The classic Everett Rogers graph of product diffusion, including ideas such as innovators and early adopters, is well known even the world over, and the terms used can be found in every magazine article about new market trends. But is it right?
Rogers stated that adopters of any new innovation or idea could be categorized as innovators (2.5%), early adopters (13.5%), early majority (34%), late majority (34%) and laggards (16%), based on a bell curve. These ideas about diffusion of innovation are among the standard vocabulary of product managers and marketers. But in a Marketing Bulletin, 1995 article I was shown recently, Malcolm Wright and Don Charlett raise some big questions about the Rogers Model, stating that the Bass Model, also from the 1960s, is more accurate.
Examples they quote to show how the Bass model has given good predictions include consumer durables like televisions and clothes driers, but also more complex projects such as diffusion of cocoa-spraying chemicals among Nigerian farmers, spread of an educational innovation in the US, and purchase of photovoltaic home energy systems in South-West US.
So, what is wrong with Rogers’ model?
I had assumed like many that complex products need a little market testing by innovators and early adopters before the mass market will adopt them. However, some of the examples quoted above in support of the Bass Model instead are pretty complex. Wright and Charlett question two key assumptions:
- That some individuals are “venturesome”, as a personality trait that is consistent and correlates with length of time in education; however, the evidence for this trait is weak.
- That the early phase of marketing is dominated by media advertising, and word of mouth becomes important as the market begins to mature.
The Bass Model stresses the influence of interpersonal communication, including nonverbal observation, right from the start.
So why has the Rogers Model been so popular?
My guess is that it probably worked quite well when applied to buggy software that needed a period of beta testing or of being in stealth mode, but then the idea became over-generalized.
If Bass works best, what does that mean for marketers?
Before answering that question, I would pose another one. Why might it be even more important now? The key lies in network effects. Social media creates powerful network effects, so if the power of interpersonal communication was important before, it is now even more so. If the Bass Model is really more accurate, focusing on mass advertising as products are launched, or concentrating mostly on early adopters could waste valuable time and make the difference between product success or failure. The key is to realise that network effects are the best friend a marketer can have, and should be aimed for as early as possible.