Beat the Crowd but Don’t Beat the Guinea Pig

Last time, I mentioned how innovations ranging from "hard" technologies—-like the Internet--to the softest technologies--like the use of bedsheets--diffuse at a similar rate. This holds true for nearly every widespread diffusion ever studied.

But who diffuses when? Why do some folks adopt early, and some folks adopt late?

Everett Rogers and his heirs (who I mentioned last time) identify five perceptions that influence whether a potential adopter becomes an actual adopter:

  • relative advantage
  • compatibility
  • simplicity
  • trialability
  • observability

Relative Advantage

the degree to which a potential adopter perceives the innovation as better than the idea it supersedes

The status quo might be an existing idea, process, or object (e.g., atheism, the Dewey Decimal system, and canned beer.)

The status quo can also be the absence of an innovation, such as the Internet, which has no clear predecessor.

The classic example comes from the 1940s. Two agricultural sociologists (do they still exist?) studied the diffusion of the use of hybrid corn seeds by farmers. Farmers perceived them to be advantageous over the seeds they used because of their profit potential and cost-effectiveness. Many farmers shared this perception, and use of the new seeds diffused quickly.


the degree to which an innovation is perceived as consistent with existing values, experiences, and needs—in other words, consistent with the ‘big picture’

“Sure, this gun is more effective than my sword… but will my wife let me have a gun?”


how easy (or difficult) the innovation can be understood and effectively used

I am typing on a ‘QWERTY’ keyboard rather than its long dead, but arguably more efficient, rival: the ‘Dvorak’ keyboard.

The QWERTY keyboard was designed without much thought to efficiency, whereas the Dvorak’s keys were placed according to how often they were used together. Despite its relative advantage, the Dvorak never supplanted the QWERTY because switching from a keyboard to which you are accustomed to a different setup is really, really hard, and the benefits of changing are not immediate.

Dropbox functions essentially the same as FTP uploading and downloading that has been around for as long as the Internet has. But Microsoft simplified the process by automating it, and making the process more user-friendly. As a result, use of FTP diffused in 2010 and 2011 rather than in 2000 and 2001.


the potential for experimentation and “learning-by-doing”—if an innovation can be tweaked after adoption, it is more likely to be adopted than if subsequent modification is difficult

The Obama Administration considered a proposal to lay the Keystone Pipeline, designed to move tar sands oil from northern Alberta, Canada, to refineries in Louisiana. Opponents argue that the pipeline poses unacceptable environmental risks, particularly as it would pass through the U.S.’s largest water aquifer. Once installed, it will be difficult if not impossible to modify the path of the pipeline.

Thus, very little trialability with the pipeline. We do it, and that’s it.

This is markedly different from an innovation like Dropbox, in which 2.0 can replace 1.0.


the extent to which potential adopters can learn from early adopters

It’s like a haunted house. No one wants to go in first.

This factor also explains why sometimes being second or third to the market is advantageous.

Google was able to improve upon existing search engines like Alta Vista and Ask Jeeves.

Remember when America Online came around and kicked Prodigy and CompuServe to the curb?

(Other times, it doesn’t matter how much you can observe your predecessors. For examples, please see Saved By the Bell: the New Class and Zune.)


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