by: James Young
“Are you willing to take the shot, put in the extra hours, zig when everyone zags, network like mad, conduct market research, act on that market research, lose sleep while dreaming big, step out on the skinny part of the branch, fail forward, leverage big data, take the hit, get back up, get gritty?!”
Time is valuable, resources are limited, and staff are stretched. Associations can’t afford to fritter and futz. We need to act, but we can’t just scurry our way to growth. We need to strategically leverage our people, volunteers, offerings, and insights.
This article will define and frame the concept of leverage. In doing so, we will showcase three powerful ways of applying leverage in our associations: designing a product portfolio, utilizing a product taxonomy, and forging multiple scale paths.
We end by listing fourteen example products built on a product framework.
The Product Community is a product development learning community designed specifically for associations.
What is Leverage?
“Don’t find customers for your products, find products for your customers.”
– Seth Godin
Associations are in the business of understanding and empathizing with their members so they can deliver value for them.
We define a product intentionally broad: anything of value produced by an association. Standard examples include events, podcasts, webinars, learning, or membership.
The Product Community does things differently by focusing on leveraging the content, practices, or modality that both make up and stem from these products.
Leverage is designing and using every one of your offerings in multiple ways to get the largest reach and the highest return on investment. This graphic from the HBR article “Managing Your Innovation Portfolio” tells the story.
Innovation (new products) are rarely breakthrough ideas that fall from the sky. A full 70% of innovation comes from optimizing existing products for current markets.
In the Product Community, products are built on an agile, strategic product framework. A product framework is the process of building and delivering new products to our members communities and improving on and leveraging existing products.
A product framework helps us identify and leverage underutilized value (content, events, programs, etc.) in order to extend or mushroom its original intention. A product framework helps you expand possibilities, reach new markets, and diversify your revenue.
For instance, take annual conference. Nearly all associations run an annual conference. It is a revenue driver and an identity driver. It’s where associations convene at a common location to engage, connect, network, and learn.
Most annual conferences have standard fare like concurrent sessions, workshops, and keynotes. More extensive annual meetings can have interactive design sessions, collaborative simulations, games, or hands-on common experiences.
Selling recordings of the annual conference (something members seldom want to buy) is the traditional way of extending value. The new way is to think of the annual conference as an incubator and a launchpad to test new ideas and try new things.
Even successful and well-run cash cows are typically built for tactical execution not strategic evolution. Most association products are: (a) one and done, single use solutions with a limited life and (b) rigid, ingrained and hard to change or evolve.
It’s worth repeating. Products built on a product framework are, by design, leverageable and integrated allowing for ease of reuse.
Moreover, the product framework itself is repeatable and can be applied to all corners of your portfolio. Here are three additional highlights.
- Longitudinal Framework. The Product Community experience is built on a durable, longitudinal product framework.
- Productized Services. We argue that all associations build products; they do not deliver productized services. Building on a product framework and utilizing the three concepts we outline in this article will serve as a foundation for getting you there.
- Cross-Functional Teams. The Product Community creates value through a cross-functional team across many diverse areas of the association.
This table outlines how adopting a product community approach is substantially different from standard association practice.
In short, Product Communities enable associations to:
- Better understand and proactively approach the market through ongoing, focused member interactions
- Allow association teams to empathize with and understand the member community; to see the world through the member’s eyes
- Experiment, quickly and cheaply, with different solutions while observing how the member responds
- Solve the member’s problems
- Keep the member connected
A key step in the process of leveraging for scale is organizing our offerings in a cogent, easy-to-understand product portfolio.
Build a Product Portfolio
“It really was no miracle, what happened was just this.”
Harold Arlen, The Wizard of Oz.
Associations exist to create value for their communities.
We typically do this through intentional engagement and through offerings (events, membership, learning, publications, etc.). One way to leverage our value is to create a product portfolio.
A product portfolio is an approach to organizing your associations offerings in a way that can be strategic, value-driven, and market-centric.
Our offerings are not valuable unless member buyers are aware and can meaningfully engage with the intended value. This requires associations to develop and deliver products in interactive ways and diverse channels to a wider community.
It also requires associations to make choices based on useable insight.
A robust product portfolio helps get new, high-quality products to market efficiently and in anticipation of growing and diverse market needs.
Over time, your product portfolio contains only high-performing products. Initially, this may seem easy, but often it’s harder than you think.
How is this achieved?
- Pull together a diverse team. Ideally your team is cross-functional with a broad and diverse perspective on your association.
- List your products. Even if you don’t use this terminology, answer the question: what do we offer? Include all value-drivers, not just the tangible things you sell (this includes membership and sometimes volunteering).
- Talk to finance. What are people buying? Can they run reports to help you identify patterns? If you do not have one, create a simple taxonomy of product types (see the next section in this article for insight on how to do this).
- Identify the person or unit responsible. Who is responsible for each product?
- Describe your current product pipeline. This is the process you take to get from idea to execution on an existing or new product, program, or initiative.
- Understand the product life cycle. Your product life cycle is the length of time from when a product is introduced until you no longer offer it. This is one way to determine how vibrant and relevant your offerings are.
- Build logical connections. Find areas or commonality across the portfolio in order to find areas you can leverage. What content or programs could be reused?
- Conduct a stakeholder analysis. Define the stakeholders for each of your products. Can you map commonalities? Do you see patterns? How might you better serve your community more holistically?
- Team build. Use the product portfolio as a tool for team-building and to tease out product similarities.
- Review and keep current. Update the portfolio annually.
This table shows a small section of an example product portfolio.
Building an association-wide product portfolio is one way of creating a shared understanding of what we offer. This may sound overly simplistic, but it’s actually a broad take on our association’s value proposition.
What it can be is a test of your value proposition (see our article on “Getting New Association Products to Market” for insight on building a value proposition).
The outcomes of this exercise are the seeds for pushing you toward a system of superior value with the following outcomes:
- Each product (or product line) has a clear strategy (value proposition, persona map, buyer’s journey)
- Clarified product lines with identified interdependencies (answers: “what do we do?” for each market segment)
- Aligned pricing strategy across the portfolio (with a strong link to market positioning)
- A high-level product life cycle model
- Refined processes for getting good, in-demand ideas to market efficiently
- A simple product cost model
- A common, repeatable framework for new product creation
A next important step is to create and utilize a product taxonomy. This way, we can drill further into organizing our content, programs, and products into new products and experiences.
Utilize a Product Taxonomy
“Walking through a meadow calling the plants by name is like entering a room of friends.”
John Hildebrand, Mapping the Farm
Another thing we can do to leverage our value and extend our portfolio is to create a product taxonomy.
A product taxonomy is a structure to organize, name, and describe everything in your product portfolio in a logical way so that members can find what they want in the fewest clicks possible.
Adopting a product taxonomy will differentiate your association.
Taxonomies are masterful leverage tools that allow us to identify patterns, see interdependencies, and understand more clearly how to bundle, combine, or create product variants from your underutilized content or programming.
Generally, product taxonomies work as a product hierarchy that puts products into categories and utilizes tags or subject descriptors to group similar products into creative groupings.
- Product – Item offered for sale (even if free).
- Product line – Group of related products.
- Product variant – A product offered in different variations, i.e. color or size. Each variation can have its own price, delivery modality, or market.
- Product component – A piece of a product or the lowest, discrete product element that can be described.
- Product bundle – Several individual products offered as a combined package often to customers who value discounts, speed, or simplicity.
Here is an example of a product taxonomy in action.
Say you publish a journal. In this case, the journal is the product, which could belong to a product line called publications. An individual article would be considered the product component.
There are many possibilities for product variants. Here we create a bite-sized product called annotated excerpts which gives busy professionals a synopsis of key ideas from each issue of your journal.
A product bundle can be many things. For this example, we focus on a combination digital, print, and podcast subscription.
There are many benefits to adopting a product taxonomy for your association offerings:
- Clearly define, harness, and communicate customer value to generate revenue
- Improved and efficient allocation of scarce resources
- Greater understanding of the value of your portfolio (strategic, new, or legacy products)
- Helps with consistent and transparent prioritization
- Provides same-page clarity on what we do for the entire association
- Better ownership and proactive management of products.
Properly designed and executed a product taxonomy can create efficiencies that can be passed onto the member community.
The return will come in a crisp, disciplined, and consistent value proposition.
Integrating your taxonomy into your product portfolio allows for new opportunities. This is especially true for our next concept: multiple scale paths.
Leverage Multiple Scale Paths
“There’s more than one way to do things. There’s always different points of views and styles of pitching.”
A third way to leverage our good work is to conduct an ideation exercise in which we can brainstorm and identify the myriad ways to tease out and scale our value.
We call this Multiple Scale Paths. See graphic labeled The Reach of a Product.
We developed multiple scale paths, in part, as a way to leverage and build upon the other two concepts in this article: product portfolio and product taxonomy.
If we are intentional about understanding and engaging our community, we utilize a product framework to organize and build value, and invest in re-skilling staff and volunteers, we can become increasingly efficient, accurate, and relevant in the ways we create an association-wide culture of connection.
In the Product Community, we have identified twelve different ways to leverage a program, product, service, or piece of content.
That is, holistically conceived, properly designed, and sufficiently aligned, we can start to build products that have a unique combination of likability, performance, focus and reach.
The above graphic lays our 12 ways of scale a product; here are the accompanying descriptions.
- Location – Frames the physical locations or geographic markets a product can be sold or delivered.
- Package – Addresses the multiple ways a product can be packaged. This example includes: single product, as part of a bundle or pathway, or as part of a library. There are many more.
- Market – Defines the discrete current audiences in which we can market a product. At a medical association, this can mean clinicians or advanced practice providers, physicians, industry, patients, or inter-professional teams. These are just the broad markets for a single association. Given a sufficiently defined value proposition and focus, we can leverage our products to markets far outside the bread and butter core market.
- Specialty – Signifies market by area of speciality. In some ways, this is a narrow or niche market segment that has particular needs and could be marketed to as a discrete buyer. For instance, at an association that serves chest health, this can mean pulmonologists, critical care doctors, sleep medicine doctors, respiratory therapists, or tangent members of a healthcare team.
- Buyer – Defines the market by the size and fidelity of the buyer. For instance, it’s possible to position, market, or sell a product to individuals, teams, divisions, institutions, or consortia. Each of these can be a target market.
- Track – Defines a market by disease state, a discrete market slice that transcends professional expertise by drawing in healthcare teams interested in a specific disease state.
- Distribution Channel – Lays out all the channels that one can sell, market, or distribute a product. This can be 3rd party reseller, sales agent, approved partner, or license.
- Features – Frames the possible ways to define core and possible ways to extend the value of a particular product. Examples include: modular, facilitated, off shelf, live, tailored, interactive, broadcast, streamed, hands-on, or simulated.
- Modality – Lists all the ways that a product can be delivered such as: in-person, online, hybrid, on-demand, or gamified.
- Developmental – Frames products to beginner markets (101 content or programming) as well as advanced markets (401 content or programming) as well as anywhere in between (201, 301). Excellent for creating guided pathways or longitudinal learning journeys.
- When Offered – Conveys when a product is offered: now or live, recorded, spaced, ongoing, or lifetime access.
- Data – Frames, markets, and sells the data that is collected during the process of consuming a product, attending an event, or taking a course. Examples include analytics, outcomes, intelligence, or raw data.
Of course, identifying the myriad ways to scale a particular product is not the same thing as actually doing the work and achieving the results.
It takes a product strategy and it takes a clear investment in product development, new skills for staff, a bias for cross-functional collaboration, and the courage to work with volunteers in a focused and strategic way.
Example Leveraged Products
“When you are having fun, and creating something you love, it shows in the product.”
We end this article with fourteen examples of products that can be built on a product framework in the context of the Product Community.
Remember, new products are often (and should be) created by leveraging underutilized value.
As we pointed out at the beginning of this article, in the Product Community, we utilize a competency-based product framework to build new products in groups of engaged, innovative peers. These are the Product Community differentiators:
- Deep and ongoing knowledge of the membership community.
- Integrated value creation in the conception, design, development, delivery, and performance.
- Repeatable and reusable across your product portfolio.
- Resulting in an engaged and healthy culture focused on durable engagement and longitudinal momentum.
- A sole focus on growth, which drives new and diversified revenue.
This list of products have been leveraged from existing value and can also be leveraged themselves to create additional spinoffs, new products, and endless engagement opportunities.
- E-Learning Library. Collection of curated content tailored to your needs. Can be delivered in varying lengths bundled by theme.
- Tool Subscription. Practical tools to engage the learner and to foster problem solving and longitudinal engagement. Can be delivered to your email box. Can include video intros and linked to questions.
- Interactive, Orientation Game. Help socialize new members by gamifying boring content.
- Software. App designed to create community or distribute content.
- E-Learning Short Courses. For fee courses themed by hot topic, foundational knowledge, or required learning needed for continuing ed.
- Tool Subscription or Maturity Model Suite. Assessment rubrics for learning journeys.
- Sponsored Podcast. Bite-sized or mid-sized, drawn from video content.
- Question of the Day (for associations that have CE or test taking requirements). A bank of questions randomized + delivered in lots of different ways (text, email, social media, or mobile app like QStream).
- Introduction to the Field. A short-series of informal videos with basic production to draw people. Can include interaction, questions, follow-up phone calls, etc.
- An Academy or Fellowship Program. A premium priced cohort program for young professionals. Longitudinal in nature, anchored by authentic engagement, and includes a required outcome (thought piece).
- Connector Club. A quarterly check-in phone call from a veteran in the field. Could be linked to programmatic inputs and outputs or simply a nice way to deliver a lo-fi, high-touch connective community.
- Meeting of the Minds. A quarterly interdisciplinary think tank in which leaders from the field come together to challenge the paradigm and envision the future. Outcomes could include an annual report, insight to the board, or way to create a powerful, longitudinal community.
- Crowdsourced How it Works. Templated key concepts presented by experts in the field; can be videotaped, bite-sized, and delivered in lots of interesting ways.
- Innovation Contest. Incentivizing creative idea creation.
If you are interested in association innovation, growing or diversifying your revenue, extending your engagement, or simply building new products in a high-impact, creative, and collaborative environment, we encourage you to check out the Product Community.
About the Author
James Young is founder and chief learning officer of the product community®. Jim is an engaging trainer and leading thinker in the worlds of associations, learning communities, and product development. Prior to starting the product community®, Jim served as Chief Learning Officer at both the American College of Chest Physicians and the Society of College and University Planning.
Please contact me for a conversation: email@example.com.
About the Author
James Young is founder and chief learning officer of the Product Community®. Jim is an engaging trainer and leading thinker in the worlds of associations, learning communities, and product development. Prior to starting the Product Community®, Jim served as Chief Learning Officer at both the American College of Chest Physicians and the Society of College and University Planning.