5 Considerations when Marketing to Early Adopters

I had a conversation with a reporter last week who was writing a story on how to market to early adopters.  It got me thinking about how much marketing and product come together to improve adoption of a new product or service.  Research shows that there are a set of factors that effect the rate of adoption of a new innovation.  Clearly product characteristics are a critical factor each of these but there isn’t a single one where marketing can’t have at least some impact.

1/ Complexity – The difficulty in understanding the offering will impact how quickly it gets adopted.  Leaving the obvious product implications aside, marketing has a big job here to clearly describe the offering, what it does and when it would be appropriate to adopt it.  Product descriptions need to be short and use simple language – no matter how complex the product (and this is often really hard to do).  You need to answer the question “What do you do?” in no more than a couple of sentences and still be specific enough that customers get it.

2/ Compatibility – Compatibility refers to the degree to which the offering aligns with the market’s current philosophy, culture, and values.  In short, how easy is it for customers to integrate the new offering into their life?  Customer case studies, use cases and scenarios can all help illustrate how the offering can fit into a broader context for customers.

3/ Relative advantage – This is how much of an improvement the new offering is over existing alternatives (and this includes doing nothing).  Clearly communication has a big role to play here.  The trick is expressing this in terms of customer benefit and getting as specific and quantifiable as possible.  Saying your product is “faster” doesn’t mean as much as saying you can “improve production output by 200%.”  Just remember that if you’re using numbers they need to be coming from a credible source (That’s my nice way of saying you shouldn’t lie.  Customers notice that sort of thing.)

4/ Trialability – How easy the offering is to experiment with will have a big impact on adoption rates.  Web startups have this point down cold – make it easy for folks to sign up and get started with your product and then present them with paid offerings later.  For hardware offerings, software that gets installed on-premise, or more expensive enterprise software, this is often not an option.  Trial versions or stripped down versions work in some cases.  I once had a product with an average selling price of close to half a million dollars and it required a team of consultants to get it installed and running.  In that case we relied heavily on screencasts, flash demos and video.  Don’t forget the oldie but goodie technique of having a prospect do a site visit with an existing customer.

5/ Observability – Peer influence plays a big part in adoption, even for early adopters.  Again, web-based businesses are leading the way with products that have built-in social elements such as Facebook apps that update your timeline so your friends can see you are using the product or services that prompt you to post a Tweet as a condition of use.  I like services like Rypple (for giving and receiving anonymous feedback) or ECHOage (giving-oriented kid’s parties) that by their nature require users to invite other people.  The Google technique of giving invitations to a select group of people who then later are granted the privilege of inviting their friends to use the service is another great example of a way to increase observability.

Further reading – A lot of the thinking around how innovations get adopted comes from Everett Roger’s Diffusion of Innovations which was then expanded on by Geoffrey Moore in Crossing the Chasm

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30 thoughts on “5 Considerations when Marketing to Early Adopters”

  1. Great article and valid points. Would you say these five considerations apply to any new product or service across the board? Or does the marketing approach splinter when you’re talking about early adopters of say, a Web 2.0 application versus a hardware device or a massive software product?

    1. Hi Daniel,
      Thanks for the comment. I would say it applies just as much to a web startup as it does to a big hardware play (the original research came out of a study done on farmers, go figure). There are pieces of this that I think most web startups are great at and other pieces where they struggle. The web startups I’ve worked with understand Trialability and more and more Observability but are often lousy at articulating relative advantage. The biggest problem I see around relative advantage is that they aren’t thinking about what the customer’s alternatives are to their offering and “do nothing” is often the most difficult competitor out there.
      April

      1. Thanks April! It sounds obvious to consider relative advantage, but I can see how this can be difficult to articulate as a web startup, but vital to stay on top of.

  2. It’s also a good idea to point out that by purchasing as an early adopter, clients are ahead of the curve and ‘in the know’. This can be a key point for many players. It’s also scary, which is where pricing comes in, but everyone likes to brag that they were the first to get on board with something.

    1. Hi Dave,
      There are a bunch of things that differentiate early adopters from later ones and that’s a big one. The later adopter like to make sure some early folks have tried it out first, which is why observability is a big deal. (How’s things at Radar btw?)
      April

      1. April,

        What’s implied here is Geoffrey Moore’s chasm between early adopters and the rest of the market. Observability is key for those lagging adopters but, as has been proven repeatedly, the value prop for those lagging adopters is NOT the same as for the early adopters. Early adopters want that first-mover advantage (even ‘coolness’) while laggards are more concerned with compatibility.

        This may be ‘coals to Newcastle’ but it’s worth pointing out.

        1. Hi Tim,
          Thanks for the comment. I totally agree that the value proposition for folks further along the adoption curve is different. My point on this post is that you can’t forget observability even for the early adopter crowd. A big part of coolness is being able to show off.
          April

  3. April – LOVE the shout out to Everett Roger’s Diffusion of Innovations… it’s fantastic book, a great (and interesting) read… and so helpful to understand the psychology and social dynamics of tech adoption. Thanks.

    1. Hey Dan,
      Thanks for the comment. Isn’t it amazing how old that research is? It’s amazing to me that nobody has revisited it in the past 10 years, especially given the current focus on “innovation economies.”
      April

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  17. April, a good article… I’ve done several start-up’s from a sales point of view and all of what you said is true. Selling new ideas is where the implementation of a new idea actually gets tested out and where most of the learning takes place… both in how to position and understanding what exactly the customer is buying.

    I’ve found that most customers don’t actually appreciate (or at least can’t verbalize) why they purchased something. It only occurs to them many months after the fact.

    Determining a clear and concise value proposition is hard work! My observation is that customers come up with it… but only after a lot of listening on the vendors part. So it’s not just obtaining the initial customer base but staying in touch with them, trying to understand what value they are obtaining and see how they are using the product/service.

    Listening to those first customers is crucial.

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  19. April,
    Nice snappy post, I like the insight into building into the product auto update on social media that the user is using your product. That can apply to certain B2B applications as well.

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