Waiting for the late adopters

Everett Rodgers’s adopter curve. Jon’s adopter curve. Since we’re all real smart we all know all about the early/late adopter curve. We quote it and some of us even base business and marketing plans on it. I may have bad news for those of you who are expecting the “hockey stick” effect next year (which has always been a next-year ...

Robert Dow
curve 01 curve 02
Everett Rodgers’s adopter curve.
Jon’s adopter curve.

Since we’re all real smart we all know all about the early/late
adopter curve. We quote it and some of us even base business and
marketing plans on it.

I may have bad news for those of you who are expecting the “hockey
stick” effect next year (which has always been a next-year phenomenon):
there is no late adopter. (Please no stone-throwing, lynching
parties, or burning at the stake.) The idea occurred to me yesterday
while listening to the 13th lecture on new products and market
analysis and consumer testing, and blah blah blah. I observed
marketing managers and presidents apologizing for the success,
modest as it was in some cases, of their products by saying, “Of
course this is just the early adopter phase.” The implication
being, just you wait and see what will happen when those late
adopters wake up.

I also heard several presentations over the past couple of weeks
about how my dear old aunt, or technophobic wife, or dumbass six-pack
brother-in-law/cousin/neighbor would never buy this or that thing
because it was too hard to use, understand, or install. (They
even suggested my dumbass six-pack brother-in-law/cousin/neighbor
would have trouble getting the shrink wrap off—I took that
personally, having been shrink-wrap challenged most of my life.)

And, often in the same breath, or at least as an aside moments
later, they all commented about how their genius 4-year-old daughter/niece/neighbor
set up their home network system and reprogrammed their TiVo.

Well guess what? They’re right, and they’re wrong. They’re right
in that my dumbass six-pack brother-in-law/cousin/neighbor isn’t
a prospect for them. They’re wrong to think he will ever be. My
sweet 85-year-old aunt who is a day trader and can out-crossword-puzzle
any man or woman standing (or sitting) doesn’t have a fax, never
surfs the web, and only a few years ago, at my threats to install
it myself, got an answering machine. Email? Forget it, ain’t going
to happen. Is she a late adopter? Hell no, she’s a never adopter,
and so is my dumbass six-pack brother-in-law/cousin/neighbor—there
ain’t going to be any hockey stick, my friends. Godot ain’t coming.

As for the genius 4-year-old, you better get used to and nurture
her; she’s your customer. Why? Because the business we’re in is
called (I’ll say it slowly for those in the back of the room)
T-E-C-H-N-O-L-O-G-Y, and it is tricky. It requires new thinking,
and . . .

One of the greatest pains to human nature is the pain of a
new idea. It … makes you think that after all, your favorite
notions may be wrong, your firmest beliefs ill-founded … Naturally,
therefore, common men hate a new idea, and are disposed more
or less to ill-treat the original man who brings it. —Walter
Bagehot, Physics and Politics

So all your plans are wrong, and since we’re into the age of
denial (not my fault) you can blame it all on Everett Rodgers’s
landmark work, “Diffusion of Innovations,” first published
in 1962. Rogers is largely responsible for creating the vocabulary
of change that is discussed in technology and marketing journals
today. He’s the one responsible for the terms “early adopter,
early majority, late majority, and laggards.” His famous
bell curve is found and referenced in most works on innovation.

And, pipsqueak that I am, I have to say the esteemed Mr. Rodgers
is wrong when it comes to today’s technology-based products.

How dare I? Well, why hasn’t the DVR taken off? How long did
it take for the Internet to catch on, and how many late adopters
are using it now? You think a lot, right? Wrong. The late adopters
may never use it, and we don’t need them to be successful—and
that’s the point. Our esteemed U.S. presidential candidates are
just beginning to use email. Email, for crying out loud—these
are the dodos who are going lead us and run the world’s greatest
military power and they’re just using email, something our 4-year-old
daughter/niece/neighbor has been using for years. Do you remember
Mr. Powell of the FCC saying he just got a TiVo and doesn’t know
how to use it? The #$%$#!! Head of the #$%$#!! FCC, the guy who’s
driving the TV copy flag. These are the late adopters, this is
the demographic you have to shoot for, not my sweet old aunt or
my dumbass, etc.

So I think our curve, the high-tech curve, looks more like a
Poisson curve, and as grandma used to say, “Make hay while
the sun shines”—which means, if you can’t get the ROI
on the innovator-early adopter and maybe early majority, you’re
not going to get it ever.

It’s all about awareness and acceptance. Typically, awareness
must reach 25% to 50% for a 5% to 10% level of adoption. The average
length of the innovation-decision period varies greatly with the
innovations and individuals. Innovations that are relatively simple
in nature, divisible for trial, and compatible with previous experience
are usually adopted more quickly than innovations that lack these
characteristics, hence the adoption of DVD and not of DVR.

Earlier adopters have a shorter adoption-decision period than
later adopters, OK, on the face of it this may seem like an obvious
statement; it requires some elaboration. The first individuals
to adopt a new idea (the innovators) do so not only because they
become aware of the innovation somewhat sooner than their peers,
but also because they require fewer months or years to move from
knowledge to decision. Research studies show that innovators have
more favorable attitudes toward new ideas and less resistance
to change.

We’re not going to sell PCs or GPU-AIBs in Safeway, and even
if we did you couldn’t live with the margins. (Although I must
confess, I did see fax machines in our local grocery store—$49.)

So stop deluding yourself and your investors, boss, or BOD. You’re
in the high-tech biz, it’s where you want to be, and as such we
have just so many customers—our TAM is not the world, it’s
just those folks on the left-hand side of the curve—hell,
that’s 50%, isn’t that enough?

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