Gabriel Koen from PMC (Variety.com, Deadline Hollywood) presented “Launches: Lessons Learned” at the recent Big Media & Enterprise Meetup in San Francisco, California, now available with full transcript.
View the presentation slides below:
I come here from Penske Media I’m going to be talking essentially about our product launches and what’s gone wrong and how we’ve used that to essentially adapt what we do and how we do it.
For those of you who haven’t heard of Penske Media, you might have heard of some of our brands. This includes TV|Line, Deadline, Variety, BGR, entv, Hollywood Life. We run about 30 events, including some that are on, I don’t even remember what, CW I think, and a couple of others.
To give you an idea of what our launch schedules tend to look like over the last few months, everything from new major sections on our sites to actual site redesigns and brand new sites themselves.
We launched mundial section for Variety Latino, a Contenders Awards aggregation section for Variety. Back in May we did a full on site redesign launch for TVLine events, like our power of women event, International Editions on Variety, a new section for our events. And generally, every month we do at least six or so brand new products or sections for our sites. Anything from just a new page, to a new major feature, to brand new site.
So basically getting on to what we’ve done, these are in no particular order. So one of the things that’s the most common that we’ve run into in the past especially is you know, we go through all this trouble launching a new feature, a new section on the site and 3 months down the road we realize hey we’re not getting any mobile traffic to this section.
So obviously, we forget to add a link to it, to our mobile themes header or side bar or you know even forget a mobile optimized version of it.
Sometimes the solution is changing the way that you develop or think about your products in general.
It’s odd but it happens and then essentially we’ve targeted that by we’re making a push to do a responsive theme for all of our sites at this point and I think the number one driving reason for that, aside from higher mobile engagement as the years go on is just that, you have to account for different devices and different sizes when you’re dealing with responsive. You know, it gets bakes into your QA processes and your thought patterns.
So the key take away from that is just not every problem that you encounter has a solution like “oh yeah I need to remember that”, sometimes the solution is changing the way that you develop or think about your products in general. More so than “ oh, I have to remember to do this on launch day”.
Another big one, especially a big problem for sites like ours that are ad-driven for our revenue, we forget to loop in different team members or different people within the organization and then we find out they were completely unaware of the launch and you know, we didn’t think that they needed to know.
So you know something happens like ads don’t even show up on your new section, or the wrong ads show up in the wrong places on your shiny new website design. So in order to combat that we started doing cheat sheets where prior to each launch, we just put together a simple one-sheeter that explains okay, here’s all the key dates, people involved and milestones that are going to get us from the concept to actual page on site.
So the overall take away there is just every team involved knows who else is involved and what other teams are there someone in there is bound to know “hey so and so from the editorial team or from our vince coverage team is gonna need to be involved in this and it just helps circulate the communication there.
We just put together a simple one-sheeter that explains here’s all the key dates, people involved and milestones that are going to get us from the concept to actual page on site.
We have had launches where we forgot to actually turn it on whether it’s actually activating the theme or enabling a core feature for the theme or dragging the widget to the sidebar.
And the problem there is there wasn’t one person who was owning that launch or that feature, that particular thing. So from then on, we just have to make sure that every thing that’s on our checklist, everything that’s happening, has one person that owns it, since we found that everyone on the team may know what’s going on but they may think that someone else is actually going to do it.
And sort of adjunct to that is you know, it’s useful, we’ve found that, you need to have someone who’s, with a small team especially, you tend to get focused on all the little pieces needed to pull the whole thing together, but the way things like this get missed is you tend to not have somebody just keeping the eye on the overall thing or project or launch and just making sure all the piece fit together.
And we’ve had launches where the key stakeholders never actually saw the feature we were building before we built it and pushed it out. So obviously hilarity ensued once actually saw that we launched a major section of the site that they were responsible for or feature that they had to suddenly start populating content for etcetera.
So essentially to combat that, we realized in addition to just making sure that we flip the switch and loop in ad ops teams and editorial teams and what not, we need to make sure that communication was actually part of our list. You know, so at a certain point, it’s like one of the steps is make sure that you know who to communicate this to make sure that you actually get them to review it at certain points.
From then on, we just have to make sure that every thing that’s on our checklist, everything that’s happening, has one person that owns it
So you know, treating your milestones and key communication points as actually just something else you do just like QAing the feature, just like building it, just you know, every other piece of it.
And one of the last two are kind of some of the more embarrassing ones at least from my point of view. So the times when we broke something and just kind of hoped that nobody would notice while we were scrambling to fix it.
And of course, meanwhile, the actual stakeholder sees it and you know, starts being very vocal about seeing it, which very quickly escalates the situation. So it’s kind of obvious in hindsight, but you just have to you know, own up to what you’re doing. Whether it’s good or bad, when things are going wrong, when things are running late, you just have to make sure that you’re, you know, keeping constant communication going with your key stakeholders for a project.
Key stakeholders, just a sidebar for a second, could be anyone from if you’re launching a new section, well it’s going to the the editor or writer of that section it could be the general manager of the site. Just whoever it is that is most invested in the success of that project or product.
Whether it’s good or bad, when things are going wrong, when things are running late, you just have to make sure that you’re, you know, keeping constant communication going with your key stakeholders for a project
And then I think the key thing that we also learned from it is overall, those, it stings a lot less whenever you go to someone and say “hey we just noticed we did this or something happened, we’re actively working on it and we wanted to let you know and keep you in the loop” than them suddenly looking at their site and seeing a mess, you know.
Other ones are right after our launches. Having the general manager of the site say, “hey I noticed I’m getting fewer page views can you look into it?”
What’s going on? Well many things. We found a couple times where we’ve accidentally blocked search engines from indexing things we had meta tags or robot […] files from our dev sites that made it into production and we just never looked because who would do that?
Other times, we left analytics off of pages, especially when doing ajax operations and you know, things that aren’t a strict load where you still want to track page views or other engagement based off of that.
So essentially what we’ve found there is kind of a two-fold answer because there’s multiple problems there. First, it is not making assumptions. Maybe you looked at something or scanned it at one point and said “oh yeah, that looks good” and you move on.
Or maybe you’re just like, “yeah of course we’re tracking page views on this why wouldn’t we do that?” And the kind of take away that we really got driven home in those scenarios is, product launches do extend past the launch date.
Not only from just keeping an eye on things and just making sure things are working, but just from this point of view of from if you’re a product person, measuring the success of the product or project that you’ve just pushed out.
Is it working? Are people actually using it? And being able to respond to those things that you see, whether it’s in analytics or whatever so, that’s pretty much it.
Just to quickly go over how we at PMC have overall handled dealing with these things we’ve sort of, we start with the idea of let’s just do something and let’s just do it as a small team and see what works and what doesn’t work.
As we make mistakes, we introduce process to combat those mistakes that happen frequently and we constantly strive to reevaluate whether what we’re actually doing is working or not.
So we know that as we grow in size and as our sites grow in complexity, there’s just more process that you have to do to be able to handle these various scenarios. But we also know that process can kind of get in the way and the more process you have, the less likely you are to actually follow those processes, so it’s really finding a very happy balance between the two so that you’re actually being effective with the things that you’re trying to do.
So I’ll just kind of go over these quickly you know, it starts with project planning we typically work backwards and forwards from our launch date to make sure that our timelines meet somewhere in the middle, to make sure that we’re identifying all the people who are involved in the project and getting them looped into the timeline discussions.
We put together our little one-sheeter cheat-sheet with stakeholders, dates, URLs for being able to test things and check things dates, when they can go in and look at it, that type of thing.
We have one checklist for what we need to do before we launch, things like who we need to coordinate with to get on the actual launch time, it’s usually the WordPress.com VIP folks and then we need kind of configurations that we have to deal with.
We have our timeline for launch day, it’s literally a minute by minute calendar with who’s responsible for something and what the status of it is. We use Google Docs for all of this because our company is on Google Apps for business, but previously we used things like Trello and whatever works.
The key to all of this is to make it easy for people to access. Since we’re on Google Apps and using Google spreadsheets, we don’t have to do anything special for someone to log in and see a sheet or someone to edit it or for someone to have access to it.
Then we have our actual launch checklist, just a general overview of what needs to be done and who owns that piece of testing or review and we go through that once right before we launch and once right after we launch.
One of the newer things that we’ve introduced that’s been really successful is our support structure. Essentially we’ve started creating a chatroom, sometimes it’s a Google hangout sometimes it’s a Skype chatroom, it depends on who the stakeholders are and what they use every day.
On launch day, we everybody gets into the chat room, and that way whenever somebody comes across a problem or something, they just type it in or say what they’re seeing and you have that instant one-on-one communication.
We also try and identify one or two key people on the team, like if you’re doing a site launch, it might be the general manager of the site and the lead editor.
They’re the conduit between the writers and the other staff on the site and us so it lessens the noise that goes on on those launch days and our ability to find out what is actually a problem.
So that is basically it. Any questions?
Q: One thing on the VIP team that we’re really bad at right now is celebrating our launches internally So when we put in weeks or even months working towards a launch, we’re not very good at patting on the back and saying nice job, good effort, all that stuff.
Do you guys do anything like that to celebrate the launch or sort of like, boost internal moral?
A: That’s actually a very good point, that should actually be part of this because it’s certainly something that all of us on the team have strived to make part of our launch process. You know, we’ll send out an email and we’ll include the CEO and other people on it just saying “hey, this went live”, if there were people who were really, you know, worked 24/7 to get it out, we’ll make sure they’re acknowledged in that.
Our CEO is actually really great about it as well, he’ll respond and say fantastic job, especially, Amit Sannad or whoever else on the dev team that has been working weeks and weeks to get the thing out.
You know, we’ll usually, it’s tough because we have a distributed team as well, so those of us, like most of the product team is based out of Los Angeles, so we’ll get together and go out and have drinks or something like that.
We just try and, we’re still working on figuring out how to better include the people who are located outside of our office area. So far, we’ve just been making up with small gifts and tokens of appreciation thanks and emails and pats on the back and so forth, but we ‘re trying to find ways to do better on that.
Q: Do you use automated testing at all to help eliminate some of those issues?
A: We don’t. Sorry, he was asking if we use any sort of automation or automated testing to help with these things, and you know the short of it is we don’t. There’s a lot of reasons why we don’t and none of them are really that good.
Most of them boil down to like we haven’t found out how to automatically test for some things. We have introduced some types of automated tests like we have pingdom alerts that look for the ad strings on our various pages so we know if ads aren’t rendering and things like that.
But we’re still not at the point where we’re using any kind of unit testing. We’re not using any kind of selenium or UI testing. It would definitely help quite a bit with some of these things.
Any other questions?
Awesome, thank you.
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