Are Your Products Aging Like Wine or Forgotten Yogurt?

Written by Garth Jordan on June 17, 2019

Our members are our consumers. Collectively, they buy millions of products & services (including membership) from our associations every year. Many associations offer multiple product lines and multiple products in each product line, such as:

  • membership
  • publications (magazine, newsletters, blogs, etc.)
  • certifications
  • research, data, & analytics
  • education events (conferences, seminars)
  • online learning (webinars, e-learning, virtual events)
  • marketing products (sponsorships, advertising, exhibits)
  • community (Chapters, online communities)
  • and more.

All of these products & services have a life-cycle that, if not tracked, can creep up and bite us on the backside.

For example, consider the lifecycle of products that help us view films.

We’ve gone from the original movie theater to T.V. and VCRs (VHS or Betamax), to DVRs (LaserDisc, DVD and BlueRay), to downloading and streaming on multiple devices with a variety of services like Netflix and Hulu.

You might be saying to yourself, “The movie theater still exists!”, and maybe that’s a comfortable analogy for our association industry. Because if the theater can survive against all of that competition and evolving product choices, maybe associations can follow suit.

For some reason, I tend to venture to the side of discomfort.

It’s inevitable…older, long-established products eventually become less popular, hit maturity and decline. Like Nicolas Cage, it might be slow, but it happens. And it even happens to “the product of membership.”

One association I worked for followed the standard product-line business model, too, so I thought we needed a way to visualize the health of the overall model. I decided to use the old-school but simple product life-cycle chart as my starting point.

With this tried-and-true model, it’s easy to see how a product or service moves through the phases of its life-cycle. As such, I decided to map every single product we offered on a single life-cycle curve. In essence, I wanted to get a holistic view of how our overall model was performing (and how it might perform in the coming years).

Before starting this visualization project, I admit that I hoped our map of products and services would be fairly evenly distributed but with a more robust early-stage research, development and introduction line-up…kind of like this:

Unfortunately, when I mapped everything, the result was a bit different.

Using a variety of data including total annual revenue, revenue trends, time in the market and competitive products or services that had pre- or post-dated the launch of ours, I created a simple scoring algorithm to decide where to “place” each product and service on our life-cycle curve.

It was an eye-opening exercise, my understanding of the health of our product-line model lept from the standard screen to IMAX. Details aside, here is a summary of what our map looked like:

In addition to reinforcing a handful of obvious business lessons, there were a few less-than-obvious stories told by our map that we uncovered with just a little deeper digging.

The Fairly Obvious Lessons

  1. Overall, even though we followed a product-line business model, we did not have a strong and holistic approach to product or service development.
  2. Without a strong product and service development pipeline, achieving financial stability – let alone growth – is really difficult.
  3. We needed to improve the product-line owners’ accountability/responsibility for new product development.
  4. The “This is how we do things” environment needs to be constantly challenged.
  5. People like staying in their comfort zones – sticking to what they know how to do/make.
  6. When products, services and projects are divided in silos and organized by funding sources, special effort must be applied to create useful, holistic views of the organization’s work and value to the customer.

The Less Obvious Lessons

  1. It’s extremely difficult to stop or sunset products and services that should “go away” when there is no planned replacement revenue coming down the pike from products in the introduction and growth phases of the cycle.
  2. Our silo approach to product development created internal competition for resources (staff time, funding, IT attention, etc.) which disorganized and decreased our ability to build a strong pipeline.
  3. It’s easy to be enamored by the low-risk (and seemingly guaranteed) profits from the maturity & decline phases, and that love-fest can allocate too much effort toward trying to ‘save’ or extend the life of a product or service.
  4. Creating a unified organizational approach to gain unique insights that lead to product development – like Design Thinking and prototyping – can help reduce risk, increase speed to market, coordinate resources, and improve the pipeline for product and service introduction and growth.
  5. Objectivity and reason don’t always win in the practice of product and service development. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to create simple ways to help us make tough decisions.

Between our main product – membership – and all of our other product lines, keeping a purposeful and holistic eye on the product and service lifecycle may help us (a) learn when/how to terminate and replace our version of the VHS and (b) become better at creating our version of ‘streaming entertainment’ products and services.