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As any marketing person knows, a product and/or service launch--hard or soft--must be a coordinated and diligent effort, never mind making sure that the offering is widely adopted as quickly as possible.

Time-to-market is not only important, but time to widespread adoption may be more critical for a quick Return on Investment (ROI) and a strong mindshare firewall. An age-old question is, Why do some people adopt certain ideas, products, services, etc. quicker than others?

Diffusion of Innovations

The "Diffusion of Innovations" theory has a set of robust principles that can shed light on the age-old question. In a nutshell, the theory's purpose is to provide individuals with a conceptual framework for understanding the process of diffusion and social change.

It aligns well with understanding how a product and/or service launch, among other innovations, can be tailored for the quickest diffusion possible across a market/segment.

It has become apparent in such areas as software, fiber optics, and data storage, among others, that ubiquitous user adoption or consumption is a prerequisite for a quick investment payback and a strong ROI. Getting employees, stakeholders, or consumers to quickly adopt an idea, strategy, product, or service is essential in realizing one's goals and objectives within a given time frame.

Diffusion research did not develop from a single discipline or a single event. The first discipline involved was anthropology. Among the other research areas that led to the expansion of the theory were: rural sociology, education, public health, communication, marketing and management, geography, general sociology, economics, and other traditions. The Theory Diffusion of Innovations is a theory that analyzes, as well as helps explain, the adaptation and adoption of a new innovation.

An innovation is defined as an idea, practice, or object (e.g., product and/or service) that is perceived as new by an individual or other user. It is the perceived novelty of the idea that determines someone's reaction to it.

The diffusion component is the process by which an innovation is communicated through certain channels (e.g., internet, email, face-to-face, etc.) over time among the members of a social system (e.g., company, business unit, market, segment).

The change agent or persons (e.g., marketing team) introducing the innovation in a system should consider the following aspects: (1) the characteristics of the target population, (2) the characteristics of the innovation or change itself, and (3) the stages of adoption. Each of these three categories should be analyzed and planned for when introducing an innovation or change.

Typically, a new idea or innovation moves slowly through a group as it is first introduced. Many people are skeptical (e.g., fad of the month, the new panacea) and resist change and getting out of their comfort zone.

In general, as the number of individuals trying the innovation (the adopters) increases, the diffusion of the new idea moves at a faster rate, especially if the early adopters are true exemplars or pacesetters. The diffusion phenomenon initially follows an S-shaped or logistic curve.

For a pertinent business example, see the practice of getting the best sales professionals (the exemplars) to utilize a new sales force automation application (the change) as a way to increase and quicken the sales force’s adoption of the new technology.

Application of the Theory

1. Adopter Categories

Category Description Questions/Comments
Innovators Venturesome, cosmopolitan, risk-taking, and information seeking. Who are the targets that fit this profile and who would be willing to initially try, and potentially sell, your innovation?
Early Adopters Greatest degree of opinion leadership, respected by other members of the social group. Which targets fit this profile and how can you get them on board to increase the uptake or adoption of your innovation?
Early Majority Deliberate; adopt new ideas just before the average member of a system. This group is likely to look up to or admire the early adopters, who can be your best allies.
Late Majority Skeptical, adopt new ideas just after the average member of a system. With this group, it is important that you look for any barriers or potential risks and help to mitigate them, while “pulling” these targets with potential value enhancements (what’s in it for them?).
Laggards Traditional, last in a social system to adopt an innovation; pay little attention to the opinions of others. You may need to make some difficult decisions with this group, as they may not fit in with your plans going forward.

2. Characteristics of the Innovation or Change

Relative Advantage The degree to which an innovation is perceived as better than the idea it supersedes. What is the value proposition for the innovation vis-à-vis the status quo?
Compatibility The degree to which an innovation is perceived as being consistent with existing values, past experiences, and needs of potential adopters. How does the innovation complement or augment, and not disrupt, current behaviors, investments, and capabilities?
Complexity The degree to which an innovation is perceived as difficult to understand and use. How can you simplify and distill down your messaging and strategy so it is easier to comprehend and assimilate?
Trialability The degree to which an innovation may be experimented with on a limited basis. How can you phase in your innovation to take advantage of quick-wins and easier digestion?
Observability The degree to which the results of an innovation are visible to others. How can you tangibilize and model your innovation so it is easier to visualize and understand?

3. Stages of Adoption

Stage Description Questions/Comments
Awareness The extent to which a target population is conscious or aware of an innovation. What is your communication plan for your innovation in terms of the why, what, and how?
Interest One’s personal intrigue on the innovation. What is the value proposition for your innovation (what’s in it for them?)?
Trial Experimenting with the innovation. How can your targets better trial and experiment with your innovation?
Decision The adopter decides to continue, quit, or re-create the innovation. How can you create a decision model that generates a compelling call to action?
Adoption Continuation or integration of the innovation into one’s lifestyle. How can you reinforce and adapt your innovation as you receive real-time feedback and results data?


The diffusion of innovations theory can be applied to anywhere in an organization or the marketplace.

In terms of adopter categories, one needs to understand the different profiles within their organization and/or market and who needs to be on board and bought-in to help them pull-in the other targets (e.g., who are the early adopters?). In terms of the characteristics of an innovation or strategy, the greater the perceived relative advantage, compatibility, trialability, observability, and the less complexity, the more rapidly the innovation will be adopted.

In terms of the stages of adoption, one must first build awareness, then personal interest, and then the ability to trial, which is similar to most marketing campaigns that move from branding, to a lead, to pipeline support.

In terms of recommendations, each innovation should be vetted via the principles of the diffusion of innovations theory, which should help to increase the rate of adoption or uptake of the innovation, leading to a quicker realization of benefits and a clearer strategic direction.

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Michael L. Perla is a principal consultant at a sales and marketing consulting firm. He can be reached at