Pre-Launch Marketing for Stealthy Startups

Some products and services don’t have a pre-launch phase.  For companies where building a minimum viable product isn’t a months-long effort, it makes sense to just launch a beta and then start talking about it.  For other companies however, the product might take a bit longer to develop and talking about it before it’s been released in some form could be pointless (because you don’t have a call to action yet), risky (competitors position against you or customers get confused because there aren’t enough details) or both.

One of the techniques that I’ve used in the past is to engage with the market by talking about the business problem that your product or service is going to solve, without getting into exactly how you plan on solving it.  At IBM we sometimes referred to this as “market preparation”.

For larger companies this often entails spending a lot of time (and money) with industry analysts and industry leaders sharing your company’s unique point of view on the market and why it is currently being under-served.  If you do this properly you’ll come to a point where your point of view starts to align well with that of the influential folks you’ve been working with.  By the time you launch, these folks will be standing behind you saying that your view of the market is one customers should consider.

Pre-launch startups generally don’t have the time, clout or cash to change the way Gartner Group thinks about a market but that shouldn’t stop you from taking your message out directly to the market you care about.  There’s never been a better time for startups to get the message out.  Here are some considerations:

  1. Create a clear message about your market point of view – you will need to create a set of messages that clearly illustrate what the unmet need is the in market and why that need has not been met by existing players.  You can go so far as to talk about the characteristics of the needed solution (without getting into the gorey details of exactly how you plan to solve it).
  2. Develop case studies that illustrate the pain you will be solving – Gather a set of real examples of customers you have worked with that have the problem and clearly illustrate the need for a new type of solution on the market.
  3. Spread the word – Launch a blog, write guest posts for other blogs, comment on relevant blog posts,  write articles, write an e-book, speak at conferences and events, open a Twitter account and start sharing information that illustrates your point of view.  There’s no end of ways to get your message out there.  Do your homework and find out where your market hangs out.  What forums do they participate in?  What blogs and newsletters do they read?  Get your message in front of them in the places where they already are.
  4. Engage and gather feedback – Starting a dialog with your potential customers about how you see the market gives you a chance to test your messages and see what resonates and what doesn’t.  You’ve made a set of assumptions (backed up by customer research hopefully), the more folks in the market you can talk to the more you can fine-tune your market story.
  5. Capture where you can – If it makes sense you can start capturing a list of potential beta customers or a mailing list that you can use when you launch.

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60 thoughts on “Pre-Launch Marketing for Stealthy Startups”

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  16. If you made a comment on this and are now wondering where it went, I’m sorry to say, it’s gone for good. When I moved this blog from TypePad to WordPress I lost all of the comments on this post (which is a bummer because there were some great ones). It was, strangely, the only thing that didn’t make it across.

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  23. Great post! The question I have is how far in advance should you start talking about a problem? Do you think that you can keep the dialogue going for months before you launch your product?

    1. Thanks for the comment. It probably depends on the problem you are talking about and how much conversation there is out there already but in general, I don’t think there’s a time limit. Again, the goal is to start and develop a smart discussion around the business problem (rather than talk about your solution). As long as the problem remains and remains relatively unsolved, there’s still something to talk about. Does that make sense?

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  26. I’m a marketing guy with a passion for the web and internet startups. I love seeing the scrappy young companies shake up an industry or take a giant with a new perspective.

    There are a lot of people out there blogging from the co-founder and developer side of startups, but I just haven’t come across many messaging/marketing folks. Thanks for sharing this post on Sprouter so that it could lead me here. I’ll be following for sure.

    1. Hey Mike – thanks for the comment! My career has been split between really big companies and startups but always in a fairly pure marketing or product management role. These days I’m consulting for very small companies that need someone who has deep marketing expertise but they don’t really need (and generally can’t afford) a full-time VP of Marketing. This blog is a way to share some of the repeatable stuff that I do with everyone else. Glad you like it!

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  28. Great post, but I have a question regarding this point: “Create a clear message about your market point of view”; where and how do you see this used in pre-launch phase?

    1. Hi Mike,
      Your market point of view is how you see the market differently from how your competitors see it. A big picture B2B example would be Oracle vs. IBM. Oracle believes that there is a great advantage in buying your entire IT infrastructure from one vendor. IBM believes in heterogeneous environments. They have a very different point of view on the market. At one startup I worked at we had a column oriented data store. Our point of view was that there was a need for a specialized data warehouse for analyzing large amounts of machine-generated data. Competitors (like IBM or Oracle) believed that a general-purpose database was fine for everything. Pre-launch, we talked about the benefits of purpose-built databases and why you might not want to use the same databases for transactional work as you did for analytics and what the benefits would be of taking a specialized approach. We weren’t talking about specifically HOW we were going to implement a specialized database, just our point of view that there should be one.
      Hope that helps!

  29. Hi April,

    I second your motion. We launched our splash page a couple of weeks ago and put out a clear message to the consumer, but have kept our secret sauce close to the chest. We’re at 420 signups without any real marketing after two weeks and will be rolling out our PR plan shortly.

    Your advice is spot on and I highly recommend any startups listening to follow suit. As for competition, in the end if you plan to execute better than everyone else, then competition only justifies your market and and an opportunity to win.

    Smart competitors become allies as well, so no fear I say.

    Great post.

    Jason Greene

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  32. Thanks April for the nice blog post and interesting discussion. I too believe that pre-launch marketing is one essential step to ensure that products will meet the users’ expectations.

    I love the pre-launch phase of any project, and a pre-launch page is where I always started to work on the 5 considerations you are refering to, and then I built something that I like even better: – I now use it for pre-launching all of my software and testing ideas. I’d love to hear your feedback on it. I tried really hard to automate the pre-launch marketing best practices for digital products, as well as making it as simple, fast and flexible.

    Let me know if you’d like a license for evaluating it properly.

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