By Mo McKibbin, customer support at Help Scout

Everyone who's managed a product launch knows there's always more to be done than is actually worth doing.

You have to continually focus your efforts by asking, "What will produce results? Why will it produce results?" This also applies to the content you create for a launch.

When we released Help Scout for iOS, we found ourselves coming back to these questions. As a smaller team, we don't have a hundred hands available to produce whatever content we want. Here's a look at how we decide what content we need and why we need it.

Start with a tiered approach

After talking to a few product marketing teams, a common approach we adopted was to group features by tiers. The exercise helps solidify what content needs to be created for major releases, minor releases, and those in-between. The number of tiers you use will depend on your product line.

Don't rank releases based on the time you spent completing them, however tempting it may be. For starters you have to consider:

  • The impact of a release on your product's capabilities (is this polish or a whole new workflow?)
  • The potential impact on acquisition (is this mostly for current customers or will prospects and holdouts care, too?)
  • How many people are waiting for the feature (tags can't tell you everything, but they let us know requests for our iOS app were frequent.)

You need to either add on or create a separate checklist for the "must-do without exception" items of every product launch, if you have them. For example, we rarely launch without updating or editing our knowledge base in some form.

Be deliberate with deliverables

Your deliverables should be defined by how they support the launch, your bandwidth, and your team's talents.

On a smaller team, the more to-do's you add the more you're spread thin; you'll end up putting a half-hearted effort into many things instead of competing with your strengths. Two content-related examples from the launch of our iPhone app:

  1. Since we have a content team of four people, it was a no-brainer to publish a separate blog post for the iPhone app. But if I couldn't borrow someone's time, I would have skipped the post in favor of higher-priority content, such as our in-app Mixpanel notifications or customer-focused emails.
  2. I often create a short video for releases that add new functionality to Help Scout. But using an iPhone app is second nature for many people, especially current customers who are familiar with our product. We knew our landing page and help documentation would be fine for now.

Storytelling content vs. straight shots

Content can provide context between the customer and the feature. Sometimes plenty of context is needed to help customers understand the feature's value; to teach about best practices, pitfalls to avoid, why it's worth using, and what results customers can get.

In other cases content creates a chasm between customer and feature by adding unnecessary padding. Doug Kessler of Velocity Partners has written about one such example: when releasing a new tool to his client's existing customers, his team used direct, interruptive communication (email, ads) and content (two eBooks). The emails and ads produced tremendous results while the eBooks didn't move the needle at all, despite being well received.

At times, creativity can have you answering questions no one is asking.

Using two Help Scout features as examples, here's a look at our thinking around content and context:

  • Help Scout for iPhone--Sometimes a great tool is just a great tool. We stuck with direct communication and a feature-focused blog post that highlighted what you could do. We encouraged customers to download the app and check it out for themselves.
  • Reporting Views--We felt this release benefited from more context. It's easy to use data in an unhealthy way. You can set goals with paired metrics but end up aggressively chasing the metrics while losing site of the goals. To help remind our customers, I wrote a launch post on the importance of finding your "pizza" metric when making sense of help desk data.

Pulling the best story from a release will take some creative thinking. Back when we launched the Happiness Report, Greg did a short interview with product manager Dave Cole to talk about how these ratings are often used to unfairly rank support reps. It might seem strange to launch a feature with advice on how not to use it, but that was the most authentic and interesting story to talk about.

Remember: a straight line is the shortest distance between two points, but occasionally it pays to take the scenic route.

Keeping your content on message

Whole books could be (and have been) written about getting positioning and messaging correct for a product. For our purposes, I'll keep things short.

Skipping this step or not taking it seriously will hurt you in the end. You'll find content always benefits from a unified voice; through app store descriptions, social media, docs, emails, videos, there are so many places your words could appear. Having a cohesive feel helps you avoid inconsistent messaging. That's important, because disjointed messaging leads to disjointed launches that can leave customers confused and frustrated.

A simple approach is to get together and nail down the following:

  1. Summary--A paragraph that summarizes what the new release is, and why it's valuable to your ideal customer.
  2. Statement--Boil the summary down to a short, concise value proposition. This will form the spine of your messaging in all forms of content.
  3. Themes--Find the themes to address in content to underscore the selling point of the feature or product.
  4. Supporting material--Relevant stats, testimonials, and customer stories that will help heighten the impact of the message.

There are many paths to the same place when it comes to messaging. Whatever approach you use, and whatever exercises help you get there, be sure everyone on the team is crystal-clear on who you're talking to, what you're saying, why it matters, what helps you get your point across, and what content is needed to broadcast the message.

We're only scratching the surface

When a product launch rolls around it can feel like to-do's are just dropping from the sky. What we've covered here is only a surface-level look of a deep and growing set of responsibilities.

What I hope it helps you do is crystallize your strategy and production process for necessary launch content. You'll find no matter how perfectly you plan things out a few audibles will always be needed. That's okay, the planning is still worth the effort. As the saying goes, plans are worthless but planning is everything.