Who are Early Adopters and Why Do They Matter?
When established marketers evaluate their most valued brand visibility tools, brand advocates, brand ambassadors, loyalists and fanatics are ranked very highly.
But for new companies introducing new products and services, these groups are nowhere in sight, they have to be sought and nurtured from scratch.
A review of some of the world’s most successful start-ups provides useful insights into the value of the first users of your product or service and their implication on future success.
When Tinder co-founder and then VP for Marketing was faced with the challenge of building the app’s user base, she approached college sororities and fraternities and sold them the idea from university to university creating a network of seed users that propelled Tinder to the mainstream.
When she left two years later in the December of 2014, she repeated the exact same thing when she started Bumble.
Both these companies are now unicorns (privately held start-ups companies valued at over $1 billion whose ‘lightning speed’ of growth is a statistical rarity).
Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky, the founders of Airbnb (Another Unicorn) discovered a vital ingredient of the app’s growth after a year or so of feeble uptake, by visiting their earliest seed users’ homes in New York City.
They learned of important drawbacks to their service and upgraded their listings with monumental rewards.
Similar narratives are reflected in the growth, in the popularity of Apple products, Fubu, Facebook, Reddit, Etsy, Uber, Salesforce and of course Facebook among others.
They all have been able to harness the power of seed users/early adopters to propel their brands to staggering market success.
WHO ARE EARLY ADOPTERS?
In seeking to explain how a new idea, product or service gains momentum and over time is adopted by a population or a social system, social scientist Everett M. Rogers fronted the Diffusion of Innovation Theory in a book published in 1962.
His research and subsequent studies show that adoption of a new idea or product does not happen simultaneously in a social system, in that some people are quicker at accepting innovations than others.
The theory establishes five adopter categories; Innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority and laggards.
Innovators (2.5%) are the first people who want to try an innovation. They are very willing to take risks, usually have the highest social class, have great financial lucidity, are often the first to develop new ideas, very social and have closest contact to scientific sources and interaction with other innovators.
Due to their high risk tolerance they do adopt technologies that may ultimately fail but are cushioned by their high financial resources.
Early Adopters (13.5%) are the second fastest category to adopt an innovation. They have the highest degrees of opinion leadership on many fronts and are considered by many as ‘the individual to check with’ before adopting a new idea.
Unlike innovators who are cosmopolites, Early Adopters are not too far ahead of the average individual in innovativeness and as such serve as role models in the social system.
To maintain their central role in social communication system and the esteem of their peers, they realise they have to make more judicious choices in the adoption than innovators.
They are nevertheless younger, of higher social status, have advanced education and more socially forward than late adopters. Rogers argues that Early Adopters help trigger the critical mass by decreasing uncertainty about a new idea.
Adoption lifecycle for new technologies. The brown line shows a product’s market share growth over time, while the other line shows how the market share is distributed among different types of buyers.
Early Majority (34%) are a category of individuals who make the decision to adopt an innovation after a relatively longer period than innovators and Early Adopters. They are theorised to be more deliberative, typically seeking evidence that an innovation works before they are willing to adopt it.
They usually have above-average social status, they have frequent interactions with early adopters but are rarely in a position to lead opinions within the social system. The position between the very early and the relatively late is an important link in the diffusion process.
Late Majority (34%) make the decision to adopt an innovation after the average member of the social system after approaching the new idea with a heightened sense of caution and scepticism.
Adoption by this category is theorised to happen, in part, as an economic necessity and as a result of greater peer pressure. They are of lower socio-economic status, have very little financial lucidity and very little opinion leadership.
Laggards (16%) are the last to adopt an innovation, they have near-zero opinion leadership, primarily interact with other individuals holding relatively traditional values and typically older. They are averse to change with their point of reference being the past.
UNDERSTANDING EARLY ADOPTERS
Given how crucial the early stages of a business are on long-term success and the potency of the thought leadership that early adopters wield in triggering a knock-on effect in the product adoption process, it is important to dive deep into their psychographic characteristics.
A slow start for a startup has almost always been a strong indicator of a business that might not reach the growth stage in the product life cycle, while a great start is often indicative of a safe product lifespan.
This is true of the technology startups reviewed earlier as it is of box office releases and music album launches.
Early adopters give you the first impression of the market, they are effectively the metric for how strong your start has been.
Taking off from their theorised apparent position of privilege in society, early adopters seek and need to be first.
As a general trait, Rogers observes that earlier adopters seek information about innovations more actively than do later adopters.
They would want to credit for popularising a new idea, app or service to raise their social profile and maintain the respect of their peers.
A plausible explanation of early adopters’ restless pursuit of what’s new was offered by author-adventurer Craig Childs on the Living on Earth show while discussing his 2018 book Atlas of a Lost World: Travels in Ice Age America.
His research identifies a distinctive trait in the less risk averse people – a genetic marker called D4 (a dopamine receptor) – those with more D4 tended to be less cautious and adventuresome, settling much further from the Arctic up to South America.
Those with lower D4 levels tended to settle earlier. ‘There is a genetic drive to go further,’ Childs suggests.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter chemical whose reputation as the ‘feel-good hormone’ is due to its association with the brain’s reward and pleasure centre.
Marketers have for ages deployed dopamine-triggered pleasure in witty adverts to create memorable and euphoric associations with their brands.
Early Adopters, similarly ‘feel good’ whenever faced with a prospect of learning and leading in the adoption of a new technology – their dopamine system is activated, triggering psychological reward signals and feelings of pleasure and motivation as opposed to fear of failure that sceptical later adopters may harbour.
It thus follows that early adopters, while motivated by career, family and entertainment like regular consumer the psychological motivations that set them apart from the general population as proposed by Forrester’s 2009 Research and Ad Age Insights are information, novelty and status.
They do not just buy something first without conducting significantly more research than the average consumer mitigating the inherent risks of arguably untested products.
While they might be emotional impulse buyers, they are rational researchers first.
In their novelty-seeking mode, early adopters are constantly looking for what’s new as part of a personal entertainment goal which also feeds off the probably strongest psychological motivation – status.
We all know the first person to blog about the iPhone X’s notch or post on Facebook about Google Pixel’s incredible image quality early in its launch.
WHY YOU SHOULD BE CONCERNED ABOUT EARLY ADOPTERS
Being your very first users, they give you a glimpse into how the market responds to your product.
They are aware that your product is in its infant stages and by purchasing it, the financial risk involved is well known to them hence the need to conduct extensive research.
They are loud people, thought leaders who will blog, post on Facebook and Tweet about their experience with your product. If the product delivers value it will receive praise from them and with it recommendations to their social networks composed of later adopters.
If they reject your product for whatever reason, your brand is bound to suffer significantly.
You will have significantly lost your biggest converting marketing tool.
As illustrated in the bell-curve of technology adoption above, research shows that for start-ups the leap from Early Adopters to Early Majority is the toughest to make of the entire life cycle.
Your product must survive the rigors of early adopter testing to overcome the initial scepticism of the deliberative early majority if it is to gain mainstream marketplace acceptance.
Early adopters are exceptionally good at influencing others based on their credibility that is anchored on their authority, knowledge, position or relationship with the target audience which is a part of their often huge fan following.
WHAT CAN EARLY ADOPTERS DO FOR YOU?
After a very high-profile startup failure, American Entrepreneur and Author of the book, The Lean Startup, Eric Reis co-founded the virtual reality metaverse IMVU in just six months and went on to experiment with early adopter testing of the then highly buggy version.
Ries says by including early adopters from the early stages of product development, the start-up was able to produce a better engineered product and the transition to mainstream acceptance, or what Geoffrey Moore calls ‘crossing the chasm’ was seamless.
“[They]… were people buying from us not the product as existed at that time, but the vision of the product that we thought it would be… Visionary customers are often smarter and more visionary than the companies that serve them.
And so by being in constant dialogue with them from almost day one of our company’s life, we were able to learn a lot of important lessons about what the product needed to become in order to eventually achieve mainstream success,” Reis says in a 2009 presentation at Stanford University.
Some of the benefits to be gained by working with early adopters include:
As in the IMVU product development journey, early adopters can make it easier for you to achieve a product-market fit early in the product life cycle and save you the risk of rejection in the mainstream market.
As already established, early adopters do not necessarily get on board your idea because it is perfect and exhaustively engineered. They care about the aspirational value it offers, functionality and getting a competitive edge in the social system.
In The lean Startup, Eric Reis offers examples of the scramble for Apple’s original iPhone by early adopters even if it lacked basic features like 3G Internet speed, as well as the praises they sang for Google’s initial search engine years before it could topple Yahoo to be king of web search.
They are happy with the 80 percent that is perfect and are willing to contribute to improving the remaining 20 percent.
They will provide you with useful feedback that will be monumental in the rethinking of problematic product features as Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky found in the early stages of Airbnb.
They care about the problem as long as they have seen the core value and resonate with the product’s vision.
Early adopters literally get the party started for a product at its launch or upgrade phase and can be a reliable measure of whether the company’s purported solution to an existing problem has an underlying demand in the market or a boardroom myth.
Apple’s every upgrade of the iPhone and yearly introduction of a new Macbook is one demonstration of the predictive potential of early adopters.
The queues at its global retail stores on the launch week are indicative of the product’s longer-term market performance.
The same goes for reports of first week ticket sales or album release purchases.
A Pointer to Growth Channels
Acquiring your first users can be a crucial factor in discovering the channels to focus on in order to achieve growth.
Once the product-market fit has been established, you should begin to have a better picture of the ideal channel(s) that maximise growth for your new product.
This is what former Hubspot VP for Growth and Reforge founder, Brian Balfour calls Product/Channel fit in his conviction that PMF alone will not propel your product to runaway profitability.
He argues that products are built to fit into channels for the simple reason that channels such as Facebook, Google or email clients do not mould into products but rather define their own rules that the product has to map into.
Each product is theorised to have its optimal distribution channel and early adopters are your best at identifying it before scaling distribution.
This one is more obvious. Once your early adopters have experience the product or service and they love it there is a huge chance they will freely attempt to convince others to try it.
It is distinct from influencer marketing where, while both could be public figures commanding a significant following, influencers charge relatively cheap fees to post about the product and their endorsements may be viewed with suspicion while evangelists recommend the product out of pure belief.
Once your product achieves the acceptance of early adopters, two cultural phenomena that have arisen from today’s interconnected world should work in your favour.
First is the share effect where word of mouth on social networking channels can organically improve your brand reach and work double-duty as endorsement.
The second is FOMO – Fear of Missing Out – which corresponds with the unique position that early adopters occupy in the innovation adoption life cycle.
This will potentially create the bandwagon effect.
This MIT study on Bitcoin adoption illustrates how early adopters influence the decisions of a majority of consumers in a social system.
HOW DO YOU GET YOUR EARLY ADOPTERS?
Like Eric Reis did when launching IMVU, a user-gathering strategy is the first thing you must come up with after your ground-breaking idea.
It is even more important to ask yourself who your early adopters are more than who the target audience is – they are your ultimate target at this stage and from there will lead the way as discussed above.
To identify your Early Adopters you have to consider three inherent aspects of this group of adopters; they have a problem they seek to solve, they are well aware of what the problem is and are actively seeking a solution for it.
Paul Friederichsen, founder of The Blake Project, advises that the best success in attracting them is by presenting your product or idea as the ultimate solution to their problem in addition to factoring their psychological motivations.
But where do you find them? Below are some places you can find early adopters.
Web forums, slack channels and Subreddits are some of the most effective platforms to begin engaging your potential first users.
You want to become a power user so that you can use this credibility to advertise your idea, get in touch with other power users who can be your product advocates and to also get exposed to your target audience and acquainted with the problem they are trying to solve.
Finding the appropriate community can be as easy as a Google search but becoming a power user takes some significant work and patience.
Unlike the niche communities above, for social network such Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, you have to find the sub-groups and address them individually.
Facebook and LinkedIn Groups are one example where you can succeed in finding your first users.
You have to abide by a set of rules and contribute to discussions and help other users while documenting their needs and frustrations that your innovation can solve and then time your pitch once you have acquired some appreciable level of respect.
You can also follow hashtags to identify topics and most knowledgeable users to approach appropriately.
An analysis of influencers’ followership using tools like Followerwonk and Facebook Insights could also point you to you first users.
Blogging at your own site (leveraging already-built audience), guest blogging and direct outreach through emails and messengers like WhatsApp or a soft launch as in the case of Dropbox on Digg could also be effective options based on the product type.
HOW DO YOU TURN THEM INTO BRAND ASSETS?
Once your first users begin testing your product you need to start a conversation; make your forum or email address easily identifiable, create a hashtag you can communicate through in real time, make the comment section on your open and ask for feedback regularly making sure they are aware that you are always listening for feedback and leave easily noticeable appreciative notes.
Remember to also share your success with them. Below are some tips on how to turn early adopters into brand assets:
Treat your early adopters as VIPs: Early adopters are your most valued customers given the fact that they have taken the risk of purchasing your product which might be flawed and could become cheaper in the longer-term.
They are to a large extent your team members and such are entitled to some form of reward even in the simplest form of taking extra time to answer their queries and educate them about the novel product you are introducing.
One of the best ways to reward your early adopters for the risk they are taking is by giving them access to pre-releases. You will be giving them exclusive access to a new feature or upgrade as an appreciation for what is effectively working with you.
Another approach that works well for SaaS products is the freemium model where you reduce the amount of risk your early adopters are taking that, which could in turn help spread word further or in fact, get you your very first users.
You should also consider setting up a referral program where an existing user is rewarded for referring a new user effectively increasing the user base for small incentives.
Referral marketing has been proven to be successful for a range of products from electric car maker Tesla to UK mobile telephone operator GiffGaff that offers double incentives for both referrer and the new user.
It has been particularly effective for mobile apps such as Dropbox and Uber. For early adopters, referrals make sense as they extend their influence in the social system as pioneers giving them ‘feel-good’ effect.
While Early Adopters can serve your startup or new idea immensely, they should not substitute good product design.
Clarity of communication, in-depth research, reflexivity and tolerance to criticism will complement the imminent gains to your business.
Early adopters are critical for the success of any new product or service.
They take the risk of testing a product to see how it works, and are responsible for eliminating some of the inhibitions the rest of the population might have about adopting your new product.
They also provide you with an opportunity to test and improve your product before it gets to the mass market.
As such, it is important to nurture your product’s early adopters and work with them to drive mass adoption of your product.
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