In the world of rapid product development and digital advertising, getting a glimpse of market acceptance for a brand or product launch prior to release can be game-changing.
That is why companies and brands will often have a smaller release before the grand reveal—a soft launch before the hard launch. This allows for feedback to be gathered, measurement baselines to be generated, and a general idea of product success and adoption to be established.
Soft launch vs. hard launch
In some cases, companies may only want to have a single launch of the product. That said, the benefit of running a soft launch is to manage expectations for the hard launch and determine how much time and effort needs to go into the different stages of a release.
In order to best explain how the two types of launches differ (and when to use each), let’s take a step back and start by defining them.
A soft launch is a small release of your product or update, usually to a select subset of your customer base, and often with limitations in availability or functionality of the product.
It allows you to get a taste of what a larger release might look like in order to mitigate or manage any problems or considerations you may not have thought of. Soft launches are like walking into a swimming pool from the shallow end. You are not sure the temperature of the water or how long it will take you to get adjusted, so you want to get a feel for what you are getting yourself into before the big plunge.
In the tech world, this might also be considered a beta test. Often software developers will open a beta test to a select group of users to evaluate how the feature or product is received and utilized, and determine what adjustments need to be made before the general release.
Hard launches, on the other hand, are like jumping into the pool with a splash. This launch is what you put your effort and budget behind to scream from the rooftops about your product or brand. You want to ensure that lots of people hear about it and build enough popularity to get traction in performance and sales.
Generally, if a soft launch has occurred, you have an idea of what tactics you want to leverage and what benchmarks you are striving for in your performance. Without the soft launch, the hard launch would be the only release of the product or feature.
Soft launch vs. hard launch digital campaign strategies
When it comes to planning your digital strategy around either a soft or hard launch, there are some considerations that will cause the campaigns to differ.
For a hard launch, you want to make sure you are creating enough buzz and getting your message to as many people as possible. In order to accomplish this, you will likely need to put a considerable budget behind your promotional efforts. This will include integrating a well-thought-out digital strategy that employs various ad formats and channels.
In a soft launch, you may run a series of small, very targeted test campaigns, and use social channels to promote the product, then for the hard launch, you will put a more strategic marketing machine behind it.
During your soft launch, you have the opportunity to test messaging to see what resonates well with your target market. You can then try different headlines, ad copy, and calls to action (CTA) to determine what works best. From there, you can fine-tune the messaging you want to leverage in your hard launch, allowing you to be very refined in your strategy and get ahead in the campaign testing phase.
For a soft launch campaign, try defined geo in your targeting, potentially around your physical location or in the city of your product offering. This will limit your reach to a tight radius and defined scale for the campaign.
For a hard launch, you will likely want to cover a larger area, and if geotargeting makes sense as a campaign tactic, then you'll expand it so you can capture a larger audience to nurture through the funnel.
If you have a physical location, you can estimate the success of your efforts by measuring the foot traffic generated by soft launch campaigns. This would be done with a footfall attribution partner to see if there was a correlation between online impressions and in-store visits.
You can also use this to measure the success of the hard launch, although setting it up for the soft launch will allow you to establish that baseline and better compare the results.
TIP: Looking for more insight during your soft launch? Product analytics software is the answer.
As you try a gradual introduction of your product or brand, or even an extension of an existing product or brand, you don’t want to blow your whole advertising budget for your soft launch. During this stage, you are likely leveraging your owned media channels, such as any blog or site content and social channels.
That said, there is some merit to be had in digital campaigns, especially native ones, as part of your soft launch. As native ads are situated within content that users are consuming. They are great avenues for educating prospects on your new product or brand release. Once you have educated them on the subject matter or where the product lies in the ecosystem, the subsequent campaigns you run in your hard launch will resonate better.
Running paid campaigns in general during a soft launch will also allow you to test different targeting tactics to see how they perform. You will want to take your learnings from the soft launch and extend your campaigns and budgets into other channels. The channels that will help you with this are video and display. Video ads allow you to tell a detailed brand story and effectively entertain and capture user attention. Display ads will help to supplement your other ad strategies to boost performance and significantly increase brand awareness.
When to leverage a soft launch vs. a hard launch
Some companies do not have the capacity or time to offer both a soft and a hard launch. That said, there are some cases where both are not even necessary. Knowing what to prioritize when your timing and budget are limited can be tricky, but there are some general components that can help to determine what is needed. Here are three scenarios where launch strategy may differ:
1. New brand, new vertical
When introducing a new brand in a new vertical, one of the main challenges could be getting your name out there and establishing brand affinity. In new markets, it can be challenging to know where to start, so soft and hard launches are both needed.
You want to leverage a heavy digital strategy, with display ads to build awareness, video ads to capture attention when your prospects are in the funnel, and native ads to further interest and drive engagement. This will ensure you are capturing as much prospect attention as possible, getting your brand recognized and building favorable associations.
Since it is a fresh new brand and product, you don’t necessarily know how your audience will respond or what campaign tactics will be most successful, which is why you will want a soft launch to determine how to build your strategy for the main release.
2. Existing brand, established vertical, product line extension
With existing brands in mature verticals, there is already strong brand recognition. Consider an automotive campaign with a new model or nameplate—consumers are already familiar with the brand and expect that a new model will be released each year.
This is where a soft launch may actually prove to be more favorable over a hard launch—you can target the prospects within tight parameters that fit your target and allocate less of your budget overall. As prospects are familiar with the brand and product, it is not entirely necessary to run a hard launch following the soft launch.
3. Brand loyalty, new product
When promoting new products from an established brand in an existing vertical, you might only use a hard launch. Since your audience is already familiar with the brand, and you are familiar with your target audience, the soft launch might be redundant.
You still need to release the new product and make a big enough impact to capture attention, but a hard launch without a soft launch might be sufficient. You will be able to allocate more dollars to the hard launch and make more effective use of your budget when introducing the new product. This is because you know what tactics work best and what your clients are accustomed to.
Soft launches, hard decisions
Once you understand the difference between soft and hard launches, it becomes much easier to consider the nuances in your campaigns and what tactics you can leverage in each. In order to test messaging and campaign tactics for a wide product release, a soft launch can help you gather beneficial learnings. The value gained from a soft launch will help to inform and guide the hard launch and improve your chances of success.
Interested in learning more about product marketing overall? Check out our guide on the need-to-know product marketing essentials.