Diffusion of Innovations wants to explain how innovations are taken up in a population. An innovation can be an idea, behaviour, or object that is seem as new by its audience. It offers three valuable insights into the process of social change: What qualities make an innovation spread, the importance of peer-peer conversations, and peer networks and understanding the needs of different users. Diffusion of Innovations takes a radically different approach to most other theories of change. Instead of focusing on persuading individuals to change, it sees change as being primarily about the evolution of products and behaviours so they become better fits for the needs of people. In Diffusion of Innovations, it is not people who change, but the innovations themselves. Diffusion scholars recognise five qualities that determine the success of an innovation.
1) Relative advantage: This is the degree to which an innovation is perceived as better than the idea it supersedes by a particular group of users.
2) Compatibility with existing values and practices: This is the degree to which an innovation is perceived as being consistent with the values, past experiences, and needs of potential adopters.
3) Simplicity and ease of use: This is the degree to which an innovation is perceived as difficult to understand and use.
4) Trialability: This is the degree to which an innovation can be experimented with on a limited basis.
5) Observable results: The easier it is for individuals to see the results of an innovation, the more likely they are to adopt it. Visible results lower uncertainty and also stimulate peer discussion of a new idea, as friends and neighbours of an adopter often request information about it.
These five qualities make a valuable checklist to frame focus group discussions or project evaluations. They can help identify weaknesses to be addressed when improving products or behaviours. Reinvention is a key principle. The success of an innovation depends on how well it evolves to meet the needs of more and more demanding and risk-averse individuals in a population. A good way to achieve this is to make users into partners in a continuous process of redevelopment. The concept of reinvention is important because it tells us that no product or process can rest on its laurels. The second important insight is that impersonal marketing methods like advertising and media stories may spread information about new innovations, but it’s conversations that spread adoption. Because the adoption of new products or behaviours involves the management of risk and uncertainty. It’s usually only people we personally know and trust and who we know have successfully adopted the innovation themselves. They are the people whose lived example is the best teacher of how to adopt an innovation. Early adopters are the exception of this rule. They are on the lookout for advantages and tend to see the risks as low because they are financially more secure, more personally confident, and better informed about the particular product or behaviour. The rest of the population, however, see higher risks in change, and therefore require assurance from trusted peers that an innovation is usable. As an innovation spreads from early adopters to majority audiences, face to face communication becomes more essential to the decision to adopt. This principle is embodied in the Bass Forecasting Model, which illustrates how face to face communication becomes more influential over time, and mass media less influential. The emphasis on peer peer communication has led diffusion scholars to be interested in peer networks. Many diffusion style campaigns now consciously attempt to utilise peer networks, for instance by using Popular Opinion Leader techniques or various “viral marketing” methods. These methods, which are becoming increasingly popular, aim to recruit well connected individuals to spread new ideas through their own social networks. Understanding the needs of different user segments Diffusion researchers believe that a population can be broken down into five different segments, based on their propensity to adopt a specific innovation: innovators, early adopters, early majorities, late majorities and laggards. Each group has its own “personality. Innovations spread when they evolve to meet the needs of successive segments.
Innovators: The adoption process begins with a tiny number of visionary, imaginative innovators. They often lavish great time, energy and creativity on developing new ideas and gadgets. Right now, they’re the ones busily building stills to convert cooking oil into diesel fuel and making websites to tell the world about it. Unfortunately their one eyed fixation on a new behaviour or gadget can make them seem dangerously idealistic to the pragmatic majority. Yet, no change program can thrive without their energy and commitment. How to work with innovators: Track them down and become their “first followers”, providing support and publicity for their ideas. Invite keen innovators to be partners in designing your project.
Early adopters: Once the benefits start to become apparent, early adopters leap in. They are on the lookout for a strategic leap forward in their lives or businesses and are quick to make connections between clever innovations and their personal needs. They’re often fashion conscious and love to be seen as leaders: social prestige is one of their biggest drivers. Their natural desire to be trend setters causes the “takeoff” of an innovation. Early adopters tend to be more economically successful, well connected and well informed and hence more socially respected. Their seemingly risky plunge into a new activity sets tongues wagging. Others watch to see whether they prosper of fail, and people start talking about the results. What early adopters say about an innovation determines its success. The more they crow and preen, the more likely the new behaviour or product will be perceived positively by the majority of a population. Early adopters are vital for another reason. They become an independent test bed, ironing out the chinks and reinventing the innovation to suit mainstream needs. Fortunately early adopters are an easy audience. They don’t need much persuading because they are on the lookout for anything that could give them a social or economic edge. Some authorities talk about a “chasm” between visionary early adopters and pragmatic majorities. They think the chasm explains why many products are initially popular with early adopters but crash and burn before they reach mass markets. Everett Rogers disagreed with the idea of a chasm. He thought early adopters and majorities formed a continuum. However most early adopters still have radically different interests and needs from most majorities, so even if there’s no real chasm it’s a useful mental construct that warns us against the easy assumption that one size fits all. Once again, what makes products or practices spread is not persuasion. It’s the whether the product or behaviour is being reinvented to become easier, simpler, quicker, cheaper, and more advantageous.
Early majority: Assuming the product or behaviour leaps the chasm, it may eventually reach majority audiences. Early majorities are pragmatists, comfortable with moderately progressive ideas, but won’t act without solid proof of benefits. They are followers who are influenced by mainstream fashions and wary of fads. They want to hear “industry standard” and “endorsed by normal, respectable folks”. Majorities are cost sensitive and risk averse. They are looking for simple, proven, better ways of doing what they already do. They require guaranteed off-the-shelf performance, minimum disruption, minimum commitment of time, minimum learning, and either cost neutrality or rapid payback periods. And they hate complexity. They haven’t got time to think about your product or project. They’re too busy getting the kids to football and running their businesses. If they do have spare time they’re not going to spend it fussing around with complicated, expensive, inconvenient products or behaviours. They want to hear “plug-andplay”, “no sweat” or “user-friendly” and “value for money”. How to work with the early majority: • Offer give-aways or competitions to stimulate buzz. • Use mainstream advertising and media stories featuring endorsements from credible, respected, similar folks. • Lower the entry cost and guarantee performance. • Redesign to maximise ease and simplicity. • Cut the red tape: simplify application forms and instructions. • Provide strong customer service and support.
Late majority: They are conservative pragmatists who hate risk and are uncomfortable your new idea. Practically their only driver is the fear of not fitting in, hence they will follow mainstream fashions and established standards. They are often influenced by the fears and opinions of laggards.
Laggards: Meanwhile laggards hold out to the bitter end. They are people who see a high risk in adopting a particular product or behaviour. Some of them are so worried they stay awake all night, tossing and turning, thinking up arguments against it. It’s possible they are not really not laggards at all, but innovators of ideas that are so new they challenge your paradigms. Each of these adopter personalities is very different. It’s vital to know which one you are addressing at a given time. Products and behaviours only mature gradually. The exception is when you have customized quite different products or behaviours for each group. Weight Watchers is an example. It has a traditional caloriecounting method that suits early adopters, a “points value” method that suits early majorities, and a “no count” system for everyone else. Rogers went as far as assigning precise notional percentages for each segment. However the “20:60:20 Rule” is a good allpurpose rule of thumb. When designing a change project you need to know one vital fact: the percentage in a given social system who have already taken up the innovation. That figure tells you which segment you are addressing next. It gives you great insight into how to design your project and how to pitch your communications. Of course, no one is an innovator or a laggard about all new ideas. That would be too exhausting. In reality, most people are majorities about most things, and only innovators or laggards about certain specific things.