Q: What Makes a Product Attract Early Adopters?

The following is an edited version of a recent online conversation I had with a team of bootstrappers about how to make their product attract early adopters.

Q: What Makes a Product Attract Early Adopters?

Attract Early AdoptersQ: What determines how quickly a new product gets adopted. I have heard about a “chasm” between early adopters and the mainstream market, but we are struggling to get people to evaluate our product.

The Chasm concept is normally credited to Geoffrey Moore’s 1991 book “Crossing the Chasm.” But Moore cribbed most of his framework from Ev Rogers‘ 1962 “Diffusion of Innovation,” including the term “early adopter.”

Rogers identified five key characteristics of an innovation that determined how quickly it was likely to be adopted (or diffuse in a community):

  1. Relative advantage: the degree to which an innovation is perceived as better than the idea it supersedes. The observer’s context is an essential element in the calculation of relative advantage. Different potential adopters working in different settings will often view the same innovation in very different terms.
  2. Compatibility: the degree to which an innovation is perceived as consistent with the existing values, past experiences, and needs of potential adopters.
  3. Complexity: the degree to which an innovation is perceived as difficult to understand and use. Perceived complexity, in particular discontinuity with familiar processes and practices, works against adoption.
  4. Trialability: the degree to which an innovation may be experimented with on a limited basis.
  5. Observability: the degree to which the results of an innovation are visible to others. The easier that the results–the “before and after”–are to observe, the more likely the innovation will be adopted.

Q: Great summary, thanks. So how can we apply this as bootstrappers?

Run down the list of 5 criteria and see where you stand if there is anything you can do to improve that dimension of your offer:

  1. Is your relative advantage clear?
  2. How compatible are your values with your prospects values?
  3. How complicated is your offering? Can you simplify it?
  4. What kind of trial or evaluation can you offer?
  5. What results or outcomes can you point to that other people or firms like your prospect have achieved?

These questions and related challenges are not limited to bootstrap businesses. Any firm offering an innovative (non-commodity) product or service has to manage these barriers to adoption.

Q: So are early adopters motivated by a sense of adventure?

Viewing early adopters as novelty seekers or risk takers is a common misunderstanding of what motivates early adopters. Early adopters are dissatisfied to the point of taking action with the current alternatives available to them. For example people signing up for clinical trials are not doing so out of a sense of adventure; they are doing so because the other alternatives available to them are unsatisfactory. For the most part, early adopters find their current situation painful.

Q: But I thought early adopters wanted to be “the first kid on their block” to try something new and then share it with others.

Those are “tastemakers” or “influencers” or what Malcolm Gladwell calls “Mavens” in “The Tipping Point.” But these are not early adopters unless you are in the fashion business where you are selling “new and interesting.”

I think too many entrepreneurs conflate “early adopter” with “technically sophisticated” or “geek hipster.” Normal people are early adopters when they have a strong need for your product. The first two people to tell me about E-Bay were two mothers who were genuinely excited about it. Although I knew both of them, they didn’t know each other. Each collected a different specialty handicraft item: teddy bears for one, glass angels for the other. They were shopping on E-Bay regularly because they could not find what they were looking for in stores.

They were early adopters, but I didn’t connect the dots. One or two more questions, and I would have realized that neither used a computer for any other purpose than visiting E-Bay. I was excited about OnSale (another auction site devoted to computer equipment). I should have realized that if E-Bay could create markets for these highly specialized products, they could create and serve a lot of niche/specialty markets in a way that was winner take all.

Q: How can you tell if someone is likely to be an early adopter.

As a bootstrapper, you need proof of value for your prospects. That typically comes from people in pain taking the risk on an untried method. One definition I like for a B2B early adopter is a firm that has spent money to develop a solution to a problem but is still unhappy with the result. Here is a simple five-part test you can apply for businesses to determine if they will be an early adopter:

  1. They have a problem.
  2. They understand they have a problem.
  3. They are actively searching for a solution.
  4. The problem is painful enough that they have cobbled together an interim solution.
  5. They have, or can quickly acquire, dollars to purchase the product to solve their problem.

I have highlighted the second and third tests because they are key: many may suffer from a problem but have resigned themselves to “living with it.”

Q: I get stuck on #4. What if our product does not address a pain point?

Some other ways to look at it:

  • What do your customers stop doing or stop using if they use your product? This is what you are competing against that you need to provide a better solution in at least one category of use or fitness for purpose.
  • What can they do using their product that they want to but are unable to do using currently available solutions? In particular, what can they now offer their customers that they could not before? The most obvious may be a lower-cost product, but if you can help them differentiate in other ways that can be equally compelling. It’s not necessarily about helping them to offer a “better” product as much as one that is usefully different for a distinct need. Examples for a physical product might be more durable, waterproof, fireproof, lighter weight, more compact, can be used safely by children, can be used by older adults with limited dexterity, etc..
  • If you find yourself wishing for smarter more adventuresome prospects remind yourself that a longing for smarter prospects means your presentation or demo is not clear In other words if you explain what you do to ten people and none get it don’t look for an eleventh one who is a genius, adjust your presentation/message.
  • When you cannot figure out why prospects won’t take a risk on your offering, reframe it so that they only pay for results.  Pull all of the risk to your side of the table.

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