Product ManagementProduct MarketingSaeedStrategy

How to deal with a Zombie product

by Saeed Khan

zombie2If you turn on your television or go to the movies, or read books, it seems like zombies are everywhere.  And while those zombies are fictional, there is one type of zombie that is all too real, and that we unfortunately have to sometimes deal with. That zombie is not going to eat your brain, though you may lose some brain cells in dealing with it. That zombie is the “Zombie product”.

What is a Zombie Product?
As you know a zombie is someone who is neither dead, nor alive….undead as they say. A zombie product is a product that is not successful by any measure (very few customers, little market share, lacking needed functionality, buggy etc.) but also cannot be “killed” or removed from the market because of some reason or another. Usually the reason for keeping an otherwise failing product on the shelf is that it is viewed as “strategic” or “important” in some way to those higher up in the company.

The product is usually important enough to them that it needs to continue to be presented to the market, but not important enough to  devote funding in order to fix the issues it has, add needed functionality, market it to increase market share etc.

You may have just joined a company and were made responsible for it, or your company had a reorg and you drew the short straw or maybe you’re just a glutton for punishment, and you volunteered to take this product on. Regardless of the reason, this not-so-beautiful baby is yours. Now what do you do? You can’t bury it, but there are no development resources to fix issues and bring it back to life.

1. Treat it like an early stage product

If you’ve ever worked with early stage products — i.e. with few or no customers — you were in a similar situation to the zombie. That early stage product was weak or missing functionality and didn’t address many use cases, if any, well. But, that product had some core value to some group of people and that’s who you identified and targeted as early customers.

Use the same approach with the zombie. It’s not going to appeal to everyone, but it must have some core value proposition, even in limited use cases, that is meaningful to certain groups of people. Who are those people and what is that meaning/value?

2. Find the core value from current users

It’s easy to say something trite like “just talk to users” and find out why they value the product. If you are lucky, then some simple conversations may find the answers you are looking for. But what you really need to do is find the core problems they are addressing that *necessitate* using your (undead) product.  Get inside THEIR brains (pun intended), and get a clear picture of  why they they put up with the product’s limitations or issues.  Listen carefully to what they say, because something they might not think is important may be the key to defining a broader core value that could be applicable to broader audiences.

3. Keep the use cases narrow and focused

Once you get that core value identified, define a small number of specific use cases for the product that your sales and marketing teams (and prospects) can understand. Keep those use cases narrow and well focused. Given that you have no resources to fix issues, don’t set yourself up for problems later.  Remember, the company still needs to maintain appearances with respect to the product, and so the product needs to be relevant to sales and marketing. i.e. the company, and thus you, cannot simply ignore the product.

Those use cases form the basis for all downstream go-to-market activities. All sales/marketing collateral, training, messaging etc. should be focused on the core value and use cases. This is certainly true for most products, but especially true for zombies. You don’t want to waste any extra cycles on anything that is ancillary to your goal.  No extra effort expended. No extra cycles wasted.

That’s it. Until the company decides to either kill the product or invest resources, there are few other paths to follow.

Have you ever managed a zombie product? How did  you handle it? Let us know.


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About the author

Saeed Khan is a founder and Managing Editor of On Product Management, and has worked for the last 20 years in high-technology companies building and managing market leading products. He also speaks regularly at events on the topic of product management and product leadership.