How Soon is Too Soon to Begin a Marketing Campaign?

Pre-Order Button

Have you noticed how movie trailers are released much earlier than they used to be? It isn’t uncommon to see a preview in the theatre for a film that debuts six to nine months down the road, sometimes even further.

I first noticed this with Dwayne Johnson’s movie, Skyscraper, and more recently with Steve Carell’s Welcome to Marwen.

Why the sudden change in timing? And is this shift a good thing?

Lead Time Varies By Industry

To answer that question, we should first acknowledge that each industry has always worked on its own timetable for releasing ads about their new products and services. 

Technology

Technology companies are at the end of the spectrum with the smallest lead time. Apple carefully guards the secrets of their new products for the big reveal that takes place at their formal event.

And the new products announced are typically scheduled to be available in Apple stores within weeks.

Software

Software companies also wait to announce new versions of their flagship products. When I helped launch a big software update, we used codewords to keep the secret until days before the release.

Cars

Tesla is a good example of the other end of the spectrum. Their customers will wait six months to a year to pre-order the new Model 3. That’s actually an improvement over the previous twelve to eighteen-month delay.

Books

In the spectrum of short-to-long lead times, the publishing industry is closer to the Technology side. New books are typically announced thirty to ninety days before the publication date. Of course, there are exceptions but that is the standard timeline.

Timelines vary by industry but it is critical that each marketer analyze their unique market and find the sweet spot of not too soon, not too late, but just right timing. 

Three Dangers of Promoting Too Early

One should consider the dangers of starting too early. There are at least three to factor in.

1. The Sense of Newness is Lost

In the case of the two movies I mentioned earlier, I noticed that, when it came time for their debut, they didn’t feel as new and exciting anymore. Oh, that movie? I remember that. Didn’t that come out already?

Our innate love for new things could prove to hurt the trend of advertising movies earlier.  

2. The Return on Investment is Lower

Also, the ROI is typically lower during a pre-order period. A dollar spent before the launch brings less sales than the same dollar spent after the on-sale date.

In the publishing industry, we’ve found that pre-order campaigns rarely, if ever, produce as many sales as a similar campaign strategy that is executed immediately after the book is available. 

As much as we love new and exciting things, it is also in our nature to want them now. When we see that something isn’t available for purchase yet, we move on to something else that we can enjoy immediately. 

3. The Current Product Line Suffers

Another danger of announcing a product too early is that your existing line of products will take a hit, sometimes a big hit. The same customers who won’t opt to preorder your next version will also choose not to buy your existing products because they now know they’ll soon be obsolete. 

They may have good intentions of returning to purchase the new edition when it is available, but a high percentage of those customers either forget to return or decide to invest in your competitor’s product instead.

This is one of the reasons why software companies keep updates under wraps as long as they can. If word were to get out that a new edition is a few weeks away, they would see a massive decline in revenue during that window of time.

Two Reasons Why Pre-Orders Matter

Don’t assume that these three warnings mean that pre-order campaigns should be abandoned. They serve an important purpose. 

1. Manufacturing/Production Decisions

First, pre-order campaigns help the manufacturer know how many units to produce. Many companies have formulas to project the volume of sales based on demand during the pre-order period. 

People will often say that it is a “good problem” when a product outperforms expectations, causing the warehouse to be out of stock in the first weeks of a campaign.

They try to reassure us by comparing this scenario to the times when there were far too many pallets of product piled up in the warehouse. Sure, that is worse, I guess, but both are intensely frustrating for the marketer responsible for the success of that campaign.

There’s nothing good about being out of stock when a launch is in full swing, especially if the production time or freight time takes three to six months. 

The momentum of a successful campaign is rarely regained when there are no units to sell. 

2. Stock Levels at Retail

Another reason for executing an effective pre-order strategy is to make sure your retail partners are stocked up on their inventory levels. 

Manufacturers can try to convince their retail partners and distributors that a new product is going to be big and they better have plenty or they’ll run out. But they hear empty promises like this far too often.

Many retailers (especially ones that have non-returnable terms) take few risks on new products, so they order based on demand during the pre-order window.

If few people were interested before the launch, the odds are that your biggest partners will be out of stock in their physical stores and their websites will show “Out of Stock,” “Coming Soon,” or the death blow of “Available in 2-3 months.”

Three Effective Pre-Order Strategies

Since pre-orders have an important place in a product’s lifecycle, what strategies can be implemented to make them more successful? Pre-order strategies will vary by business sector, just as the timing will vary, but here are three ideas from the publishing industry.

Each of these strategies come from analyzing the customer journey. As you map out their experience, you see the pain points of not having immediate access and you overcome it with something unexpected; something that surprises and delights them.  

1. Exclusive Price

At one of place I worked, we incentivized pre-orders by promising an exclusive, aggressive discount that would never be beaten. We honored that commitment and trained our customers to believe it when we said that the price would never be lower than during the pre-order period.

Amazon is using this strategy with their Pre-Order Price Guarantee policy. If it goes down, they will give you the lowest price. 

2. Exclusive Incentive

One of my favorite examples of pre-order marketing is from the bestselling author, Marissa Meyer. Everyone who pre-ordered her new hardcover book Archenemies will have their name printed in the paperback edition of her book, Renegades. What a brilliant idea!

The genius of this strategy is that the publisher was convincing customers to buy a book they already owned!

Most of the people who pre-ordered Archenemies (my 16-year-old daughter included) already have the hardcover of Renegades and they most likely were not going to buy the inferior paperback edition.

But this incentive of having your name in a Marissa Meyer book was too great a temptation for loyal fans to pass up.

The success of this campaign not only expanded the market to include people who bought the hardcover edition, but it also boosted their pre-order units which helped them make a larger print run (and a cheaper print run because unit cost goes down with higher quantities). 

3. Exclusive Value-Add

You could say that the Marissa Meyer pre-order strategy mentioned above is a value-add but since it doesn’t involve an additional, bonus product being offered, I wanted to break it out as a separate category.

Marissa Meyer is also an excellent example of successful value-add pre-order marketing. With each new release, she offers an extra physical bonus gift for purchasing it before it is published. These exclusive products such as buttons and posters delight her loyal readers.

Are these value-add items necessary? In one sense, no. Marissa Meyer’s followers are going to buy anything and everything that she writes or contributes to. But many of them would most likely wait until the publication date. 

These value-add tactics not only delight the reader with cool swag, but they also eliminate the obstacle of instant gratification by providing something tangible before the book releases. Again, brilliant move!

Another value-add that has worked in the publishing industry is to give a free ebook by the same author or on the same subject at the time of pre-order. 

Share Your Pre-Order Experience

This article about pre-order marketing is based on my experience, but I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments, and so would others who are reading this.

Please share…

  • Your opinion on whether early movie trailers are going to pay off or prove ineffective
  • Your story of the best pre-order experience you’ve had as a customer
  • Your experiences with pre-order marketing in your industry. What is the normal lead time for you and why?

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