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The pros and cons of early adopters

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Why read this? : We share what’s good and bad about early adopters. Learn why they’re such an attractive segment for new products and services. But also why it takes a lot of work to keep them happy. Read this to learn the role of early adopters in your marketing plan. 

The consumer adoption of innovation model (see our marketing innovation guide) shows that successful new products and services usually follow a similar sales pattern over time.

It mainly applies to completely new products rather than improvements to existing ones. (i.e. more revolutionary than evolutionary products). 

This pattern suggests there are clear stages in a new brand’s development. And that there are specific types of customer at each stage, who share similar approaches to buying products.

Consumer adoption of marketing innovation.

You use the model to identify which customers to target at each stage. The customers who like to be the first with innovations are the innovators and early adopters.

The challenge of driving trial

Persuading customers to try a new product is one of the many challenges with innovation.

Most customers (around 80%-85% of the market) don’t like to try new and unfamiliar products.

They prefer familiar products. They’re habit-driven, and see new products as too risky. 

However, there’ll always be a small group of innovators (around 2-3% of the market) who like to take risks and aren’t driven by habits.

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

They’re very adventurous and willing to take the risk on the new and unfamiliar. But this group is small, and don’t drive a lot of sales. 

But there’s another larger group who follow what these innovators do. These are the early adopters. 

These early adopters are still adventurous and risk-taking, just less so than the innovators. And the good news is there’s enough of them, that when they do buy, they make the product seem popular. And this is often enough to get the majority of other customers interested in buying. 

The pros of early adopters

Early adopters are about 15% of the market. That’s big enough to generate good initial sales, and to make the product visible in the market. 

When you get them to try a new product, those sales help repay launch and development costs. It also gives the product a more tangible market presence. Retailers start to believe in the product’s potential. Majority customers start to see the product as less risky, because they see other people buying it. 

On its own, this makes them an attractive target for innovation. But there’s more reasons why brands go after them. Those are mostly to do with “how” they buy.

Low barriers to trial

Early adopters don’t need much persuasion to try new products. Certainly, much less than you need with the majority and laggards.

It takes less time, effort and resource to persuade them to try. They’re more open to it, and don’t have so many barriers for you to overcome.

They recognise there’s a risk to going first with new products,. But they’re OK with that.  The excitement of going first outweighs the risk. Early adopters get a kick out of trying new and unfamiliar products.

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

For example, they realise future iterations of the products might have better features or performance. The first iPhones only had 16GB storage, for example. The first iPads had no camera. But they were still the first of their kind, and early adopters like the feeling of being first. 

The risk of going first isn’t a barrier for them, it’s a benefit. They have fewer objections to overcome. 

Highly engaged in the category

Early adopters want to be first because they feel highly engaged with that category. It means something to them, which is why being first matters.

For categories they don’t care about, they won’t be early adopters. So technology early adopters probably won’t be fashion early adopters, for example. Food early adopters might not care very much about banking.

You’re an early adopter in the categories you care about the most.

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

Marketers love to talk about customer engagement, but they often talk about it in vague terms. In fact, it should be a much more specific measure. 

This measurement should show how much customers actively interact with the brand. The key word is active. Engagement means doing something. 

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 interactions on product review sites and community forums. 

Early adopters are active. They like to interact with brands in the categories they care about. If you know who they are (say from your CRM data), you can contact them with news about your innovation. They like it when you make them feel involved. 

Overall, they’re a relatively “easy” sell in terms of trying new products.

Word of mouth

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

This proactive talking means they can drive strong word of mouth recommendation for new products. If they like them, of course. Other customers feel more confident about the product, when the early adopter shares their experience.

This endorsement reduces the risk of buying for more cautious customers.

Young boy in a yellow jersey showing loudly into a microphone

It feels “safer” because it seems popular. Someone else they trust (the early adopter) has vouched for it, and that makes the product more trustworthy.


Influence works best from people you know and trust

This has become a full-time job for some with the rise of influencers on social media. Influencers are a more organised version of early adopters. Brands work with them to talk about and promote their products. The idea is they influence the majority of the market to try and buy. 

Influencers generally reach many customers, but their credibility can vary. Credible and independent influencers can create a lot of buzz about new products. But when it’s a paid endorsement with a brand, the message becomes less credible.

When you work with influencers, it’s important to look for high levels of credibility. You want to work with partners who have the same or similar values to your brand. 

How do you find early adopters?

These early adopters (influencers) are relatively easy to find. 

Start by searching on related category topics. You’ll find the influencers with the highest reach (number of followers) and highest levels of engagement (number of interactions with their content) near the top of the rankings. 

Look at those who interact with you frequently on your social media channels, or who post comments on your website. Likely early adopters. 

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

Check your CRM data – early adopters will stand out due to their high levels of interaction.

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

Look at both the quantity of (e.g. how many followers) and the quality of their influence. You want influencers who’ll talk fairly and constructively about new products. 

How do you attract early adopters?

The key to attract early adopters is to make them feel special. Connect directly with them.

They actively engage when they feel they’ve got a more personal connection with your brand.

Once you find them, ask them lots of questions. Listen closely to the answers.

Many companies recruit early adopters for qualitative research, because they like to discuss new products in focus groups

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

Make them feel special by tapping into their need to be first. Alert them before you alert the mass market. Give them “sneak peaks” and early previews. Asking early adopters for feedback makes them feel like they’re helping you make better products.

It’s a clear sign you’ve build a strong brand when customers are happy to help you.

Mavens, salesmen and connectors

In his book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell talks about people who can help you “spread the word” about new products. This is a similar idea to what early adopters do, but he breaks it down into 3 types of influencers :-

  • Mavens – these are experts in the category with deep 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 working with early adopters, it’s worth making sure you have a good mix of mavens, salesmen and connectors to help you spread the word. 

The cons of early adopters

So far, we’ve covered the pros of early adopters. They’re open to try new things and they’re highly active and engaged. They may only be 15% of the market, but they’re a highly influential 15%.

But, it’d be wrong to assume this means working with early adopters is always easy. It isn’t. There are some definite challenges to working with them too.

They’re demanding

Because early adopters know your category well, and feel passionate about it, they have high expectations. They’ll complain loudly if you’re not up to scratch 

This can make them demanding and high maintenance. You need to spend time with them. 

It also sets expectations that you’ll continue to come up with new innovations and new ways to engage.

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 aren’t especially loyal customers. They go with what’s newest and what best meets their needs at the time. 

You have to keep being the newest and best to keep them loyal. That means investing 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 set high standards and expect your brand to meet them. 

This means if you push a product that’s below their standards, or you don’t listen to their feedback, 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. Make sure you get feedback from them early, and make sure you act on it quickly. Use public relations to show early adopters you’ve listened and acted on their feedback.

They don’t like mainstream products

A big part of an early adopter’s motivation is the joy of being ahead of others in trying out new things.

But when those experiences and ideas become more mainstream and less new, they lose their appeal to 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 are already looking for the next innovation. They often drop out of products when they go mainstream. 

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

So you need a pipeline of products at different stages of the adoption model. As a product moves into the majority stage, you push out the next one which’ll appeal more to early adopters.

You see this with mobile phones, for example. Early adopters upgrade their phones as soon as new models come out. They want to be first with the newest type of phone.

But the majority of customers hang on to their phones for a few years before upgrading. They’re comfortable with what’s popular now, not what’s the newest. 

Good fit for challenger brands

Over time, most sales come from the early and late majority part of the market.

Seems obvious, right? After all, that’s where most customers are.

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 challenger brands, which are new to the market, have to start with early adopters. They want to disrupt the way the category works, and early adopters are the most open to this. 

They like brands with fresh ideas and new ways of doing things. Early adopters like challenger brands, because they meet their need for new experiences.

Of course, challenger brands have to deliver on their promises for early adopters. They have to position themselves around the early adopters needs, and listen closely to their feedback

They have to communicate their brand identity in a way which early adopters find relevant and engaging. This often means being bold and audacious because that appeals to early adopters. 

It’s all about being new and being first. 

Conclusion - The pros and cons of early adopters

In the innovation adoption model, early adopters are often key to an innovation’s success. 

If enough early adopters try and like an innovation, that innovation reaches a tipping point.

It’s perceived as popular and a “safe” choice for the more conservative majority of buyers. 

Early adopters are relatively easy to attract and persuade to drive trial, because they have less barriers. They like going first. 

Young Girl reading book

They’re highly engaged in the category and feel rewarded being first to try new products. Take their feedback seriously, and they’ll drive a lot of positive word of mouth for your innovation. 

Get it wrong however, and they’ll be quick to tell everyone what the problem is. It’s also hard to keep them happy because they always have one eye on the next innovation. To keep them, you need a regular stream of innovation that’ll meet their need to try new things. 

Check out our challenger brands article as those are a great fit for early adopters. Or get in touch, if you need help attracting 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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