Early Adopters Model: Your Most Important Customers

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What is the early adopters model? How do innovators and early adopters affect the success of your marketing strategy? What is an early adopter example?

The “early adopters” model is a system in sociology that explains how a contagious idea or product spreads among people who adopt it at different phases. In the model, an idea spreads from innovators and early adopters all the way to the laggards.

We’ll cover how the early adopters model works, what an early adopters example looks like, and why innovators and early adopters should be important elements of your marketing strategy.

Early Adopters Model

In the early adopters model, a contagious idea or product spreads among people who adopt it at different phases. The key players are innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards.

  • First, the Innovators take hold. Innovators are a fairly small group of more adventurous people or companies who are willing to take the risk and go out on a limb to try this idea. 
  • Then, the Early Adopters join in. Early Adopters definition: They are also risk-takers, but slightly less so. Early Adopters are respected, thoughtful opinion leaders who observed the Innovators before taking the plunge themselves. 
  • After the Early Adopters, the masses jump on board in two waves: the Early Majority and the Late Majority. These majorities are more cautious and skeptical to try something new until the well-respected Early Adopters test it out. 
  • Finally, the Laggards join just as the swell of the epidemic falls off. Laggards are slow to adopt new innovations because they see no reason to change; why fix what’s not broken?

Early Adopters Example: Iowa Farmers Try a New Corn Seed

The early adopters model is well illustrated in a study of how Iowa farmers adopted a hybrid corn seed in the 1930s. Although this new seed was superior to what farmers were using, it took more than a decade after the seed was introduced before nearly all of the farmers had made the switch. 

  • In the first five years, only a handful of the 259 farmers studied had adopted the new seed. These were the Innovators.
  • In the sixth year, 16 made the change, then 21 in the following year. These were the Early Adopters, who had seen the Innovators’ success and followed suit.
  • In the following three years, 36, 61, 46 farmers jumped on board, respectively. These were the Early and Late Majority, who had waited for eight to 10 years after the seed’s introduction before trying it. 
  • In the following years, 36, 14, and finally 3 farmers adopted the new seed. These were the Laggards, who — despite seeing the new seed’s undeniable success in other farmers’ fields — were in no rush to change, even for the better. 

If you graphed the number of farmers adopting the new seed each year, you would see a model epidemic curve that starts gradually, tips with the Early Adopters, climbs dramatically with the Early and Late Majority, and tapers off with the Laggards. This is typical of early adopters models.

Different factors come into play each time an idea or product advances to the next group of adopters, because each group’s attitude and reasoning for adoption is different. Both Innovators and Early Adopters have a revolutionary mindset and are inherently open to innovations that will give them an edge, despite considerable risk. 

  • In a market setting, these are small companies who are willing to take big risks and try new ideas or products before they have been proven or before their prices have dropped.

However, before an idea or product moves from the Early Adopters to the Early Majority, a gap must be bridged; the fundamental difference in the visionary attitude of Early Adopters versus the caution of the Early Majority creates a chasm where would-be epidemics can fall off. This is where the Law of the Few becomes critical: Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen can act as translators to make the seemingly revolutionary actions of the Innovators and Early Adopters attractive to the more mainstream and traditional majorities. 

  • In a market setting, the Early Majority would be the big companies that have a more complex and established workflow that needs to be adjusted to accommodate new innovations. These companies will take the extra time to build safety nets and manage risks if they decide to adopt a new technology.

Translating Messages, Products, and Services

The early adopters model is helpful in designing effective marketing strategies. In general, most people naturally resist change and innovation in favor of what’s familiar, comfortable, and working well enough. A much smaller population (the Innovators and Early Adopters) give an idea or product its kickstart, but the masses ultimately must get on board for an epidemic to take hold. This is where translation is necessary to make new ideas or products more palatable and bridge the gap between the risk-takers and the rest of us.

  • (Shortform example: Think of this in terms of fashion trends. Fashion-forward Innovators may start wearing jeans that are totally ripped and shredded. That’s a little extreme for the mainstream shoppers, but translators take it back a notch and wear jeans with smaller holes in the knees, bridging the gap and making the trend more appealing to the majority.)

Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen each use their strengths differently to translate messages in a way that they take on a deeper meaning to the people receiving the message (thus making it stickier). These are your innovators and early adopters.

  • As members of so many different worlds, Connectors are able to act as an intermediary in translating ideas from one community to another.
  • Mavens’ extensive knowledge and detailed understanding of (sometimes complex) topics allows them to adeptly explain information to people with less or no expertise. 
  • Salesmen use their nonverbal abilities and ability to connect emotionally with people to make information and ideas more relatable.

Early Adopters Example: How Airwalk Got Preppy Kids to Wear Skater Shoes

A San Diego-based shoe company named Airwalk began producing shoes in the mid-1980s aimed at hard-core skateboaders, but achieved epidemic popularity in the 1990s through an advertising campaign that translated skater fashion trends to mainstream buyers.

Airwalk’s advertising agency, Lambesis, hired a Maven named DeeDee Gordon to spot social epidemics that were about to tip — from kung-fu movies to interest in Tibet and the Dalai Lama. Gordon contracted a team of Innovators across the country, and regularly checked in with them to find out what music, fashion, television shows, and topics they were interested in. By noting their varied interests over time, then seeing what the mainstream caught onto several months later, she was able to track and forecast trends and ideas that would soon advance from the Innovators and Early Adopters to the Majority.

Lambesis put a twist on those themes and, just as the trends were hitting mainstream popularity, incorporated them into the shoe ads in a way that appealed to young buyers (e.g. a kung-fu parody where the Airwalk-wearing main character uses his skateboard to fight off the ninja villains). Gordon used her Mavenly knowledge of trends to tap into the public’s interests and translate a niche shoe designed for skateboarders to mainstream popularity. 

Lambesis’s ad campaigns not only rode the wave of these trends, but themselves helped tip these trends into epidemics by translating less accessible ideas into more digestible forms. For example, they took many young adults’ growing interest in the Dalai Lama and the occupation of Tibet and created an ad showing a Tibetan monk cheating on a test by looking at notes he’d scrawled on the sides of his Airwalk shoes. The ads tweaked somewhat obscure trends and translated them into a context that was more familiar to the mainstream. 

Early Adopters Model: Your Most Important Customers

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Amanda Penn

Amanda Penn is a writer and reading specialist. She’s published dozens of articles and book reviews spanning a wide range of topics, including health, relationships, psychology, science, and much more. Amanda was a Fulbright Scholar and has taught in schools in the US and South Africa. Amanda received her Master's Degree in Education from the University of Pennsylvania.

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