We've all heard the old expression, "Timing is everything." You may not buy that completely, but you'll probably agree timing is important. All that talk about hitting your time-to-market window must have had some impact. This blog is about timing promotional investments. What's ideal?
Unfortunately, the question is like asking how much it costs to make a movie. The answer: "It depends." For our question, a fair response is, "Early."
Never underestimate the value of being first-to-market or, perhaps even more important, being perceived as first with a new idea. Here are some important questions to keep in mind about timing:
- What's your company's market position? Does it even have one?
- What's your company's track record in product promotion -- heavy, light, or none?
- Are you in a crowded, highly competitive market with many noisy players?
- When will you actually be able to deliver the product to customers versus just having fresh beta sites or a big stack of data sheets?
- What is the sales cycle or "time-to-money" associated with your category?
- Is your product evolutionary or a truly new and different concept requiring a learning curve before purchase?
- Who buys your product, and what's their normal purchasing behavior?
The variables are many, but for now let's consider four basics.
Your track record: If your company is not well known or is lacking market awareness and credibility, these advantages must be earned over time. How much time? How much money? Probably more than you may have planned. Look at stretching your promotional dollars by cooperating with another marketer. (See: 5 Tips for Effective Technology Marketing.)
Even great product concepts require share-of-mind and supplier acceptance. Building a reasonable communications track record, a reputation, from scratch in the worldwide electronics market takes many months and many dollars. Getting on an editor's or market researcher's radar screen can be a full-time job for experienced public relations pros. A few ads won't usually penetrate your prospects' consciousness and inspire them to act. A sustained campaign generally will. Minds aren't persuaded digitally. Multiple inputs are required to move the needle. Start public relations well before advertising. As the news coverage or publicity fades, initiate advertising.
Consider initiating some forms of promotion at least six months before product availability if you have no track record or if it is a new market entry. Even giant companies start early when entering a new business arena. From the start, work on gaining awareness and credibility through all available media, including on- and off-line editorial and advertising, tradeshows, direct mail, and, of course, direct sales contact. Don't underestimate the challenge or under-fund the campaign. Front-loading is essential to success. A flat monthly budget may make the bean counters happy, but it won't break through the noise barrier.
Even if the company is a veteran supplier it still can and should start well in advance. Even though it was the dominant supplier, Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC) introduced its RISC microprocessor over a year before it was shipped. Why? Because Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD) (NYSE: AMD) was already shipping its RISC chip, and other competitors were revving up their versions. The train was leaving the station, so it was time for Intel to jump on board, even if the product wasn't ready. Extremely long-lead product introductions work well only when you have credibility.
No one doubted that Intel would deliver. An unknown company might not get away with such an ambitious schedule. A lesser known company needs to overcome its brand awareness problem by starting early building familiarity among industry influencers and customer prospects in advance of product awareness.
The messaging mix: Sequencing promotional efforts depends on available budget, what's worked for the company before, and what the competition is doing, among other factors. Treat the news of a significant new product like gold. It's only news once. An introduction plan that maps out all the introductory steps is essential. This may include sales training, publicity, space advertising, direct mail, and telemarketing programs.
Don't rely on only one promotional tool for the whole job. Create a mix of timed events and actions that will get the message out over an extended period. Publicity is powerful and should be used when there is legitimate product news value. Time the introduction so all media can cover it simultaneously. This means putting your story together early.
Your advertising is set to kick in following appearance of product news, not prior to editorial coverage. Direct mail and email should be timed immediately following the publicity appearance or as a kicker following the advertising appearance.
Don't start at the show: One other thing relating to promotional timing: Your product doesn't have to be introduced at a major tradeshow. Although some product marketers seem to think that's the only time to promote, in fact, attempting publicity at key tech events like ESC can be a waste for smaller companies. They'll be competing with major players for industry attention.
Promotion is an investment: The golden rule: Never stop promoting unless you want to stop selling. Maintaining promotional communication retains momentum and brand and product awareness. Varying the level or the mix makes sense; cutting it altogether does not. It's been proven for decades that marketers maintaining promotional investments during a business downturn do better through the recession and come out ahead of their non-promoting competitors when the recovery comes.
Stop investing, and your prior investment in awareness building begins to fade. As the president of a very successful client company of mine once emphatically said: "No one wins any marketing wars by saving money." Investing the right amounts at the right times is the key to marketing success.