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Diffusion of Innovation: Getting past the first wave of innovators and early adopters to reach the tipping point

By James Roumeliotis

Diffusion of Innovation is a theory which explains how, why, and at what rate new ideas, including technology, spread. The concept was conceived by Everett Rogers, a professor of communication studies, which also inspired his book “Diffusion of Innovations” first published in 1962. It is considered one of the oldest theories in social science. Professor Rogers popularized the use of this premise with the intention of explaining how over time an idea or product gains momentum and grows in use and popularity among a specific population. Consequently, Diffusion is the process by which an Innovation is communicated through certain channels over time among the members of a social system.

What is it?

Diffusion research examines how ideas are spread among groups of people and focuses on the conditions that increase or decrease the prospect that a new idea, an innovation, product or practice, will be embraced by a certain population or society.  This concept ought to be taken in consideration when launching a new product if it is to succeed because no matter how good and innovative a new product is, it is very likely that a few people will adopt it just because it is new or novel.  The initial trend of those who adopt the change or innovation are called the “Innovators.” They represent about 2.5% of the population.

The next level and surge of people represents about 13% who will adopt an innovation, and these are referred to as the “Early Adopters.” Beyond these first two waves is the next portion of the population who represent the tipping point for a system. The tipping point is the moment of truth, the breaking point, and highlight. These are not the easy ones, as the law of diffusion of innovation tells us that you have to comprise between 15% and 18% of a population to accept an idea before you hit the important tipping point. That said, you must get past the first wave of Innovators and Early Adopters so as to accomplish the tipping point. Within the organization, according to Simon Sinek, author of five books, including ‘Start With Why’ and ‘The Infinite Game’: “If you are trying to get employees to embrace a new direction or innovation, it is even more crucial to engage people in the why of the initiative and not just the how.

Why is this beneficial?

The Diffusion of Innovation theory benefits marketers by helping them understand how trends occur. Moreover, it benefits companies in assessing the likelihood of success or failure of their new product or service.

How is it applied?

For starters, it is essential to determine where the majority of the target audience falls as this will indicate their key motivators.  Those insights will help determine how the product is marketed toward them. 

1. Innovators: Innovators are a minor group of people that constantly explore new ideas including technology products. These are the people who are influential and responsible for the creation of products that will then go through diffusion of adoption.

2. Early Adopters: Early adopters are considered as opinion leaders or influencers. They are open minded to change, and often share positive testimonials and feedback about innovations that have left them satisfied, as well as feedback regarding how new products could be improved.

3. Early Majority: People that fall in the early majority category of adoption are basically followers of the early adopters. They take the opinions of the early adopters seriously. As a result, they are likely to perform behaviors such as reading reviews prior to purchasing a product. 

4. Late Majority: People in the late majority category of adoption are the skeptical ones who are not very familiar or comfortable with change. Quite often, those in this late majority category will only accept new products or innovations when they begin to feel pressure from those around them making them feel as if they would be left behind if they do not embrace the new products or innovations.

5. Laggards: They are the most conservative of the bunch. They only embrace new products or innovations when there is no alternative to doing so and often are persuaded to accept by facts found through their own research and reading reviews. Another common motivator for this group is the pressure felt by the other adopter groups.

If you are launching a new product, such as software, you can use the Diffusion of Innovation concept to help you identify the most ideal marketing strategy and approach for each group/category. Although the Adoption theory is beneficial when looking at new product launches, it can be equally useful when launching existing products or services into a new market.

The following is an example of how this concept can be applied to digital marketing strategies (credit: smartinsights.com)
Launching new software to the different groups.
  • Innovator: Show the software on key software sites such as Techcrunch, or Mashable. Providing marketing material on the website, with relevant information and lead to potential sales with downloads.
  • Early Adopter: Create guides and add to the major software sites, providing marketing material such as case studies, Guides and FAQs.
  • Early Majority: Blogger outreach with guest blog posts and provide links to social media pages, key facts and figures, and ‘how to’ YouTube videos.
  • Late Majority: Encourage reviews, comparisons and share press commentary on your website. Provide a press section and social proof with information and links to reviews, testimonials, third party review sites etc
  • Laggards: It’s probably not worth trying to appeal to this group!

The take-away

The diffusion of innovation is important to marketers and innovators because it considers adoption in context of a larger social system. The first two groups on the diagram (the “Innovators” and the “Early Adopters”) are the only ones willing to accept the risk of purchasing a product first, whereas, the other/subsequent groups are willing to wait and have others they trust try it first prior to making a purchase commitment themselves.

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Sources: Rogers, E.M. (1976). New Product Adoption and Diffusion. Journal of Consumer Research. (March). p290-301.

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