After five long years of innovation, research, and testing, David Dickinson, CEO of start-up Zeo, based in Newton, Massachusetts, was confident that the product his company introduced last year — a personal sleep monitor that gathers data from brain waves during sleep — was unlike anything on the market.
But one more hurdle remained: getting others to notice. "We had to introduce the Personal Sleep Coach in a way that it was clear that it was a breakthrough innovation," Dickinson says. "We asked ourselves, how do we get people talking about it with each other?"
One way Zeo attempted to do that was by hosting a product-launch event for the press at the posh Standard Hotel in Manhattan last summer. Because the company wanted invitees to experience the product firsthand and spread the word through their reviews, they invited them to actually spend the night using the personal sleep coach in a paid hotel room, and to wake up to their personalized results on how they slept.
"Sometimes an event can provide an environment that is unique to the product use," Dickinson says. "It can be quite powerful."
Developing a new product in a new category is a formidable task, but actually launching the product when it's ready for the market can also be one of the most stressful times for a business owner. New products can earn about half their sales and profits far earlier in the product life cycle than many business owners realize, according to Robyn Sachs, president of RMR & Associates, an advertising, marketing and public relations firm based in Rockville, Maryland.
However, holding an actual event isn't for everybody. "For many people, I think their first impulse is to have an event," says Joan Schneider, president and creative director of Boston public relations and marketing communications firm Schneider Associates, and author of the book "The New Launch Plan: 152 Tips, Tactics, and Trends from the Most Memorable New Products. "But in this age where everybody is triple booked, unless you have big news or a big draw, it's hard to get people to show up."
Chances are your company isn't introducing the next iPhone, but that doesn't mean you can't organize a product-launch event that will draw crowds and create plenty of buzz for your new product. Here's how.
Organizing a Product-Launch Event: Determine Your Purpose
You're confident you have a great product that deserves a launch event. Now what?
Obviously, you'll want your event to lead to a sales boost for your new product, but you need to decide exactly how you want to achieve that – and how your event will contribute to that outcome. "Understanding the must-have results will help you quantify the value you expect from the event," Schneider says. "Are you shooting for product distribution, media coverage, consumer awareness, sales, or influencer outreach?"
Once you know your end game, you can begin to invite your winning team. Schneider says that there are three main types of events: trade events, media events, and consumer events. In the case of the Zeo event, the company was trying to spread word of the new product through media attention, so the company designed its event to educate the key reporters and editors they invited to review the product. In contrast, at a trade event, you might invite key influencers in your industry, such as industry analysts or editors of trade publications.
"Whatever you do, don't try to host one event for lots of different audiences," Schneider says. "When it comes to launch events, one size does not fit all."
Narrowing your purpose and your target audience will help you craft a consistent message to market and sell the event, right down to the invitations themselves. "The hard part is making sure the message is consistent, and then converting it into an experience," says Mark Cheplowitz, president of Wizard of Ahs, a corporate event-planning company based in New York City.
Organizing a Product-Launch Event: Scout Your Location
The most important consideration for your event's location is proximity: you want as much of your targeted audience as possible to be able to get there easily. You also want to make sure you choose a location that reflects your product, in the way that the trendy Standard Hotel in Manhattan reflected the breakthrough innovation of the Personal Sleep Coach.
Glitz and glamour aren't necessarily prerequisites for a trade event, however. Something you might not have considered is holding your event at a trade show. Steve Canton, president and CEO of iCore, which is based in McLean, Virginia, hosted Voice over Private Internet (VoPI) provider, chooses to roll out the majority of his company's new products in trade show booths. In the company's newsletter to existing and prospective customers, it announces which shows they will be attending.
"Sometimes, doing it at a trade show makes perfect sense, because basically all of the people you want to come are at the trade show anyway," Schneider says. She warns, however that "there is a lot of competition."
Don't be afraid to think outside of the box. "The word event is changing," Schneider says. "You have to think beyond press conferences and cocktail parties. Launch events can include street teams, mobile marketing, flash mobs, and cyber events."
At the New England Confectionary Company (NECCO), based in Revere, Massachusetts, each year an event is held to announce that year's phrases for the Sweethearts Valentine's Day-themed candy. But last February the company decided to solicit input from customers on what those phrases should be. The top two results were "tweet me" and "text me."
"When we learned the phrases, we decided to make it a cyber event," says Jackie Hague, VP of marketing for the company. "We weren't really comfortable with it at first, but we were able to leverage the strength of Twitter and use that platform to get people together. Even though people weren't physically together, they were all emotionally connecting, which is why it was so much more rich."
Organizing a Product-Launch Event: Give Your Audience a Reason to Go
Oftentimes the most difficult part of planning a launch event isn't deciding who to invite or where to host it — instead it's creating a memorable, worthwhile experience. "I believe the most important thing is adding value for your audience," Dickinson says. "It isn't so much about telling your story as it is about trying to find a way to address their needs. With the media, we gave them all the information they needed to do their job well."
In Dickinson's case, the media was guaranteed a firsthand experience with the product. But if it's an event specifically targeted at consumers, how will you attract that audience? You might try something like an event discount to consumers who buy the product at the event.
"When you look at it from a consumer's point of view, look at what they are being hit with from so many different mediums," Cheplowitz says. "You really have to stand out and have a different message."
Not every product introduced can be classified as revolutionary, Schneider says. "If it's evolutionary, a better mousetrap, it may not be worth having an event unless it's really clever," she says. "Have a spokesperson or a celebrity, or connect it to a cause. You need to add something to the event to make it really exciting."
Organizing a Product-Launch Event: Follow Up
It's the morning after — so in order to continuing building momentum for a new product, instead of seeing sales turn into something resembling a bad hangover, you need to follow up with your target audience. The reality is that the launch party was only one part of the larger product-launch process.
According to Sachs, too many companies focus all their energies on the first announcement and trade show. She says that key to a successful launch process is realizing where your product fits in the marketplace, and consistently communicating your product through a variety of public relations vehicles (press releases, social media, and print advertising, for example) over a long range of time. In other words, a launch alone is not a successful launch.
"When clients get bored of the advertisements you've created, you know when it's starting to sink in with your target market," she says. "It's much more difficult than the average small business owner realizes."