The pros and cons of early adopters

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Snapshot : Early adopters are a key target for innovation, because they influence whether new products and services become popular. They’re open to new ideas, passionate about the category, and willing to make more risky purchases. But they can also be challenging customers to keep happy. They’re demanding and fickle. They lose interest when products become too popular. Read this article to learn more about how to deal with the pros and cons of early adopters. 

Our guide to marketing innovation introduces the concept of the consumer adoption of innovation model. This model shows that successful new products (and services) often follow a similar sales trend over time.

They start small, but then hit a point where they grow rapidly. This growth eventually slows, as they hit a peak where there’s  a long period of relatively flat sales, before they finally start a slow decline. 

The sales trend can be broken down into five distinct phases. There’s a different type of customer in each phase.

Consumer adoption of marketing innovation.

The model primarily applies to innovation that is more revolutionary than evolutionary. It applies to innovation that’s focussed on product development and / or diversification rather than upgrades to existing products to drive market penetration.

The challenge of driving trial in innovation

One of the many challenges with innovation is to persuade customers to try new products and services for the first time.

The majority of customers are risk-averse. They buy products based on previous habits. 

However, in most categories, there’ll be a small group of innovators (around 2-3% of the market) who are bold and experimental.

They’re pioneering and willing to take the risk on unproven and untested innovation. 

An old pocket watch dangling hypnosis style in front of a leather chair with a speech bubble saying "Buy me..."

But on their own, this small group don’t have the scale to drive enough sales or increase the visibility and perception of popularity needed to drive sales out to more customers. 

That role falls to early adopters. 

Why are early adopters an attractive target?

“Early adopters” are about 15% of the market. They help bridge the gap between innovators and the majority of buyers. 

If and when they start to buy a new product, those sales help repay some of the launch and development costs, and give the product a physical and visible presence in the market. The sales help persuade retailers to list the product, and give non-buyers an opportunity to see the product in action. 

These make them an attractive target for innovation, but they’re also attractive because of “how” they buy.

Low barriers to trial

Early adopters are open to new experiences. They’re much quicker to try new products and services than the majority of the market and laggards. It takes less time, effort and resource to persuade them to try, because they’re naturally inclined to try new things out.  

They recognise there’s always a risk to being the first to try out new products, but the excitement they get from being first outweighs the risk for them. Early adopters are more willing to try out unfamiliar or untested products and services.

Woman wearing a grey sweatshirt and looking at her phone in a dark room

So for example, they might end up buying products that have reduced performance because they’re new – the first iPhones only had 16GB storage for example. Or those products might be completely missing features which will only come later – the first iPads had no camera for example. 

Typically, early adopters feel more involved in the category than others. They 

understand how the category works. It’s important to remember that customers won’t be early adopters in every category they buy, only those they care the most about. You can be an early adopter in one category and a laggard in another. 

Technology early adopters for example might be laggards in fashion. They care about what they look at, not how they look. 

Food early adopters might be laggards in personal finance products. They care about sweet or savoury products, not about savings or superannuation. 

Early adopters are more risk-taking and adventurous in buying new product and services in the categories they feel most engaged with. 

Highly engaged in the category

Marketers love to talk about engagement, because it’s a sign that customers feel strongly about the brand. However, it happens a lot less than you’d think. Most customers don’t engage with brands, but early adopters are an exception to that.

But what do we mean by engagement?

Well, it’s normally measured by how much customers actively interact with your marketing activity. The key word is active. They have to do something. 

White round badge with a read heart symbol against a dark grey background

Common engagement measures include website visits, contacts with your sales or customer service team, and social media interactions such as follows, tweets, likes and comments. Engagement also often covers customer actions on third party sites like product review sites and community forums. 

Early adopters like to engage with brands. This means they’re open to being contacted and interacting with you on innovations. They’re interested in what you’re doing, and want to feel involved. So they’re a relatively “easy” sell as far as trying the product is concerned. They have less objections to try innovation than the more conservative majority. 

Tell others about it

Finally, it’s not just that early adopters like and buy new products for themselves, it’s that they also like to talk about those new products.

This proactive talking about innovation means they can drive strong word of mouth recommendation for new products if they like them. They can build confidence in other customers by talking about their experiences. 

Seeing early adopters use new products and then hearing them endorse those products, reduces the risk of buying for many early majority buyers.

Young boy in a yellow jersey showing loudly into a microphone

They feel a product has become popular enough to try and is a “safe” purchase because early adopters would say if the product was no good. 

Influencers

This “spreading the word” on innovation has become a full-time job for some people with the rise of influencers on social media. This is a more organised form of using early adopters. It’s a more commercial relationship, where brands pay influencers to talk about and promote their products. 

Influencers can have great reach, but can vary in terms of how credible they are. When it’s a paid relationship, it’s less credible for customers. But if the influencer is a genuine early adopter with high credibility and who likes your product, they can generate a lot of buzz among customers.

Influence works best from people you know and trust

For example, third party reviews can be less credible because some companies pay influencers to get positive reviews. Or they’ll hijack competitors with negative reviews.

When you work with influencers, It’s important to look at their impartiality and credibility. Look for those with high credibility, who’ve the same or similar values to your brand. 

How do you find early adopters?

Social media influencers are relatively easy to find, because you can search on related topics, and the search functions tend to highlight influencers who have the highest reach (number of followers) and highest levels of engagement (number of interactions with their content).

You can find early adopters of your brand by looking at those who interact with you frequently on your social media channels, or who post comments on your website. Check the data in your CRM program as it may help you pick out early adopters.

Man's hand holding a camera lens in front of a lake with mountains and blue skies in the background

Also look at other channels, where buyers talk about products. Early adopters will be visible and active in talking about new products on product review sites, in social media community groups and on forums. 

Look at both the quantity of influence they have (e.g. how many followers), and the quality of their interest and influence. You don’t want influencers who are always positive or always negative, you want them to fairly and constructively respond to your innovation. 

How do you attract early adopters?

The key to attract early adopters is to make them feel special. Look at how you can drive active engagement by connecting directly with them. Your interactions should feel more personal and less mass-market. 

So, once you work out who they are and how to find them, ask them lots of questions. Listen closely to the answers. Many companies target early adopters to use in qualitative research and focus groups because they like to talk about the category and about new products. 

Two amazon boxes made to look like people with arms legs and faces holding two large heart symbols

Make them feel special by giving them the opportunity to find out about innovations before others do. Give them “sneak peaks” and early previews to make them feel valued. Asking early adopters for feedback on innovation makes them feel like they’re helping you make better products. You get direct advice from customers on how to make your products more appealing. 

Tipping Point Early Adopters

In his book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell talks about the three types of customers who can help you “spread the word” about new products, He doesn’t call them early adopters but collectively, the behaviours of these three types is very similar to the classic view of early adopters. 

He splits the three types of early adopters into :-

  • Mavens – these are experts in the category with deep levels of knowledge about a particular subject. 
  • Salesmen – these are naturally good communicators, who understand what others want and need, and find persuading people to try things comes naturally. 
  • Connectors – these are naturally sociable people who have wide networks of contacts in many different social contexts. They help spread messages among diverse groups, because they’re involved with so many different groups. 

When looking for and working with early adopters, it’s worth having these three types of behaviour – expert knowledge, selling and persuading, and social connections in the back of your head as a way to spot what makes a good early adopter.

What’s the challenge with early adopters?

So far, we’ve painted a rosy picture of early adopters. They’re open to try new things and engage with categories and products. they may only be 15% of the market, but they’re a highly influential 15%. Sounds great, doesn’t it?

But, it’d be wrong to assume this means early adopters are always easy to deal with and sell to. Sitting behind these positive behaviours are a number of new challenges in terms of how you work them. 

They’re demanding

Because early adopters know your category well, and feel passionate about it, they can have high expectations. They can be very vocally negative if you don’t meet those expectations. 

This can make them very demanding and high maintenance. It also sets expectations that you’ll continue to come up with new innovations and new ways to engage with them.

You need a regular supply of new updates to keep them happy. They have a low boredom threshold. 

Man in a red T-shirt looking frustrated and angry

They can be very fickle and jump to competitors, if they don’t feel you’re listening to their feedback, or you do something they don’t like. Early adopters are not especially loyal customers because they go with what’s newest and what best meets their needs at the time. 

You need to keep being the newest and best to keep them loyal. That means you need to invest more resources – time, people and budget – into innovation to keep them happy.

They can be critical

Paid influencers aside, most early adopters pride themselves on their impartiality.

They get credibility by giving honest opinions and not being afraid to share them. They have high standards and expect your brand to meet those standards. 

This means if you push a product that doesn’t meet expectations, or you don’t make clear the version you’re talking to them about is an early or test version, they can be hugely critical. 

Man in a suit sitting at a desk holding a phone and angrily shouting into the mouthpiece

Bad word of mouth from early adopters can kill innovation stone dead. As we already said, get feedback from them early, and act on it quickly. 

If early adopters talk publicly about faults and issues, prioritise fixing those. Use your public relations activity when you update and upgrade to show you’ve listened and acted on the feedback.

They don’t like it when products become too popular

A big part of early adopter’s motivation is the joy they get from being ahead of others in trying out new experiences and ideas.

But when those experiences and ideas become more mainstream and less new, they start to lose appeal for early adopters. Remember, “new” matters a lot to them. 

By the time the majority start buying a product and it becomes well established, early adopters have started to look for the next innovation. 

Inside a concept hall, lots of confetti flying in air, with audience reaching out their hands towards it

Using the same products and services as the majority stops them feeling like early adopters. They often drop out as the majority move in to using the new product. 

The smart way to overcome this is to have a range of products launched at different times. So, as a product moves into majority use, you have a newer innovation that you launch to keep early adopters in your overall brand (rather than ask them to stick with the same product). 

You see this a lot with mobile phones for example. Early adopters upgrade their phones as soon as new models come out every year. They want the next thing to be popular. But the majority of customers hang on to their phones for a couple of years before upgrading. They’re comfortable with what’s popular now

Good fit for challenger brands

Big brands tend to get most of their sales come from the early and late majority part of the market.

Makes sense, doesn’t it? That’s where the biggest number of customers are after all.

They may have attracted early adopters at the start, but now they hold on to “the majority” of the market as loyal customers.

Remember, the majority of customers are slow to change what they buy, unless something persuades them to change their habits. 

challenger boxer making his way through a crowd towards a boxing ring

But for challenger brands, early adopters are a great fit. 

Early adopters are open to change and like brands who disrupt the market. They like brands who bring fresh ideas and new ways of doing things. Early adopters are attracted to challenger brands, because they help fit their need for new experiences.

Of course, challenger brands need to deliver on their promises for early adopters. They need to position themselves around the early adopters needs and work closely with those customers to gather feedback

They need to communicate their brand identity in a way that early adopters find relevant and engaging. This often involved being bolder and more audacious in what they do, as early adopters like and buy into those sorts of values.

Conclusion - The pros and cons of early adopters

In the innovation adoption model, early adopters often hold the key to whether an innovation succeeds or fails. 

If enough early adopters try and like an innovation, that innovation reaches a tipping point where it’s perceived as popular and a “safe” buying choice for the more conservative majority of buyers. 

Early adopters are relatively easy to attract and persuade to drive trial, because they’re more adventurous buyers who like new experiences. 

Young Girl reading book

They’re often highly engaged in the category and feel rewarded by being among the first to try new products. 

Get your approach right by taking their feedback seriously and they can drive a lot of positive word of mouth for your innovation. 

Get it wrong however, and they’ll be quick to tell you and others what the problem is. They’re also a hard target to keep happy because they always have one eye on the next innovation. To keep them, you need a regular stream of innovation to keep them engaged and satisfied. 

Check out our article on challenger brands as they’re a particularly good fit for early adopters. Or contact us, if you need help shaping your plan to pull in more early adopters. 

Photo credits

Girl reading magazine : Photo by Jerry Wang on Unsplash

Hypnosis Pocket Watch (adapted) : Photo by MK Hamilton on Unsplash

Woman looking at phone in dark room : Photo by Chad Madden on Unsplash 

Heart Button Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Shout (adapted) : Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash

Lens : Photo by Paul Skorupskas on Unsplash

Amazon boxes with hearts : Photo by Alexas_Fotos on Unsplash

Frustrated Man (adapted) : Photo by Usman Yousaf on Unsplash

Man shouting at phone : Photo by Icons8 Team on Unsplash

Confetti : Photo by Pablo Heimplatz on Unsplash

Entering the ring : Photo by Attentie Attentie on Unsplash

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