Even when we plan out every detail, we are still not prepared enough. Things go wrong unexpectedly. Having done more than 25 site launches in my career, I still feel that every site launch has unique challenges. You need nerves of steel and perseverance to plough through some extremely stressful situations. With experience, it gets better. But it never goes as planned. This does not mean we don’t plan. After all, as Benjamin Franklin said, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” It’s true.
Launching a website can be the most exciting, but also most overwhelmingly daunting, assignment you’ll ever work on. It is during these last 6 weeks of the project that all the elements of a perfect storm come together. Everything has to somehow fall in place for a site launch to be successful. And things don’t fall in place by themselves. There’s a lot to accomplish, a ton of details that can’t be overlooked, and multiple people with different agendas who have to work together. It does not help if the team is remotely connected and in different time zones. Perhaps the most critical thing here is that when teams (on both the client-side and agency-side) work as one team, it increases their chances of success. This does not happen as often as we believe. Clients might not trust the agency, and the agency might have defined scope based on what is stated in the SOW. A lot of things get lost in interpretation and tension can very quickly lead to very stressful situations.
True relationships are built on trust. Launch time is the litmus test for that trust. If this gets established, it is a relationship that will last for a long time. Without this trust, it will be short term like any other relationship.
So let’s make sure we have a trusting relationship, and plan knowing there are many players involved. eCommerce sites today are built by joint efforts from Business Analysts, Information Architects, Web Designers, Copywriters, Project Managers, System Architects, QA Analysts, Front End Developers, Database Engineers, Content Producers, Marketing Managers, Merchandisers, eCommerce Producers and eCommerce Analysts… and probably many more individuals, resulting in a culmination of their collective creativity and dedication. Everyone works on his or her piece of the puzzle, which is part of the whole new storefront. It takes process, communication, and constant alignment to keep everyone focused on making a launch happen on a committed timeline.
Preparation is the key to every successful launch, and proper planning can mitigate problems – and increase the chances of success.
Here is a breakdown of how to plan for eCommerce launch:
Ah, the beginning. Everyone’s fresh, happy, excited, and eager to roll up their sleeves and start working. Considering that it takes a pretty sizable team to launch a website, this is critical for staying organized, on task, and getting things done. An escalation process needs to be established, which helps to more quickly resolve issues bound to happen in the course of the project. It is very important to accept that your dream plan may seem flawless, but the reality is that every launch will likely encounter unique problems, unexpected changes, new approaches, and scope creep. Plan for reality (not for perfection), be flexible, and make sure stakeholders’ expectations are properly set. Change requests need to be understood, as this will have a direct impact on overall scope.
One month out is an exciting time. The site is starting to come together and a ton of progress is being made, but there’s a lot to accomplish still. Ongoing QA is critical. End-to-end testing and regression testing are in full play. A lot of stressful late nights are ahead in preparation for UAT. UAT, managed well, helps in building confidence. It is that last stretch, the dress rehearsal, before one prepares for the final countdown. This is when everyone (client and agency) jointly agrees on the launch date. It is important to collaborate, agree, understand, and challenge each other as a team. If this is not managed well, a lot of confusion happens, which has a direct impact on critical communication. The agency needs to be empathetic towards the client, as a lot of work needs to happen on the client-side, which could derail the launch if not handled well. While the agency cannot project-manage the client, it is important to clearly communicate milestones that are expected to be hit by the client, which has a direct impact on the launch date. Clients are managing a lot and possibly being overly optimistic on how they will accomplish all the content-related tasks in the given time frame.
Now is the time to really work through the launch checklist. Confirm testing procedures (have end-to-end flows ready) and make sure a system for tracking bugs and enhancements is in place.
There should be one person in charge of prioritization of bugs and filtering creative feedback on the business side. It is important to establish clear lines of communication. Having too many cooks in the kitchen can be detrimental to the timeline. Bug logging and appropriate descriptions with visual cues like screenshots go a long way in ensuring effective understanding and resolution. There is very little time to waste in communication, especially when business, creative, and technical teams are in different locations and time zones. It can easily descend into a chaotic mess of conflicted opinions, adding to the overall stress level.
As the team is toiling, we encounter many opportunities to excel or fail. Last-minute change requests from the executive team can make things more complicated. It might appear to be a simple change request which might seem like a small effort, but inserting and tracking becomes an overwhelmingly challenging task. The best project owners facilitate fair communication early and often. With a little collaboration and upward management, the team remains focused on what needs to get launched. One way of handling the executive request is to start a post-launch enhancement list.
High-traffic sites may benefit from caching services as a way to prevent costly bills and improve site performance. If data is supposed to be migrated as part of this process, it’s important to follow previously tested approaches to mitigate last minute, unknown risks. And there is always going to be some new data (new products, new content) that has to be entered manually.
The go/no-go decision needs to happen as one looks very closely to the timing of the launch. Bad timing might result in financial setback. Every business should look at analytics and be prepared to do some internal risk analysis on what might be at stake. While everyone is feeling the pressure, there is every reason to prepare oneself for every scenario. This is a critical time for a business sponsor to approve the final date, understanding all options.
The heat is on. Identify who exactly will be part of the launch, and get a 30-minute daily call on everyone’s calendar. Over-communication is key here. There are too many things going on to miscommunicate: simultaneous streams, last minute checks, end-to-end testing, system stabilization, performance testing, SEO-related tasks, final communication plans, email announcements – you get the picture.
Many action items are taken care of as the team gets ready to go. Fix the content and the code to begin final testing on the production environment where the end users will soon experience your new site.
This is the time to designate a maintenance team and prioritize any outstanding bugs and changes that may have popped up along the way. At this point, being a perfectionist works against the launch.
Prioritization is more important now than ever. Focus on solving critical issues and anything that will stop customers from buying. It is not the time to worry about pixel perfection or whether the image showing up is incorrectly cropped. By setting realistic expectations of how things will go, one is in a better position to finish on time and with stakeholders on-board.
The day of the launch has finally arrived, and everyone is walking around giddy with anticipation. While management is excited and hoping for the best, the rest of the team’s energy may be at an all-time low. It’s important to stay strong at this point — stay positive, and be excited that the launch is finally happening.
Everyone should be 100% dedicated to seeing the launch come through without hiccups. Make sure customer service and fulfillment has been prepared in advance to support customers calling in. This is the day when you say goodbye to your old site as the new site becomes the primary destination. Don’t forget to be prepared with a well-designed maintenance page, just in case the launch takes longer than expected. Make sure everyone knows who’s on call in case of technical issues, and be methodical about validation.
Priorities are just as important on launch days as they are throughout production. Teams are often weary after long hours of working to meet the deadline. Close the most critical items, and give yourself a breather as soon as you’re over the hump.
Launching isn’t the end of your work … it’s just the beginning. After all, a website isn’t a storefront made of stone. It is always evolving, improving and changing … as we optimize conversion and improve the user experience.
At Echidna, we believe in establishing trusted relationships with our clients. We treat every launch with the same care and precision as a surgeon, preparing for all possible outcomes, but increasing the chances of success and improving our track record with every client launch. We take great pride in providing the leadership necessary for a successful website launch.