How Do You Launch a Product?

The Covid-19 virus has provoked a number of cancellations, particularly of large events where people gather, like trade shows. Nikon recently announced that they wouldn't participate in NABShow 2020 in order to mitigate risk, for instance. We'll see a lot more of that happening soon, I think.

But this brings up a topic I've been thinking about for awhile: how do you successfully launch a product in the virtual age?

Here's the issue: companies like trade shows because it's a one-to-many situation. You can have a small number of people and a finite number of product—maybe even only one prototype—and introduce your new product to lots of people at a trade show. Moreover, the folk that come to trade shows tend to be "influencers" of some sort. Press, dealers, distributors, key accounts, and more. You can even have an event prior to the trade show where you cherry pick the people you want to get talking about your product.

Back when I was at Connectix we planned our product introductions around the twice-a-year Macworld Expo. I launched RAM Doubler, Speed Doubler, Virtual PC, Quickcam, and much more that way. Besides the influencers I just mentioned, the Mac Faithful descended on that show en masse, and if you could get your products in the hands of them, word of mouth happened very rapidly, even though the Internet wasn't really a thing then. Because we were known to launch and sell product at the Expo, you could watch large groups of people head directly to our booth when the doors opened, just to see what it was we were announcing and selling.

But we used a slightly different tactic than I described earlier: we brought considerable quantity of new product to Macworld Expo for our new product launches. More often than not, we had to run our production facilities at night during the show to keep up with demand.

I mention that story for a reason. The key to a good product launch is how effectively you can get the news out to the folk that might be interested in it that you have a new product, and that those people can get a truly viable notion of whether it might be for them or not.

As we've seen, the current YouTube and Instagram Influencers that the camera makers have been targeting can be a mixed bag. First, there's only a handful that have enough true influence to successfully catapult a message to the target customer. Second, those influencers definitely have preferences already (ask any what camera they use regularly ;~). Third, if you don't handhold them well enough, they go off on tangents or proclaim something simply "great" or "really bad" and you have little ability to get a word in edgewise. Fourth—and probably the biggest issue—is that the influencers have discovered the power of the Headline. The Z7 was lambasted by some—"Doesn't focus well" was the headline—while the reality was probably more that Nikon didn't take the time to train them on how the focus was different (and why!). Because it worked different than what they were used to they didn't get the results they were used to. Focus Bad! Ugh!

This is one reason why I believe a proper product launch gets finished product and complete information into the hands of as many folk who influence buying as possible. That doesn't happen much any more, unfortunately. The common situation is that production is so low that any reasonably popular product will sell through the dealer immediately, leaving the dealer no demo. Worse, leaving the dealer's employees no time to play with and understand the product they're selling. Who else has more influence than a camera dealer?

It doesn't help that the Japanese try to micromanage every detail. Tokyo trains a few subsidiary folk with very specific messages. Those messages are then codified at the subsidiary, and then carefully distributed to staff and sales reps. A lot of folk don't remember this:

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The entire 17-page, 103 question and answer official Nikon document in question was "black text" (this was from the D5 launch; I have others from other launches). 

You don't want one-to-one transmission of information. You want one-to-many. 

A lot of reasons to avoid one-to-one transmission exist. But one big one is known as the "pass-along effect." Joe tells Jill something. Jill tells Jane what Joe told her. Jane tells Jim what Jill told her. And so on. By the time the information has made a few "transfers," it is incomplete, distorted, or wrong.

Companies get all out of whack when their "secret" new product is disclosed before the supposed "bang" event they have for launch (which curiously these days, is often just a press release ;~). So they go all out on withholding information. Moreover, the product doesn't actually lock until the last minute, either, so the information that is released is created and delivered in a hurry, and incomplete. 

Lately, Nikon has had a hard time getting their brochure for a new camera ready so that it's available the minute the Web sites go live with a new product. That's the moment when you most need that brochure, as it's a one-to-many information provider, and in Nikon's case, tends to contain not only the complete specifications but also a reasonable demonstration of the product highlights in action. 

I've said before that Nikon doesn't use their Ambassadors particularly efficiently. NikonUSA has 35 Ambassadors. Europe has 20. Heck, Australia has 11. So ask yourself this: on the day that a new Nikon camera is announced, do you see 66 Ambassadors who've shot with the camera for a week or more doing any deep blogging or vlogging about it? I hate to pick on one, but here's NikonUSA Ambassador Moose Petersen's entire output on the D6 on launch day. At least he had something.

While I'm picking on Nikon here, I'm not seeing any other company doing much better. Indeed, GM just yesterday "announced" 10 new electric vehicles. Oh, wait. They only invited a few of what they thought key press, they didn't provide a lot of information, they wouldn't allow photos (I'm not even sure they showed complete vehicles), and because the paucity of information was so low, GM's message will get distorted randomly as it journeys through the Internet. (What I got from one auto press report was this: it'll be 2022 before we see a new Bolt and another vehicle in this EV "lineup." And 2025 before all 10 have been officially revealed. So, basically a FUD event—fear, uncertainty, and doubt marketing—aimed at trying to nip Tesla and some others before they steal GM's customers.)

More than ever, companies need to up their game on product launches. They need to use as many one-to-many alternatives to trade shows as they can. They need to get better about complete and transparent information about the new products. They need to launch when they can deliver in volume (because that amplifies the one-to-many thing if people start handling and buying it, and then word of mouth happens). 

I've mentioned before that I very much like what Sony has been doing with Kando (Kando 4 is this fall in Sun Valley, Idaho). Unfortunately, it, too, is the type of event that can be disrupted by something like the Covid-19 virus. So Sony needs to come up with a way to "virtualize" Kando for those times when they can't do it with people coming to one location. Heck, it's just a good idea to virtualize it in some way, anyhow, as done right it would promote the same things as the real Kando does.

I've also mentioned before that I think that most of the Japanese camera companies are pretty poor at marketing. That's at the old-school type of marketing that's now getting disrupted by Covid-19. They haven't even begun to get the 21st Century marketing right. It's time they did. It won't be easy. It's not being done well by many, so there aren't many examples to look at for help in understanding what you need to do. Which means that you have to experiment, you have to take risks, you have to try new things. 

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