January 18, 2023

The Pocket Guide to Product Launches: Mary Sheehan

You need to take a product launch from zero to 60 in no time flat? My next guest sets you up for success in her new book, whether this is your first launch or you’re a seasoned pro.

Welcomed back to the Author Hour Podcast. I’m your host Hussein Al-Baiaty and my next guest is Mary Sheehan who is here to talk to us about her new book called, The Pocket Guide to Product Launches. Let’s flip through it.

Well, thank you for joining me today, Mary. I really appreciate your time and your energy. You put so much effort in this book, it sounds amazing. I’ve had the chance to sort of peruse through it in the last 24 hours or so but again, I appreciate you for coming on the show, welcome.

Mary Sheehan: Thanks so much Hussein, so happy to be here.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: I want to introduce you and get you to know the audience in a way that you know, the audience I feel like has to kind of grasp sort of where you grew up, how did you come to this work, who influenced you, you know, what was childhood like, Mary? You know, all those good things about who we are as humans, I always like to start with those subjects and stories, and then we’ll dive into your book.

Mary Sheehan: Oh wow, okay. Well, we’re going deep already, I love it. So yeah, I think summing up my childhood could be that change was a constant. So we moved around a lot as kids. My dad was an SVP at FedEx, they’re just headquartered in Memphis, Tennessee. So as he grew in his career and took on different territories, we were kind of bouncing around, California, as well as Memphis Tennessee.

So I grew up being able to evolve my communication styles, I was always the new kid at school, I was able to make friends really fast and you know, sort of play in those different dynamics throughout my childhood and I think it really made me someone that was really adept to change and someone that was really comfortable with meeting new people and doing work in the future that was all about connecting the dots, building consensus and I think that really influenced the success I’ve had in my career, which is what ultimately influenced the book that we’re here to talk about too.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: No, that’s beautiful and again, I like bringing those stories up because in some way, shape or form, they do connect to what we’re working on today and who we become, you know? And I think, the people and especially our families and the dynamics of, like you said, your father moved a lot or you guys had to move a lot because of his job.

So I’m sure his work ethic and those kinds of things, these lessons, you know, impacted you in some way, shape or form but also you have to kind of constantly get out of your comfort zone when meeting new people and so that obviously you know, starts to unfold throughout life. I think it’s really cool how we utilize these sort of, I guess, skills in a way and how it impacts our work.

So why did you decide to write this book specifically? Who are you trying to reach with your message?

Importance of a Target Audience

Mary Sheehan: Yeah, so I actually started writing this book, if you can believe it, five years ago. So pre-COVID.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: I can believe that.

Mary Sheehan: Pre-pandemic and really, this is at a time where I had just taken on a role as a manager of a product marketing team and my biggest joy in that role was coaching this next generation of product marketers, many of whom had never had experience in the role.

So one of the basic foundations of product marketing is making a killer product launch. I had a lot of experience already doing that from working at Google and then running this team at a company called AdRoll and I kind of just started to codify what worked for me in coaching my employees and really getting that kind of bootcamp mentality.

It was like, if I wanted to actually teach them in a course, how to run a killer product marketing launch or killer product launch from A to Z, what are the things that they would really need to know? So started writing that down. You know, this is obviously gone through many, many iterations since then but it’s really for two audiences.

One is those that are new to product marketing and find themselves in a position, a great responsibility for their task with launching a product for their company. So product launch can make or break a company. So many that happen a year, I think there’s over 30,000, probably even more today, really about 95% of them fail and so how do we make product launches easier? And it’s not rocket science.

There’s a lot of things you can do to build that. So one is those new to product marketing folks that are just trying to do a great job and understand the lessons that could easily help them influence. I think the second is, a lot of people have to step into a product launch role that really don’t have the experience.

Sometimes they’re founders of companies, sometimes they’re kind of insularly positions to product marketing, like product management and they just need a quick, tactical playbook of how to get this done and how to do a good job and so with those audiences in mind, I created this book to be really tactical, really actionable.

There’s lots of templates and any time I had to make a decision about the book, I really tried to model it after a Harvard Business Review guide, which I personally love. It’s my favorite, sort of business book series, which helps you really learn a topic over the course of a weekend or a few hours to be able to become an expert in it.

So that’s the goal of this book. It’s not a million pages, it’s not going to take you weeks to read, you can set time, you can skim it, you can go to the sections that you want and feel more confident about the launch that you’re doing to do, whether it’s for your small business or for a big corporation where you are now tasked with running a product launch.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: Yeah, also powerful. I feel like you know, this idea of you know, gathering the strategy, doing the work but the product launch, I feel like it has to have this experience to it. It takes a lot to be able to create an experience around it but before that, you kind of have to know something, which I believe, you know, you mentioned of course in your book, how important is knowing your target market, your customer and what happens if they’re too vague or too broad?

If you don’t know exactly who you’re trying to capture the attention of, you know, what happens? Can you talk a little bit about that?

Mary Sheehan: Yeah, so I would say that having a really clear and crisp target audience for your product launch is the foundation for making a launch successful. So full stop, it’s the most important thing you can do.

I think that a lot of companies fall into this trap where they see huge growth numbers if they think they can target everyone or if they think they can target a major piece of a market that they’re going after but in reality, customers know what’s up and they really understand when a solution is really solving a pain point that they are uniquely having.

I’ll give you a good example of a recent target market that I thought worked so well. So everyone has probably heard about virtual assistance and I have dabbled in them, you know, here and there and sometimes I can‘t really figure out the use cases that I think about them.

There’s a new company called Yohana that specifically focuses on virtual assistance for busy moms that are working. So they have just packaged this concept of virtual assistance and they are now really able to market specifically to the busy working mom and showing exactly how they can take things off of your plate.

Like booking a long-needed haircut appointment or making sure your kid has a doctor’s appointment, all the things. So me, as someone that’s never actually tapped into a virtual assistant, I just signed up for Yohana after seeing this one product video because it was so well-targeted and it spoke to me.

I’m a mom of two kids, I’m working full-time, I was like, “I need that” but the virtual assistant category to me, I never could quite figure out how to use it before. So just a quick example on that but I think it’s so important to really define whether you’re in a B2B environment.

Really being clear about who is the person at your company who is going to be buying your product, who is influencing them or if you’re a more of a consumer product, what are the demographics of the people that are buying your product. What are their motivations, what are they doing? Where can you reach them?

So it helps everything from the positioning, the messaging and also the go to market, meaning, all of the channels that you would decide to select to actually reach that audience. So glad you brought it up, I think it’s incredibly foundational to everything that you do for a launch.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: Yeah, when you combine that with the positioning and the messaging, I mean, I love that you shared that story because it really kind of bridges everything together so eloquently. I appreciate that. From your experience, how crucial is the launch timing?

I know, you know, owning a business in the past, like, when we launched T-shirts or when we launched certain things, like the timing, I felt was sometimes super on point and then sometimes like we completely missed it. How can one like, develop a good sense of when to launch a product?

Timing a Product Launch

Mary Sheehan: Yeah, that’s such a good point and I think there’s two things to unpack here. One is actually when to launch and the second is, how to make sure you hit that launch date. So that’s in the corporate environment, that’s often the harder thing to do but when to launch, I mean, it’s different for every product and every region but some quick tips are making sure it’s at a time that makes sense for your customers.

So for most businesses, launching something in December doesn’t really make sense. December is a really busy month for businesses, it’s already really hairy and frazzled month for consumers. So if you’re trying to break through the noise in December, it’s just very hard to do. So that’s a month that I just kind of consider out.

Similarly thinking about seasonality in the US, in the summer months, things are just slower, June through August. So if you’re trying to reach an audience that is consumer or B2B, they’re often on vacation, you’re just not – they’re not reading the news as much, you’re just not able to get as much of an impact from those channels.

So those are some kind of seasonality things and then another thing that I like to think about for launch timing is, you know, I am a big fan of one plus one equals three, meaning, there are opportunities in your product life cycle that you launch at a certain moment, you’re going to get exponential results than if you launch at a different time.

So an example from a business-to-business perspective is if you are able to launch something, a product that you have at an existing customer event that you have. So say you’re Amplitude, a company that does analytics as well as in product messaging. They have an amazing user conference every year with thousands of people.

If they can launch the new product line that they have at that event, that is a great machine that they already have in place that has press, that has their customers there as the execs are ready to talk about it, so thinking how to align. Similarly with something like a food brand, so I do some advising for a company called Sun & Swell Foods.

It’s an amazing compostable packaging brand, all clean, organic ingredients and I have advise them to launch products around moments that matter for their customers. So thinking about early in the holiday cycle, so early November and late October, launching some new flavors that are good for the holidays.

So people are able to think about it and actually buy those for their stocking stuffers or snacks that they are able to take to the beach, think about launching those in May so people can start thinking about it. So there is a seasonality element but it also goes back of course, like we talked about to who your target customer is and where you think you can have the biggest impact.

I also mentioned hitting that launch timing and there is a whole section of this on the book, so I won’t get into it too much but I think the biggest thing with hitting the launch timing is just making sure that everyone on the core team that you’re working with as well as executives understand how important it is to hit that launch date.

So sometimes at a launch if you are lucky enough to work at a company where you have a budget, you might actually have budget applied to a launch party. If you missed a launch date that is going to be like horrible, you know? You’re not going to have anything to talk about. So something really basic like that and I go into it in a lot more details because there is a lot of nuances there.

But just making sure people really understand how important that launch date is and backing into it and understanding, “Okay, I know we said that the launch date is in June. Does that actually make sense? Can we make that happen? What technically needs to happen and what you know, what stakeholders need to be involved? What items do we need to print and ship?”

You know, there is a ton of things that go into it, so really backing into it and making sure that it makes sense.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: Yeah, sort of like rallying the troops, making sure everybody is aligned, really conjuring the will of everyone towards this idea of just this product launch. It’s going to matter, it’s going to impact, you know, how we do business X, Y or Z. Yeah, I think rallying the troop and the team is probably the other crucial component to making sure that things get done on time, very powerful.

What would you say your favorite part of creating this book for your audience? It sounds like again, you spoke some serious good amount of time writing this thing out. However, it goes through a lot of iterations, right? Like everything else, like a product launch, like you know? So what would you say your favorite part has been about writing this book?

Photo by Pixabay from Pexels: https://www.pexels.com/photo/gray-white-click-pencil-159585/

Favorite Part of Writing the Book

Mary Sheehan: Yeah, I think it’s gone through waves. I mean, I loved writing the initial draft and thinking about the outline and the things that would be the most compelling. You know, as you can imagine I have shared it with many people over the years to get feedback on it and implementing what their feedback is and where I could really add value and the pain points that they were seeing once they understood that audience.

So that’s been really fun too. I also think it’s been really fun to come up with the frameworks that you’ll see in the book and to really sort of codify what those would look like, you know, what the go-to-market checklist is, what the messaging house looks like and all these frameworks that I have been using for years and bringing them to life in a book and also a downloadable format. If you buy the book, you can see the website there to download these templates.

It’s been really fun to just put it together. I think product marketing is actually this really similar career path to publishing a book and that you start off with like pure chaos, like you just have ideas and then you are trying to take all of these amazing ideas and stories and templates and put it into an adjustable format and then publish a book. Product marketing, the job I do currently for Adobe is like that in a lot of ways.

You are starting off with all of these potential features and customer problems and you’re tasked with translating that in a way that makes sense to your customer base and then launching it in a pretty package, so they really understand it and they make the same impact. So I love this career product marketing and I saw a lot of parallels just with the book publishing process. So it has been kind of fun to actually put this together and have that kind of parallel experience.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: Yeah, your own launch, right? Of your own book of your own wisdom, like it is interesting how it comes around. So what do you want your reader to be able to do after having read your book? What do you want them to be able to think about, to take action on? What would be like one or two things that you would hope that a reader would walk away with?

Mary Sheehan: Yeah, so it depends on where they’re at but I would say two things. One is I love for them to just feel confident running their first or one-hundredth launch. You know, if it is something that they learned one tip, that’s great or if they are just using the templates and saying, “Okay, this is how I am going to get started” I think that’s a win just so they feel more competent, that’s the main thing.

But second, I think a really important thing here like we talked about earlier is understanding their customer in a more in-depth way and in the book, I add in a lot of scrappy ways that you can learn from your customers that don’t take a lot of budget. So I hope that everyone takes from this, “Wow, I should be really talking to my customers more.”

Whether that’s a booth where you’re showcasing your product or giving away samples at the grocery store or if it’s a survey that you do or if you are at a conference walking around with an iPad getting survey results. So whatever the channels that you have, start talking to your customers and that will make you such a smarter product launcher and will make all of the activities that you do after the product launch even more impactful.

So I really hope people takeaway, “I got to get to know my customers” that would be a win for me.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: Yeah, that’s very powerful. I think for me like when I write a small business, I’d ran a print shop in Portland, Oregon for a while and yes, you’re 100% right, getting to know my customers, getting to know their pain points, getting to know – I felt like the more I knew about how I could serve them in a better way, it just you know, what we ended up delivering, how often the contracts, whatever just there was less friction.

Because I was able to just speak to those direct sort of pain points or solutions that they are seeking. So I love that idea of you know, really building your confidence by putting the reps in, trying different things but also really getting to know your customers. It is very valuable advice, I appreciate that.

Mary, I learned so much today but is there anything else you’d like to share about your book and something you want to share about your book launch specifically that is unique to you perhaps? Because I feel like that is going to be really exciting.

Mary Sheehan: Yeah, definitely. So one thing I wanted to mentioned earlier in the conversation, we were talking about inspiration and my grandmother, who is 96 years old launched her book, her first book when she was 85 and so since then—

Hussein Al-Baiaty: Oh my god, that’s amazing.

Mary Sheehan: Yeah, she has just been an amazing inspiration to me for my whole life and she is a painter and a writer and a singer, guitar player and you know, wrote this book. So ever since she did that, I was like, “I got to write my book. I got to get this out.” So I am really proud she’s going to be able to see this and we’ll have two writers in the family now. So I am just really excited about that.

I mean, I feel like there is a little bit of pressure about launching this book because the book is about product launches. So I am definitely using all of the tactics up my sleeve to have a great product launch but I think one thing that’s been incredible for this journey is making sure I am connecting with all of the people that have helped me along the way and that I helped along the way too.

So there is a very strong product marketing community. I also host a podcast called Women in Product Marketing and it’s a very friendly place in the Internet, you know, in the podcasting world where it is women supporting other women. Men are invited too. It’s been a great community that I have helped to create and I think that it is – this just feels like continuation of that in a way.

Because all of these amazing women are coming on my show and sharing how they have made an impact in their careers in product marketing and I think that this is a big way that I can make an impact too. So I am just excited to get this out the door and to have everyone get to experience it.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: Yeah, I love that so much. You shared some amazing stories today, very eloquent with your wisdom, your knowledge. I know the inspiration from your grandma must have been just amazing. She sounds like an amazing human and I’m sure you’ve made her proud in so many ways. Again, congratulations on your book. Thank you for sharing your stories and your experiences with me today.

The book is called, The Pocket Guide to Product Launches. If you’re out there, you’re listening to this, go get this copy like just don’t play yourself. The book again is called, The Pocket Guide to Product Launches: Get Confident, Go to Market and Win. Besides checking out the book, where can people find you Mary?

Mary Sheehan: LinkedIn, let’s chat, yeah. I love LinkedIn, I think it’s a great channel and I love to continue the conversation there.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: Perfect. Well, thanks again Mary for your time, very much appreciate it and again, congratulations on your book launch.

Mary Sheehan: Thank you, Hussein, it’s been great to be on the show.