I'm going to talk about the iPod Shuffle again - because I am consistently reminded about how an intelligent marketing campaign created a successful product launch out of something that had little new to offer the world. Despite the fact that it was just a flash-memory MP3 player with no display, who's only real quality was that it was compatible with iTunes, when it launched it was an instant success. I remember reading about how exasperated competitors were fuming that they had been doing players like that for years - why all the fuss? It's easy to just give Apple and Steve Jobs credit for their mastery of marketing and all that, but it doesn't always work like that. The lampshade iMac didn't go over very well, even with a cover of Time Magazine to help it out. But the shuffle did. Why?
Well... it was a lot cheaper, yeah, and there was obviously a demand for this sort of thing as well. In particular the ability to have a small flash player compatible with iTunes music seems to have hit a sweet spot. So whoever did the market research should've got a promotion, because that's always the hard part: "Do people really want this widget?" But then, they gave it magic by making sure that no matter how little innovation was in the product, there was something special about it. In this case, taking a standard feature on all music players since the first portable CD players - the shuffle playback option - and making it the center point of the device. That allowed them to create a whole marketing campaign around the device, brand it, promote it and in retrospect have a great product launch.
The moral of the story is that if you're going to launch a new product, that the product doesn't need to be innovative - it could be just another finance page on the web - but you need to make sure you have a reason why it's special anyways. You need to tell a story about your product, and point out something about it which you think is something interesting or different. Obviously it can't be too mundane ("Look! This car has wheels!") or too ridiculous ("See these speakers go to 11...") but, it doesn't need to be the most innovative thing on Earth either, it just has to be something you think is worth noting, and worth buying your product for, and then being convincing in your belief in that. (And if you can't lie as convincingly as Steve Jobs, it would probably help if you actually believed it as well, since most of your customers can smell bullshit a mile away). But if you're launching a product and you're not sure why it's special, your customers definitely won't be either, and they probably won't bother with an also-ran.
I'm writing this all because I came to a realization this morning: "Soft launching" is for pussies. If you want to launch a new product, and you want customers to spend their valuable time using it or part with their hard earned cash for it, then sell the damn thing. SELL it! Push it, promote it, pound it, make it special. I don't buy a product because I like your company, I buy because I like ME and I want something special for ME. Give me a reason to believe your thing is exactly that. Sure, making a splash is risky, you could fall on your face with a dud. But if you're not willing to take that risk, why should your customers be willing to try your product?
Also, one other thought is that if you promote your company and products as "innovative" rather than just simply "special", you're going to have a really, really high bar to jump over every time you launch something new. Special is different, and different is anything you say it is, but we all know what qualifies as innovation. So you have a choice, either go back and do something truly innovative, figure out why your product is special and say so, or don't waste our time.