In the communications world, most of us are familiar with Everett Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovation theory. And even if the official name doesn’t ring a bell, it’s a concept that we’ve all seen play out many a time.
We’ve all heard about the innovators who will spend the night in line waiting for the latest version of a product to come out or will use the beta version of Program XYZ 6 months before its official release date just because it’s new and exciting. We’re all friends with someone in the mainstream who will buy a trendy gadget just because their favorite celebrity endorsed it or because all of their friends have it. And I’m certain we all have that one laggard in our family who still stubbornly insists on using their land line or flip phone rather than embracing a smartphone, even though they are so widely accepted that it’s almost impossible to avoid. (Looking at you, Dad!) If you can relate to any of these scenarios, then you’ve witnessed first-hand the diffusion of an innovation.
So if you’re still confused about what it means, the diffusion theory is basically this:
Rogers divided society into groups based on their behavioral patterns when a new product (innovation) is released into the market. People fall into one of five categories – the innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority or laggards. The categories are also divided in percentages over time:
A small percentage of innovators and early adopters generate awareness for the innovation, and if it catches on, the mainstream majority will begin to adopt it rapidly, increasing the percentages. When the trendiness dies down, growth slows and eventually plateaus, leaving the remaining laggards who have yet to even adopt the product at all.
In a study I was reading earlier, the author spelled out an idea that really resonated with me: since diffusion of innovations takes place in the social system, it is influenced by the social structure of the social system. The author went on to point out that Rogers also claims in his writings that the nature of the social system affects individuals’ innovativeness, which is the main criterion for categorizing adopters.
So what does it all mean? I can think of three important lessons to take away from this:
1) It means that in order for the diffusion theory to be most effective, we as creators need to design our innovations and products based on the utility and benefit that our society members need and desire.
When taking the diffusion theory into consideration, you have to remember one important factor – humans beings aren’t predictable! Anything from cultures, values and religious norms are major influencers of whether a society will adopt of reject a trend, product, etc. If we want diffusion of an innovation to be successful, the most basic questions of relevancy to the social structure must be answered: How will the innovation improve what a society already has or is currently doing? Is the innovation something that society members can use in their everyday lives? Is it simple to use? The answers to these questions will not be the same for every social system. So, in short, it means we need data. Once we’ve got the data, we’ve established grounds for understanding how and why a society is (or is not) likely to adopt an innovation, and we can make an educated guess about our next steps in the creation and development process.
2) It means that we as marketers need to segment our marketing efforts because not all people are the same.
This one is almost a no-brainer. Of course we are all different! Even within a defined social system, we all have different personality traits and characteristics. We already knew that before we even started talking about diffusion of innovations. So after we gather our data on a social system, we then have to segment our audience and decide which segment we wish to attract. And the key is engaging with the right group at the right time in the diffusion process.
When Rogers developed the five categories of adopters, he also came up with several defining characteristics that are key to each group. Each of these personal characteristics play off of each other and have somewhat of a domino effect. For example, the innovators are defined as “venturesome”-people who enjoy being one the cutting edge. The are infatuated with the possibilities that an innovation could bring and are eager to try them out. The early adopters are also on the eager side, but they are respected for their judicious and well-informed decision making and base their decisions off the data provided by the innovators; needless to say, most opinion leaders are found in this group. The early majority are conformity-loving members who simply just want to stay in step with every one else (or “keeping up with the Joneses” as we say here in the South). The late majority tends to be more cautious and unsure about new innovations, but will give into adoption from contextual pressure, such as fear of losing social status or economic viability. Laggards are often more traditional and out-of-the-loop in their social systems. They are usually very suspicious of new innovations and enjoy the shelter of the bubble that they live in; sometimes, they may not even be aware that the product exists.
As another blogger wisely stated, it is important not to see any of these groups as “good or bad” but rather a continuum of people who all have a part to play in the change process. But obviously, it doesn’t make sense to market an innovation the same way to an innovator or and early adopter you would to a laggard. Different segments of a social system will respond differently to different marketing strategies. If you are successful in your marketing, you will eventually need to create an appeal to each category at least once in your product’s lifetime.
3) It means that we as communications professionals have to find the right channels to promote diffusion in ways that appeal to our social system.
The diffusion theory originated during a time before the Internet (how did people live?!) In the 60s, the best means of communication was through channels like the newspaper, television and radio. But today in almost any social system in the U.S., we are all about the Internet – websites, blogs, email, social media, etc. The effect is the immediacy of how fast news can travel- things can trend worldwide in hour. However, in other social systems, there may be more value placed on face-to-face interaction. Going back to lesson #1, you can find these trends in the data you collect and decide the best ways to most effectively spread awareness for an innovation. Knowing where your target market “hangs out” is important to deciding the best channels to reach them. If your target market isn’t on Facebook, then how will a Facebook campaign help the diffusion of an innovation?
What other lessons can we take away from Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovation theory? Comment below to leave your response!
Satin, I. (2006). Detailed review of Rogers’ diffusion of innovations theory and educational technology-related studies based on Rogers’ theory. The Turkish Online Journal of Educational Technology. 5, 2, 3.