OPINION21 June 2016

Early adopters: who cares?

Opinion Trends UK

Are brands over-complicating product development and marketing processes by focusing on early adopters? By Virginia Monk of Network Research 

Group of teenagers sit on a wall and look at a phone

The early adopter is the aspirational demographic sought out by marketers across the land. Get traction among these consumers, and all your go-to-market strategy will take care of itself.

Your new brand/product will rise to the much-lauded status of a ‘household name’ by the time the slack (uninformed) late majority arrive.

The early adopter effect is generally seen as a make-or-break stage in many product development and brand marketing strategies, particularly for the consumer tech and entertainment industries.

According to the classic Rogers’ bell curve, the early adopter segment represents a little over 10% of a typical consumer market. But, in a consumer landscape where truly innovative products are becoming increasingly scarce, in spite of the ever-changing nature of available technology, I often question whether the ‘early adopter effect’ is still as relevant is it was 10 or 20 years ago.

Firstly I feel that brands should start the product cycle by reviewing whether the traditional view of early adopters is still relevant, or indeed pertinent to their particular concept. Early adopters are generally perceived by marketers to be an urban, 18-24 year old, tech-savvy demographic; they’re often portrayed as capricious snobs, only engaging with cutting-edge brands considered ‘cool’.

It has long been assumed that this group is inherently attracted towards digital brands and technology categories, as a natural outcome of their behaviours. However, some of our recent research into post-demographic consumers suggests that those in the traditional early adopter category, rather than being selective and fickle, advocate and use a significantly wide range of brands in varied categories, including some more traditional service-led brands such as British Airways.

In addition to this, the internet has created a global method for ‘Chinese whispers’ to proliferate; meaning that consumers who don’t look like the traditional view of early adopters (non-urban, emerging markets, older) can now access and influence (via direct brand engagement) the development of new products and concepts.

On the other side of the coin, this has caught out a number of brands who have found themselves overwhelmed by the sheer volume of early-stage demand.

Our own research demonstrates unequivocally that the much-lauded early adopter demographic is no longer the 18-24 bracket and no longer essentially urban. Yet this understanding is not often applied in product development, particularly for brands looking to harness technology in innovation.

The early adopter of 20 years ago has become today’s early majority, while retaining their interest in the democratisation of technology. As a result, the real innovators and early adopters (a potential barometer for early beta testing etc.) are now pushed further towards the thin end of the bell curve wedge, making them even less representative of the mass market, and thus less likely to impact product success/failure.

Brands must ask themselves whether they are over-complicating product development and marketing processes by focusing on this niche audience. If we’re talking about developing/launching something truly ground-breaking, such as VR or 3D printing, gaining traction and advocacy among this audience is an important hurdle in reaching mass market.

However, in many instances, particularly in the areas of customer and product propositions, new ideas are seldom truly ‘new news’. In these cases is it valid to be placing so much emphasis on a group of consumers who so poorly reflect the mass market? Should we, in fact, be focusing our attentions more closely on the early majority – a larger audience, and hugely receptive to new ideas.

The fact is that most brands, when targeting what they perceive as early adopters are really targeting a very narrow band of the early majority and really missing out on a much broader and richer target market to help co-author their product development story.

Virginia Monk is managing director of Network Research