for a fact the new ShopNBC.com site will be a revolution for its customers (because we helped design it). So an anticipation prelaunch campaign is entirely appropriate. So was Sony's campaign for the new Vaios.

EBay, on the other hand, would have made a big mistake had it tried a similar campaign for new bidding pages. The changes weren't insignificant, but they weren't sexy, either. EBay wisely created a handholding prelaunch campaign to enable a smooth transition to the new design. It was presented matter-of-factly, without pomp or circumstance.

Understand how important your new product or site is and the most effective way to unleash it to customers. Create an anticipation or handholding strategy (or a combination) as appropriate.

Your launch will be much more successful than if you had simply put all your efforts into launch day.

Until next time...

Jack

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jack Aaronson

Jack Aaronson, CEO of The Aaronson Group and corporate lecturer, is a sought-after expert on enhanced user experiences, customer conversion, retention, and loyalty. If only a small percentage of people who arrive at your home page transact with your company (and even fewer return to transact again), Jack and his company can help. He also publishes a newsletter about multichannel marketing, personalization, user experience, and other related issues. He has keynoted most major marketing conferences around the world and regularly speaks at Shop.org and other major industry shows. You can learn more about Jack through his LinkedIn profile.

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