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  • Writer's pictureBoaz Chen

Early adopters are not innovators!

Choosing the right audience for your new product is crucial. And the tendency to choose wrong is huge…

Back in 1962 Everett Rogers published his book Diffusion of Innovation and described how new technologies are adopted in the market. Although his research was on product categories and not on specific products or brands, it is relevant to technological companies that make new innovative products.

Recap - adopter types

Rogers describes the 5 types of customers, and the process of diffusion amongst them.

Innovators are the first individuals to adopt an innovation. They are risk takers, who love to experiment with new products and show-off with the newest models. They don’t need clear evidence of value because the sheer novelty is what attracts them and too much buzz around a new product repulses them (it’s old news..).

Early Adopters are the second fastest category of individuals who adopt an innovation. They are considered the ‘sain-innovators’, those who won’t sleep in front of a store to be the first ones with a new widget, but will love to try it out.

They are opinion leaders because their choices are more rational. They are open to innovations, but look for the intrinsic value it brings.

And there’s the mass market. The majority who are reluctant to try innovation before they see it work and gather satisfied customer base (and well, it is not that innovative anymore…).

[Btw, don’t take the numbers too seriously, they’re just the standard deviation on a normal distribution, meaning most of the people are average as it is with any trait…]

We can summarize these types by their attitude towards these three dimensions. Highlighting the dimension that lead decision-making for each type of personality:

The use by technology companies

Mainstream traditional marketers are used to analyse and target the mass market, since that’s where the big money lays, but technological companies learned that for new products this won’t work.

Market penetration of innovative products has to start with the innovators and early adopters, since they are open to try new products and are the ones to give the social endorsement needed to sell to the mass market. The visionaries will be the ones willing to use a buggy product, see beyond an ugly interface and eventually they are the evangelists who will propagate the product to the mass market.

The Open Source movement, User Centric Design approach and Agile development practice took it a step forward, and brought users to take part of the product development rather than just target them when marketing the final product.

In startups it’s even more important due to the lack of resources. Steve Blank and the Lean Startup methodology stress the need to engage with customers from day-one to build better understanding of the need and product-market fit.

Choosing the wrong audience

So here is the trap - since getting to engaged first customers is evidently so important, and since innovators are so happy to try new stuff, it's very common to see startups turning to friends and forums seeking for first users. Many launch a product on sites like Product Hunt that are specifically targeting innovators who are eager for new widgets.

This practice ignores the problems we described before:

1. Need - Innovators enthusiasm from the novelty does not represent a real need. Their cheering may obscure the sad truth about weak needs - Needs that are not strong enough for early adopter to start using the product.

2. Marketing - The ease of finding innovators (who practically look for you) hides the subtleties you need to learn to market to value-seekers. It will bias your marketing towards innovation rather then value, toward the solution rather than the problem.

3. Feedback - Techies are innovators who love to offer improvement suggestions. These suggestions are very different from the needs of regular users and may divert your efforts to the wrong features. For example they tend to push for more functionality (instead of the simplicity needed), push the boundaries of your solutions (and live happily with unacceptable instability) etc.

4. Evangelism - If you hoped they’ll spread the word about your incredible solution, you may be disappointed: They will give it a quick Hurray, and move on to the next thing, and since they are known for that, people don’t take their applause too seriously and thus they are not much of opinion leaders

What to do?

There are many techniques that can help you focus your reach to early adapters and avoid the innovators. Here are some examples.

Value over Novelty
What's more important?

When conducting field studies and interviews, focus on the problem before you talk about the solution, to validate the need first.

When you survey existing customers, ask questions like “how does it help you?” before you collect improvement ideas.

Target your ads to people in need ,and talk about the value not the innovation.

Attend conferences of your market segment and refrain from the vanity fair of innovation conferences that draws innovation seekers.


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