Just as the product life cycle has a typical bell-shaped pattern, there is a predictable—and similar-shaped—pattern of buying, or adoption, when it comes to new products. This customer adoption pattern is important because it can be used to inform marketing decisions.
Common sense suggests that not everyone will buy a new product at the same time. Some will rush out and buy first or try to get an early version of a product before it is widely available. Others will wait until many people have adopted a product before they reluctantly consider the purchase. As early as 1962, Everett Rogers recognized this phenomenon and described it as the “diffusion of innovation.” He developed a theory to support it, explaining how, why, and at what rate an innovation will be adopted by participants in a social system. The theory divides adopters into different groups with shared characteristics, as shown in Figure 1, below:
The purple line on the graph indicates the percentage of the market that will buy a new product in each phase of product adoption. You can see from the graph that there is a small number of innovators, and a large number of early majority and late majority adopters. The yellow line on the graph shows the cumulative market share gained. In other words, the yellow line shows the total of the market share gained at the end of each phase, adding together the share from each prior phase.
Consumer Adoption Patterns
Innovators are willing to take risks and are viewed by their peers as risk-takers. Innovators’ risk tolerance enables them to adopt technologies that may ultimately fail, and they typically need sufficient financial resources to absorb these failures. Innovators tend to be very tuned into market leaders and the latest developments. To stay on top of current trends, they research products thoroughly using “in-the-know” sources such as expert blogs and product forums. Innovators are willing to pay a premium to be the first to try a new offering. Although this is the smallest segment in the diffusion-of-innovation theory, if innovators approve of a product, it marks an important gateway toward generating broader market acceptance.
Early adopters have a high degree of opinion leadership among the adopter categories. Others look to this group to road-test and validate new products. As a significantly larger segment than innovators, early adopters are influential in shaping the opinions of later adopters. Therefore it is essential to achieve high customer satisfaction with this segment. Early adopters are more aggressive than later adopters, but they are judicious about their adoption choices. Early adopters don’t look to be first at any cost, so they actively consider risk as part of the decision-making process. To illustrate, classic innovator behavior is to camp out overnight for the first showing of a new film, while early adopters read the reviews before deciding to see a film during the opening weekend.
Early majority adopters are more risk-averse than early adopters, so they wait for the wrinkles to be ironed out of new products before making a purchase. Early majority buyers tend to seek a lot of opinion and validation to guide their choices: they want to know that the early adopters and innovators have had a good experience before they invest. The window of early majority purchasing spans a longer period of time than the innovators’ and early adopters.’ Early majority buyers generally have more choices in terms of quality, features, and price because competition tends to peak when this group’s buying cycle is in full swing. Like the early adopters, the early majority’s opinions and decisions carry weight across the adopter categories.
Late majority adopters arrive after the “average” participant has embraced innovation. These individuals approach innovations reluctantly and with more skepticism than their predecessors. Late majority buyers are less likely to conduct extensive research about a purchase; instead, they tend simply to follow the buying behaviors of earlier-adopting segments.
Laggards are the last to adopt an innovation. Often they are older and less educated than buyers in the other diffusion of innovation segments. Laggards typically have little or no opinion leadership and are averse to things they perceive as “agents of change.” Laggards tend to be focused on traditions. They are less connected socially, less involved with media, and harder to reach than the other groups.
Marketing an Innovation
Figure 1, above, shows a tipping point between the early majority and the late majority adopters. A tipping point is the point at which small changes are enough to cause a larger, more substantial change. The challenge for the marketer is to encourage the adoption of a product by early adopters and the early majority in order to reach that tipping point. Once these groups are on board, their momentum helps drive the product from the introduction stage of the life cycle into the growth stage.
Often marketers are tempted to focus their marketing efforts on the innovators. Innovators are game to try the product, which makes them an easier target than risk-averse consumers. In all but the most unusual, extreme cases, though, this will be a flawed strategy. The early adopters are actually in a much better position to influence the broad opinion of the product and to draw in the early majority. By the same token, aggressive marketing to laggards is unlikely to influence their pattern of adoption.
Understanding the patterns of adoption and adjusting the marketing strategy to address changes in adoption profiles is a challenge that marketers of new products need to understand and face.