Innovation: Adoption and Diffusion in the Age of Social Media


innovationIn today’s edition of Back to Marketing Basics I’d like to talk about innovation, more specifically about adoption and diffusion. Adoption and diffusion are arguably more important than new product development aspects of innovation because that’s where the rubber meets the road — so to speak — and any innovation that doesn’t plan for adoption and diffusion is doomed to failure even if the product itself is stellar. If you’d like to learn more about the innovation process, including ideation, you can read my overview here.

Adoption and diffusion

To my way of thinking, diffusion is the macro process of products moving through a market, while adoption is the micro process of individual acceptance of a new product. Obviously then, adoption is necessary (and the driver) of diffusion. The image below, courtesy of Chris Maloney and building on the diffusion principles of Richard Cialdini, Ev Rogers (author of Diffusion of Innovations and the accepted father of diffusion), Forrester Research and Malcolm Gladwell, shows the relationship between the related concepts of adoption and diffusion.

adoption diffusion


Adoption is a personal state of mind — being innovative, but it’s also a function of your connectedness to other people. Not surprisingly, Ev Rogers (father of diffusion theory) was a communications expert, not an engineer or even a marketing person. The more connected you are to folks who are more innovative, the earlier you’ll adopt an innovation, all things being equal, because they share their experiences with the innovation through both verbal and non-verbal communication.

Obviously, in the age of social media, opportunities to observe adoption abound in the pictures and videos friends share, their recommendations, even their social check-ins and other types of shares.

Innovation diffusion

The concept of innovation diffusion draws upon the diffusion concept from physics and chemistry where the notion is that liquids move through porous materials at a defined rate based on the porosity of the material — ie liquids move more quickly through paper than rock (OK, I’ve oversimplified the concept, but I don’t think the nuances of diffusion add much to the analogy).

Innovation diffusion, then, spreads innovations through a market with some consumers being more receptive to the innovation (innovators) than others. Diffusion forms the familiar bell-shaped curve as adoption sequentially spreads through a marketplace. Inherently missing from the concept of diffusion of innovations, however, is the notion that some consumers resist innovations and will never adopt — non-adopters.

As an example, my own mother never used the internet for anything beyond email and firmly believed her banking information was somehow less safe if she did her banking online. In contrast, I do most everything online and almost never do something in the real world that isn’t more efficient in the virtual one. So, even having enhanced communication through seeing and hearing about the innovation can’t overcome an inherent non-adoption bias.

Building successful adoption and diffusion

I’m an active member of several innovation groups (meetups) as an innovator myself (I’m a co-founder at a company and we’re launching our new product, in mid-January). Unfortunately, most of the startup demos show they lack much marketing effort, which is especially true when you consider their plans for overcoming resistance to adoption.

This is a “build it and they will come” mentality that often translates to failure. Of course, there are obvious exceptions, like Facebook, but they’re the exceptions that prove the rule and I wouldn’t recommend you follow their example.

As you plan for the introduction of your innovation, don’t forget to think about adoption and diffusion. In fact, innovative products need to include innovativeness as part of the persona they develop. Innovators also need to consider how to motivate the types of conversations about their product that speed adoption and diffusion.

Speeding adoption and diffusion

In general, folks prefer the status quo — they want things to stay exactly the way they are. Overcoming this inertia, more so than outright resistance, is your major job as an innovator. Here are some strategies for speeding the adoption of your innovation:

  1. Understand how personality affects adoption. According to Rogers’s book, Diffusion of Innovations, innovators and early adopters share important characteristics that differentiate them from later adopter categories. They are:
    1. younger
    2. better educated
    3. more affluent
    4. better connected — read more, information seekers, share new things
    5. they’re extroverts
    6. they’re willing to take risks
  2. Understand how innovation characteristics affect adoption. Not all innovations face the same hurdles. Product factors that affect adoption are:
    1. advantage — how much better is the product than other available products. Obviously, the more advantage a product has over existing products, the easier adoption will be.
    2. compatibility — how well does the product fit with others the consumer uses. Consumers resist change so the less they have to change to use your product, the easier adoption will be. So, if the consumer keeps existing products and habits, they’re more likely to adopt your innovation. For instance, Blue Ray players spread fairly quickly because they also play your library of existing DVD format disks.
    3. complexity — how difficult is it to learn to use the product. Making a product easy (even intuitive) greatly speeds adoption. Just ask Apple whose products feature great user experiences right out of the box — my 6-month-old grandson loves my iPad.
    4. trialability — can folks reduce their risk by trying out the product before buying. Giving potential buyers experience with your product speeds adoption. That’s why so many innovations offer a trial period or use a fremium model allowing users to experience a limited version of the product before upgrading to a paid version.
    5. observability — can others see you using the product. Products used in private spread much slower than those used in public because others see them using the product.
  3. Building adoption and diffusion into marketing plans. Not only do innovators need to build adoption and diffusion into their personas, but they also need to adjust their marketing plans based on an understanding of the adoption and diffusion processes. Here are some specific considerations:
    1. Product characteristics that speed adoption (see above) should be baked into your innovation. Many innovators inherently do this, putting emphasis on user experience and offering free trials of their products because they follow best practices for lean startups. But, in a world full of “me, too” products, I don’t see sufficient consideration of the relative advantage of a specific innovation over existing products. For instance, dining apps. Face it, if I’ve already got a similar app on my phone, I’m not gonna download yours unless you offer more value than the one that’s already there. And, protect your advantage or someone else will create a better one before you know it.
    2. Match your communication to the stage of your adoption/ diffusion cycle. In the early days, your communication must focus on innovators/ early adopters. Check out the characteristics above and focus on these characteristics in your communication. In the early stages, your innovation needs to build an understanding of your product among these folks so, instead of promoting your brand, you’ll need to focus on explaining what your product does — using an education focus rather than a brand focus. Remember, consumers buy solutions, not products, so be clear about what problem you solve. Doing demos, guest posts, and courting press with non-promotional education pieces works best at this stage. For a startup with limited resources, focusing on a small market might pay higher dividends than trying to reach the entire market. For instance, with our new product (as with Facebook, Twitter, and several other successful startups) we’re focusing on the geographic area surrounding our offices — DC metro area. This allows us to reach potential users multiple times, which is what it takes to convert folks early in the adoption cycle (or anytime for that matter. On average, someone needs to see your ad 3-5 times before it makes an impact).
    3. Consider the process consumers go through in adoption (see below). Match your communication style to where consumers are in this process. As diffusion progresses, recognize that you’ll have different groups of consumers (early majority, late majority, laggards) moving through the process at their unique pace so you’ll likely need different types of communication aimed at folks in each stage of the process.
      1. Awareness
      2. Interest
      3. Evaluation
      4. Trial
      5. Adoption
    4. Enlist innovators and early adopters as brand ambassadors. Establish a system to reward innovators and early adopters who advocate for adoption. These rewards might be tacit ones — ie. using gamification to award points based on sharing your message — or tangible — ie. providing discounts or other monetary incentives for sharing. These folks are your best bet for spreading your innovation.

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