Innovation & Early Adopters: Beyond The Bell Curve
When it comes to product, service or marketing design, following the bell curve can sometimes lead you astray. This is certainly the case for businesses and brands courting the highly coveted, often elusive consumer category known as early adopters.
Early adopters are typically described as curious, adventurous consumers who buy first, talk fast and spread the word to others about the pros and/or cons of what they have purchased. According to Everett M. Rogers in Diffusion of Innovations, the landmark 1962 textbook that popularized the study of how new ideas and technologies spread through societies, early adopters make up 13.5% of the consumers who will adopt an innovation.
If you’re facing the bell curve, they occupy the initial climb upwards, right after the 2.5% of those people who create an innovation. Following them is the early majority (34%), consumers who make their moves through the market more carefully, but tend to adopt a new product more quickly than most. At the hump of the bell curve is the late majority (34%), consumers who adopt a new product only after the majority has weighed in on its value. Finally, sloping downwards are laggards (16%), the critics, curmudgeons and haters who do their best to resist making the purchase but will eventually do so.
The problem with this bell curve is that it is a mathematical model, one that was never designed to represent the social context of innovation, the diffusion of innovation or early adopters. In looking to crack the code and harness the coveted word-of-mouth that can be generated by the approval of early adopters, designers, brand managers and researchers need to look beyond the numbers. Without a deep understanding of and appreciation for early adopters, they risk operating in a cultural void where assumptions can lead to product ideas that have no relationship to reality.
Those assumptions can be traps, particularly if chasing numbers on a bell curve leads to designing products that target only early adopters and, in the process, destabilizes brand identity or alienates core consumers. We’ve identified potential traps that brands and businesses often make when pursuing early adopters.
1. Early adopters are 13.5% of the general population.
This is a common misconception. Rogers’ curve isn’t saying that there are 880 million early adopters in the world; it’s a visualization of the13.5% of a population that – in the context of an innovation – adopts early. Early adopters are not a demographic, a cohort or a segment; they are a cultural phenomenon identifiable only by how they perform.
2. Early adopters are opinion leaders.
This is not always true. It’s only true if the early and late majorities actually follow the lead of early adopters who feel compelled to talk about a new product. If they don’t, the first-to-buy crowd is just that. Or they’re the suckers who bought HD DVD, Motorola’s ROKR E1 or Windows Millennium Edition.
3. Early adopter word-of-mouth is the goose that lays golden eggs.
It can be. But six months later – if they discover a flaw in your product, get bored with it or see everyone else jumping en masse on to it – early adopters often drop an innovation. The majority notices and they too might abandon ship.
4. Early adopters are fiends for the new and sexy.
This is true if new and sexy are part of a product category that fulfills their interests and/or needs. But new and sexy exist across categories, and early adopters drift through categories depending on what they need or are interest in. One consumer’s treasure could be another’s trash. Context determines if an early adopter of one category will consider a product in another category new and sexy enough to be relevant, and worthy of purchase.
5. Early adopters are cool.
Some are, some aren’t. Confusing early adopters with ‘cool’ and the fluid, contextual boundaries that define it – or any other litmus test used to define a market research cohort – is a strategic misstep. Rather than seeking to identify cool cohorts who might spread the word about a new product, it is more useful to identify the product categories that cohorts consider cool as well as the degrees to which their talk may or may not be generated in the context of a new Twinkie flavor vs. a new iPhone application.
To help interested parties get over the bell curve, avoid the pitfalls of false assumptions, and begin to appreciate the context and complexity that exists beyond the numbers, we have compiled a series key insights garnered from our team’s extensive research on early adopter culture in the U.S., U.K. and Canada.
FUTURE VALUE AND POSSIBILITY
Early adopters have a greater degree of product prescience than most consumers. They look at something new and say to themselves, “This is going to…” or “I can use this for…” or “What if I?” They recognize the different or latent values and benefits of a product as it relates to functionality (How am I going to use this?), usability (How will this work?) and sociability (What’s this going to do for me in public?). Intrigued by possibility and familiar with the challenges in a product category through previous experience and research, they are more willing to absorb the risks that are associated with purchasing something in its 1.0 or beta phase. In fact, without the sense of a first frontier being designed into or lying dormant in a new product, many who would be early adopters are less apt to purchase something that is merely a tweak on an existing concept.
PLAY AND MASTERY
To forge into that final frontier, early adopters experiment with innovations. They engage in play to master a product. They go beyond instruction manuals to the guts of a product and engage in practices of deconstruction, alteration and customization. They collaborate with their trusted networks of like-minded alchemists to learn what others have done with and thought about the new product. And they go to their imagination where the possibilities await them through play. Their drive to push the boundaries of an innovation is driven by the personal and the public: early adopters tend to be curious and adventurous people; many derive great pleasure and personal satisfaction from displaying the knowledge and status that comes with mastering a new product.
INNOVATION AND THE BODY
As any wise brand sensei will tell you, the best brands often function as extensions of a consumer’s personality or as communicative symbols to express identity, social membership, cultural affiliation, prestige, desire, priorities and more. Brands help us perform and display ourselves as we walk through a world where the tiniest of symbolic flourishes can make all the difference in standing out and being counted. One way to attract early adopters through design is to consider the degree to which an innovation will engage consumers by making their performances more embodied and more physical. During the inspection and discovery of a new product, early adopters consider how visual and/or tactile features add value to products by helping them navigate realms of “How?” and “What If?” through physical play and performance. Products with new, sense-centric ways of ‘doing’ that challenge the interaction status quo will stand above and apart from others, but only if they tap into intuitive or latent ways of doing. Consider the thumb stroke on an iPhone, the physicality of the Wii and how their accelerometers connect hands and eyes so that users navigate and dominate the digital world through embodied, analog performances.
THE EXCLUSIVITY CYCLE
Experiences of exclusivity motivate many early adopters to take risks on a new product. There is a thrill (and status) to being the first to explore, adopt and adapt. Take the underground club DJ, the first adopter and ultimate tastemaker for an early majority that followed his product lead in music on the dance floor throughout the latter half of the 20th Century. Like most early adopters, his exclusivity cycle begins with attraction and anticipation: hearing through the DJ network about a new music genre or crazy track and imagining how it will fit into the context of his set. This is followed by pre-release research: digging deeper into the source, style and sound by hunting down details through niche media, word-of-mouth and social connections. Then comes ownership, play and mastery: purchasing a limited release 12” record, playing it and (hopefully) rocking it like nobody’s business. Finally, there is the possibility of rejection and release: somewhere between that track being released on CD (for the early majority), radio (for the late majority) or the soundtrack to a car ad (for the laggards), the cool factor is gone and the DJ moves on to pursuing the next exclusive sound. By that time, he has already told his followers on the dance floor that the track is dead and they too move on to the next new thing.
Believe it or not, you can learn a lot about early adopter retail behavior from Shark Week. What, you ask? Well, how about….
• the never-ending search for the richest source of product
• the subtle forms of communication that pass between members of a herd about where to find product and how best to consume it
• the confident knowledge that once they have arrived at their destination few (if any) other consumers can compete with them
• the constant and voracious appetite for new product.
In exploring the ocean of innovation, the channels most frequented by early adopters function, like Discovery, as destinations for learning. Like feeding grounds for sharks, they are social places to exchange knowledge and experience about what it means to be a member of the species and how to perform that membership. When seeking to decode the culture of early adopter retail, it is critical to understand three key and related areas.
• Interaction competency, the know-how required to socialize and communicate in a specific social context. By virtue of their interest, research and/or previous experience, early adopters are proficient in the rituals and decorum of retail behavior related to a product category.
• Language constituency, the subtle or seismic shifts in consumer vernacular that transcend traditional market research segmentation models to manifest within a specific product category. Talk is never cheap, and early adopters prove and earn the privileges of membership in retail spaces through the language of product knowledge.
• Cultural capital, the display of knowledge and status that comes from owning and using a product first. To cultivate and display their cultural capital, early adopters often gather in channels where staff and customers are equally adept in participating in a feeding frenzy over product knowledge.
In seeking to climb the bell curve, many brands and businesses limit their interest in and investigation of early adopters to their capacity for broadcasting – their ability to transmit viral-like information and excitement about a new product to a next wave of consumers. Whether through old media (e.g. hipster print), new media (e.g. Twitter) or even street level word-of-mouth, the cultural capital cultivated by early adopters and recognized by the early majority makes them trusted sources of information, opinion-formers and co-authors of new knowledge on what’s hot and what’s not.
In recognizing the potential value of early adopters in the launch of a new product, many brands and businesses want to bum rush the bell curve and get as quickly as possible to this feature of early adopter culture. But to focus on designing or leveraging word-of-mouth at the expense of not investing more resources and research in the other features of early adopter culture would be a major, if not fatal, flaw. Talk – especially good talk – isn’t cheap, and it doesn’t come freely. Nor does it come first.