How we pull off successful — and calm — product launches

Surprise drops don’t work for Tortuga, because we aren’t Beyoncé, so we’ve changed the way we launch products.

Taylor Coil
Aug 24, 2018 · 8 min read

My first product launch at Tortuga was in October of 2016, when we redesigned our entire product line and introduced the Outbreaker Backpack.

Operationally it was a massive success — we took an ambitious project from idea to storefront in just under a year. We’re proud of that. We created a genuinely fantastic product the way we wanted to create it.

But from a marketing perspective… the launch did not go well.

My November 2016 monthly recap to our team read,

Conversion rate is not good. It’s not only much lower than projections, it led us to some of our lowest revenue ever in November.

Yikes, right? Not exactly the news you want to give as the person in charge of marketing. So what happened?

We Shocked Our Audience

And not in a good way.

In the weeks preceding launch, we were myopic, blinded by the assumption that our brilliance would pay off in spades and immediately. Our team swooned over the new product. “It really is a hundred times better than the old one,” we’d echo to each other. “Our audience is going to love this bag.”

We were so excited about the drop that we decided not to tease it, not to give any information up front. We thought our customers would wake up to the new site, the new product, and positively swoon.

We thought we were going to blow people’s minds.

We didn’t.

Fred, our CEO, wrote a retrospective on the V3 launch in a post titled Optimal Newness. He wrote,

On the same day we launched a new product, collection (product line), product design language, and product name. The V2 line of five products with “Tortuga” in the name became a single product named the Outbreaker Backpack. The Outbreaker was the next evolution (V3) of the Tortuga, but that familiarity was lost in all of the other changes.

In addition to the product changes, we also released a new visual identity including our website, logo, and icon.

Those are just the changes visible outside of the company. We changed even more things internally including switching fulfillment services.

Was this sub-optimal newness? In retrospect, I think the answer is yes.

In order to achieve our ambitious goals for Tortuga, all of those changes were necessary. As a team, we stand by them — and perhaps launching all of them at once was the only way to do it.

I still think Outbreaker is a hundred times better than the old product. It’s even Wirecutter’s pick for the best carry on bag. And our audience eventually did love it.

But it took almost a year. A YEAR.

Our Expectations Were Way Off

We retired five beloved products — products that had meaningful traction. We changed our website, our logo, our product names. We were excited about all of those changes. We naively assumed our customer base would be, too.

From a customer’s perspective, it wasn’t even the same company. That was kind of the point, but we lost sight of the fact that our customers LIKED the old iteration of Tortuga. We took it away, gave them something new, and expected them to be overjoyed about the seismic shift.

They weren’t overjoyed. They weren’t mad, either. They were indifferent. Which means our conversions were wholeheartedly lackluster.

A lot of the proceeding decline in revenue was inevitable, in retrospect, with such a massive change in company strategy. Overhauling literally everything means that you aren’t necessarily starting from scratch, but you are perhaps starting over.

Inevitable, maybe, but I think we could have smoothed out the process if we hadn’t dropped the new product and new site as a complete surprise.

So… how do we launch products in this era of our business?

Give Your Audience Time to Process

We don’t do surprise launches anymore. In fact, we try to give our audience information about upcoming launches as soon as that information is available, often months in advance of the product release.

We have a few rules for a 2018 Tortuga launch, and a few more guidelines.

Rule number one:

Launches must be calm. We don’t believe in lighting our own hair on fire. To pull off a calm launch, we start early and work ahead. We give ourselves lots of breathing room in our deadlines. We’re gentle with each other and flexible with the actual announcement date. Which leads to this:

If you’re thinking “must be nice,” you are correct. It is.

Rule number two:

We don’t tell our primary email list that the product is available until both our warehouses are stocked and ready. Our West Coast warehouse typically has stock a week or two before the East Coast does. When that happens, the product is findable and shoppable from the website, but we don’t talk about it. It’s a hidden gem that you only know about if you look. (Or if you were on the wait list — we’ll tell the wait list.)

Rule number three:

Talk about the upcoming product early and often. Give as many details as possible. However, if something could change, we don’t talk about it yet. I don’t want to promise our audience that a bag will have load lifters until we’re 100% positive those load lifters have passed our rigorous stress tests. But the minute they do? We’ll write about it.

Guideline number one:

Try not to announce a launch later than Wednesday morning. This is purely in the name of kindness to our Concierge team. Launches mean high email volume, which can be overwhelming for a small team if that happens on a Thursday or Friday.

Guideline number two:

The wait list finds out first, then our customer list, then our blog subscribers. Social media happens somewhere in between the latter two.

The Tortuga Launch Process

I’m really proud of the process we’ve built for launching products. So with that in mind, I’m about to give you an unprecedented look into the operations of Team Tortuga.

This is just the marketing operations. There’s obviously more at play here, from tech packs to ordering fabrics to warehouse shipments. But this is a post about marketing. Not design or supply chain.

9 Months (or more) Before Launch

  • Research keywords surrounding the product in development. Decide on naming conventions as a result of that research and set the official product name (which can occasionally change if the product design shifts). Adjust internal documents, like sketches and tech packs, to reflect the official name.
  • Decide on the primary benefits this product will boast, then decide on a “one liner” to serve as the TL;DR of the design brief. This is often the same piece of copy used on the product page. Example: “the expandable carry on for short trips.”
  • Outline the basic features and benefits to aid in future copywriting. Depending on how final the design is at this stage, share that list with others on the marketing team.

3 Months Before Launch

Usually, this is when the launch process starts in earnest for the marketing team. Sometimes it’s two months. But we try to make it three. Remember: launches must be calm.

  • Write the product pages. This happens first, before any other marketing activity. Often, the photos we shoot depend entirely on what’s called out in copy on the page. The video’s contents are similarly dependent. And in order to contact affiliates, our PR agency, and partners, we need something concrete to explain the upcoming product.
  • Announce what’s coming soon on The Lab, a section of our blog devoted to product design and development. Set the timeline for future “teaser” posts on The Lab that go more in-depth about the product.
  • Announce what’s coming soon to our customer list.
  • Set the photo shoot timeline. Jeremy and Garrett, two of our teammates in LA, are in charge of shoots. The ability to generate awesome photos and videos on a bootstrapped budget is a bit of a Tortuga superpower.
  • Decide if we’re going to launch any new bundles in conjunction with the new product. If so, name the bundle and write the pages.
  • Add posts that support the new product (e.g. “how to pack a duffle bag”) to the editorial calendar.

1.5 - 2 Months Before Launch

Around now, we start to get internal product samples. We’re a bit limited in what we can do until team members have actually seen the product we’re creating.

  • Shoot the product, edit photos, distribute assets.
  • Send product samples to the internal team, affiliates, press, and reviewers.
  • Continue to release details about upcoming product on The Lab and in our monthly newsletters.
  • Travel with the final product. I never have a task in Asana for this, because that seems kind of insane, but I do try to take a trip with every product before we release it. Doing so genuinely helps me get into the mindset of a customer traveling with the new product, which occasionally changes the copy I’ve written. Plus, it’s a great opportunity for an Instagram story, and I travel a lot anyway. It always seems to work out.

1 Month Before Launch

  • Write all automated emails (cart abandonment, postpurchase, etc) and edit the logic of flows to accommodate new product.
  • Write blast emails to announce new product.
  • Write and schedule social media announcements.
  • Decide which competitor comparison pages to write and assign those to a writer. Send that writer the product in question.

1 Week Before Launch

  • Add new PPC campaigns.
  • Check heat maps and all other analytics.
  • Hit schedule on the emails.

Launch Day

  • Keep self from refreshing Shopify and basking in the revenue spike. Force self to do other things.
  • Toast to another successful — and calm — launch.

I no longer send emails like the one I quoted up top. Today’s Tortuga is profitable and growing. Every launch performs better than the last. Part of that is because we’ve figured out our product strategy, and part of it is figuring out how to launch a product well.

By the way… we do all of this remotely. From all over the world. Without ever sharing an office.

That’s the future.

Questions? See a hole in our process? Have a different strategy that works for your team? Leave me a response.

Taylor Coil

Written by

Marketing Director with a focus on direct-to-consumer content & product marketing. Traveler, writer, speaker, fierce advocate for remote work.

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