From Birth to Death

Your product is dying. With the same inevitability that we humans move ever closer to death, so does every software application move towards its eventual demise.

The difference is that we have become increasingly competent at caring for ourselves and each other with the result that our chances of a longer and fuller life continue to increase with time. We have learned to recognise our own and each other's positions in the life cycle, and become aware that we have the means and ability to provide the care and environment necessary for our continued survival and prosperity. We nurture and care for our small children, and accept and encourage their ability to stand on their own two feet as part of their journey towards the day they will become are fully self-supporting. In due course, they will care for us when we become old, and in turn will one day be supported by their own children.

And so to software. A product's life cycle is not much different from our own, yet despite our ability to cater for our own changing needs, many of us are quite oblivious to the needs of our products and software as time goes on. The concept of the Product Life Cycle is a simple one, and allows you to see where your product stands at any one time, and to assess what circumstances lie ahead, by providing the information that you need in order to react accordingly. In much the same way that we do not wait for a child`s teenage years before starting their education, or for an older person to become so frail that they are unable to care for themselves, we should not wait for the negative points in a product's life cycle to be so obvious that it is too late to respond effectively.

There are four stages in the Product Life Cycle each with their own recognisable symptoms, threats and opportunities, all of which should be addressed individually.

The Early Days

Firstly, the Introduction stage. When a new product is introduced to the market, the initial impact is usually very slight, and spotting any emerging patterns is often close to impossible. You're likely to enter the market with only the barest of ripples, let alone a splash. There are exceptions to this. Large advertising budgets, hype, pre-launch public interest and new technologies may all increase the initial visibility of a product's launch. Yet even a high-visibility campaign will take time for customers to learn that a product is available, and time for a significant demand to build up and become apparent. For most of us, even with the most stringent of marketing budgets, viable profits at this stage are unlikely, and the possibility of actual short-term loss a very real one.

So how long should this stage last? The answer is almost impossible to estimate with any degree of accuracy, as there are so many variables involved. So much depends on the market demand for the software, the marketing budget, visibility and so on.The basic strategy at this stage is simply to get the product "out there", and draw as much attention to it as is possible.

Growing Up

Next in the product's life cycle is the Growth stage. If all goes according to plan, this stage should be easy to recognise both in terms of sales and profits. But the risk is that many companies will simply sit back and enjoy the ride and the success. Absolutely not! The growth cycle is the time to aggressively seek-out new opportunities, and to gain as much of the market share as possible. Some fairly clear patterns should start to emerge quite quickly at this stage, and it is usually obvious what is working and what is wasting your time. Look for three factors. The "successful" factors need to be looked at, studied and improved. If a magazine editor gives you a glowing write-up, capitalise on this by actively seek-out more magazines, more editors and more glowing write-ups!

The "intermediate" factors are a little less obvious. Results in this category tend to be steady and uninspiring, but can show potential for improvement ? only if you spot them. If for example you're getting a significant amount of traffic from one or two of the search engines, then people must be actively seeking what you sell. So get on more of the search-engines, and spend some time on improving your position.

And finally, the "On the Way Out" factor, which is the easiest to spot, yet also the easiest to ignore. You may like spending time on constantly optimising and improving your website, but when you reach a certain point, the amount of time required to do so outweighs the actual results. Anything that you're doing that consumes time with nothing or little to show for it should be avoided. Move on.

The Mature Product

The next point in the product's life cycle is the Maturity stage. The euphoria of the growth stage slows down to a more steady and sedate pace, which can often offer an abundance of opportunities, and can also pose some potential threats. Your competition is likely to be at it's fiercest during this stage, and the level and success of your marketing will almost certainly prove to be a critical factor in your product's success. The Maturity stage is quite similar to human adulthood. Massive growth is unlikely, and as long as we accept our age and take care of ourselves, we can reasonably look forward to a long and healthy future, both for us and our products.

Increasing the market share during the Maturity stage is possible, but will probably not prove to be very cost effective. Right now, the product is more likely to be affected by trends in the market than at any other time. Assuming that demand remains healthy, then marketing, promotion, advertising and visibility are of the utmost importance in order to maintain rather than increase. New packaging can help to rejuvenate a product during the Maturity stage, as may new sales methods, or aggressive competition either with the product's features or price.

The Happy Pensioner

Finally, the Decline stage in the Product Life Cycle . The human Golden Years are not the death agonies. In the same way that most pensioners enjoy many long and happy final years, so too can your product! Round about this time a common error is to misread short-term fluctuations, and misinterpret them as the beginning of the Decline stage. Although the Product Life Cycle is theoretically a smooth and quite elegant curve, the reality is that there are constant variations that may be down to any number of external factors. The diagram below demonstrates the point, and shows a realistic model against the theoretical one.

The Decline stage does not mean that it's time to abandon your product altogether, but that new and appropriate strategies may be in order. For software, this may mean new versions and features, adaptation to newer operating systems and hardware, price reductions, in short, whatever is required to prolong the life of the product.

Try applying the concept of the Product Life Cycle model to your application. You should be able to implement quite a few new options and strategies once you have identified the current stage in your product`s life cycle, and in the market itself. While the Product Life Cycle concept is useful, it is equally important to consider the external factors, particularly in response to the Decline phase. My own favourite way of looking at these external factors is the PEST analysis; Political, Economic, Social and Technological. Take all of this information into account before applying any form of life cycle based strategies.

Applying the Product Life Cycle to your application will allow you to take a step back from the day-to-day running of your business, and to see objectively where you are, and what opportunities and threats lie ahead. You can use the information that this technique gives you to ensure that your marketing efforts are not mistimed, inappropriate and ineffective. As Sinatra said ? It was a Very Good Year. Do it right. Be seen, be sold.

Copyright 2005 SharewarePromotions Ltd

Dave Collins is the CEO of SharewarePromotions Ltd., a well established UK-based software and shareware marketing company. Are your software sales slow? Find out how to promote your software across the web and multiply your sales level at http://www.sharewarepromotions.com

In The News:

Small Business Lifeline  University of Georgia
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