Waiting for the late adopters

Posted: 11.10.03
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?