It’s Not a Chasm; It’s a Continuum

Jan 5, 2023 | Innovation, Product Management

(Original publish date March 14, 2018)

It’s Not a Chasm; It’s a Continuum

A Deeper Look at Everett M. Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovation Theory

Sociologist Everett M. Rogers developed a theory on the diffusion of innovation that has long been a part of general business instruction and learning (even in the AIPMM certification coursework).  Countless books and articles have been written about the theory and its application in various industries.  Some even discuss the idea of a “chasm” between categories of adopter segments.  However, Rogers was clear that no “chasm” exists.  He stated, “Past research shows no support for this claim of a “chasm” between certain adopter categories.  On the contrary, innovativeness, if measured properly, is a continuous variable and there are no sharp breaks or discontinuities between adjacent adopter categories (although there are important differences between them)”[1].

Rogers summed up the theory best when he stated, “The diffusion of innovations is essentially a social process” he goes on to add, “The meaning of an innovation is thus gradually worked out through a process of social construction”[2].  Another way to state that is the adoption and diffusion process, meaning the acceptance and utilization of an innovation among a group of people is not a business strategy but rather a function of cultural endorsement.  It’s a continual social process with no hard breaks, stops or starts.

So how then do those involved in new product development and product marketing inspire a social process leading to a cultural endorsement that spans the continuum of adoption?  By developing for the majorities which will become the largest percentage of your customer base but speaking the unique marketing “language” of each adopter category sequentially.

The process begins by defining each innovator category along the continuum and what makes them unique, keeping in mind that there are always exceptions.  Rogers, using a normal frequency distribution, assigned percentages to each category using the mean and standard deviations of the study population.  By calculating the percentage of current or existing adoption for your given market, you can determine which adopter segment to target next.

Innovators:  2.5%

These are the risk takers, the adventurous.  They tend to have a circle of friends with similar characteristics.  These individuals can handle uncertainty and are willing to occasionally accept disappointment when a new discovery falls short.  They have above average critical thinking skills and can understand complex technical concepts.  They are often financially secure which allows them the freedom to purchase untried and untested goods and services.  What’s interesting about this group is that while they are not necessarily popular or respected within the local social system, they are the ones responsible for the initial introduction of an innovation.

Innovators can even be harnessed to help with ideation and design, giving them a type of “ownership” of the innovation.  This group likes to give advice so ask for it and then draw attention to them.  A stroke of the ego can pay off in spades.  The result?  These innovators, in turn, are more likely to evangelize the benefits of the innovation.

Marketing messaging for this group needs to focus on the new, innovative, unique, cutting edge and revolutionary aspects of the product.  Mention of a limited release, pre-order, invitation-only or otherwise indicating a short supply will tap into the need for the product to feel exclusive to this group.

Early Adopters:  13.5%

This group carries significant respect and influence within a population.  While Innovators are few and more on the periphery, the Early Adopters are greater in number and more integrated into a society giving them a strong level of leadership.  These individuals may be role models for the later majority groups and can be tapped to increase adoption rates with their influence.  Think of this group as responsible for vetting innovations for the later groups.

For an innovation to move forward, it must be approved and accepted by this group.  Enlist a trial group and provide ample support as they test the product.  Listen for modifications, adjustments or fine-tuning suggested by this group; they have an excellent sense of what will work for the larger majorities.  Reward them with lots of conspicuous attention and don’t drop them after the initial introduction, maintain a strong relationship with key members of this group.

Marketing messaging for this group still needs to include the concepts of new and innovative but with the addition of the benefits for how the product will improve their lives.  This group doesn’t just choose an innovation because it’s new, they choose it because they want to do things faster, cheaper, healthier, more environmentally responsible, etc.

Early Majority:  34%

As Rogers stated, there is no “chasm” that exists between this and the earlier group, but rather a continuum requiring a shift in focus.  While the Early Adopters favored “new,” this Early Majority favors “accepted.” A significant shift needs to take place to address the much different motivator of this group.

The members of this group look for innovations that already carry the endorsement of the earlier group and that show clear benefits.  This group isn’t looking for a fad but rather an innovation that can deliver.  These are not the risk takers but are, however willing to try something new with a minimum disruption of their lives and short learning curve.  Ideally, your work with the Early Adopters has fine-tuned your product for this group.  These are value-conscious individuals with busy lives, so they are open to easy ways to simplify what they already do.

Marketing messaging for this group needs to stress the ease and user-friendly aspects of the product.  Include words around value and cost consciousness.  Make adoption easy for this group with simple instructions and trial before purchase.  Ensure that advertising endorsements come from within their group and are similar to them, meaning average (credible) consumers.

Late Majority:  34%

This group is risk averse and only moves to new innovations to avoid the embarrassment of being left behind.  Change is unsettling to this group.  This may sound like a negative quality, but these will often be your most loyal customers as they eventually take ownership of your product and will not stray easily when the next shiny object appears.  This group is also the other half of the bulk of your Majority customers.

Marketing messaging for this group needs to down-play the newness and stress that the product has already become mainstream and is common, normal, usual, tried and tested.  You’ll also want to subtly tap into the fear that they might be left behind so mention the risks of not adopting this standardized product that everyone else is already using.

Laggards:  16%

This group moves to innovations with the greatest resistance, kicking and screaming.  Innovations aren’t joyful experiences of learning or finding new and better ways to do things for this group.  Innovations are often (subconsciously) viewed with fear and a focus of their extreme criticism.  They can tell you the 100 reasons why it won’t work.  Don’t run from these individuals but listen to their reasoning.  There is value in the depth of their criticism as they can highlight some of the flaws that the earlier groups glossed over, and they may have the ear of your Late Majority.

Marketing messaging for this group needs to emphasize the control that they will have over the adoption.  Control will lessen their fear.  Give many opportunities to gently introduce and familiarize this group with the product.  Include advertisements that show their peers being comfortable and using the product with ease.  In your messaging try to show a connection/metaphor/similarity between the innovation and something that is already familiar and a part of their lives.

The emphasis then needs to focus on addressing each adopter category uniquely, based on their specific characteristics while anticipating the needs and messaging for the next adopter category.  As outlined above, each of Rogers’ adopter categories holds a place on the continuum of adoption both affected by and influencing the neighboring categories.

[1] Rogers, E. M. (2003).  Diffusion of Innovations, 5th Edition.  Riverside: Free Press.

[2] Rogers, E. M. (1995).  Diffusion of Innovations, 4th Edition.  New York: Free Press.