How (And Why) To Target The Early Adopter Curve As A Startup
How well you understand and take advantage of the early adopter curve can spell success or failure for most Startups. But, sadly, many of us aren’t even aware of that curve - never mind how to take advantage of it.
The concept comes from the diffusion of Innovation (DOI) theory by E.M Rogers, first published in 1962. In this theory, Rogers aimed to underpin the social factors that drive the success of a product - specifically focusing on how an idea or product gains momentum and then spreads (diffuses, hence the theory name) across a social system.
While that sounds incredibly academic, the theory is an excellent way for startups to map out their journey and help ensure success. For example, if you understand that adoption never happens simultaneously and is instead a journey, you can tailor your app's launch and updates to maximise its chances of success.
What is the early adopter curve?
The ‘curve’ comes from a famous line graph built on E.M. Rogers’ theory. In it, five categories of adopters are established as a percentage of the population. These categories give you, as a startup, a better understanding of which type of audience you must target with certain parts of your digital product journey and marketing cycle.
These categories are theoretically a goldmine for startups, as they show an apparent ramp-up in adoption percentages if you can secure early users in the innovation and early adoption stages.
The factors that impact whether someone adopts your technology depends on some clear factors:
Relative advantage: how much better your product appears to be compared to the product/service it replaces.
Compatibility: how consistent (compatible) is the product with a user’s values, experiences and needs?
Complexity: how difficult is it to use or understand the product?
Trialability: is there a way for users to test/trial the product before they make their decision?
Observability: to what extent does your product provide actual visible results?
These factors impact our target adopter segments differently. For example, early adopters require less evidence to choose new technologies or products and are fine with complexity - but laggards will require far more focus on eliminating complexity, increasing observable success and showing an advantage over the competitors.
For this reason, early adopters can help your startup succeed and achieve market growth because they don’t need your product to be ‘perfect’. Instead, they are happy to use it and offer feedback - and it’s this user-driven feedback that will push you along the growth curve.
While all of this sounds quite academic, there’s plenty of proof in the real world. For example, how many early adopters of the Apple iPhone cared about its lack of basic functions like copy and paste? Customers were (and still are) queuing in their hundreds to buy the latest handset without needing it to be ‘perfect’. By securing early adopters in its first-ever release and iterating since then, Apple has ensured its product has diffused throughout the world to become a staple in most adult households.
Why startups should care
“So”, you might be thinking, “all you’ve done is discuss an academic theory from 1962. How is that relevant to me in 2021?”
Its relevancy is all about reality - every major startup success can be mapped to this theory. Once you secure early adopter success, adoption can then pass a critical point to become part of the majority population. Building a startup with awareness of this adoption curve means you can benefit from factors such as:
Less competition: if you’re building for the early adopters, you’re likely launching a product that has some form of innovation or novelty. So you’ll naturally have less established competitors in your market.
More profit: based on the percentages given in Rogers’ theory, capturing early adopters as well as innovators means you’re quadrupling your user base and potential profit - which will only increase as time goes on
Efficient marketing: by securing early adopters, you’re also creating brand ambassadors who will help sway adoption throughout the population. This means you’re technically reducing marketing effort as your adopters will do the work for you.
Better technical decisions: if no one is using your digital product, how can you know which features to tweak or add? Where there’s no usage, there’s no feedback. Securing early adopters gives you a userbase to begin improving your product and gathering tangible, actionable feedback.
In the adoption curve, the early adopters are the ‘bridge’ between most customers and you. Without them, your product will likely fail because it’s failing to appeal to the early majority group due to one of the factors we discussed earlier.
Big tech goes all-in on early adopters
Airbnb is one of the world’s most successful digital startups. Founders Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia poached users directly from their competitor, CraigsList - giving apartment owners a new platform to list their properties and expand their reach.
Airbnb’s team went even further by investing in professional photography for those early owner’s listings - something that was too expensive to do for every property - but was crucial at this early stage. By offering high-quality images in their listings, they made the product seem more appealing to customers who were used to browsing hotels and holiday homes.
By doing so, they established early adopters who loved the product. From here, the team didn’t need to invest in photography - the adopters themselves began to recognise that better photography led to more bookings so they took it upon themselves.
All of this effort also meant that Airbnb secured early users and could begin updating their platform based on their genuine feedback rather than acting on guesswork.
Tinder is another example of early adopter efforts paying dividends, where co-founder Whitney Wolfe went to in-person events at colleges to pitch the app to customers and hand out flyers. She repeated this across a number of universities until the product had a solid userbase interacting with the app and offering feedback.
How to target early adopters
Much of your product’s marketing journey can only exist as a result of a solid product. You can’t market something that doesn’t work. For that reason, targeting early adopters first requires you to create an innovative product.
The first step of all good development is to gather genuine user research to build a clear map of feature requirements based on actual needs. Without good research, you risk immediate failure through the #1 cause of startup death: a lack of market need.
It’s this initial user research that can win you the early adopters. If your product has been created following research, there’s a high chance your research group will continue to use it. But, even if they don’t, you’ll have already gathered the valuable insight needed from traditional early adopters so you can begin iterating.
The launch of an MVP, or ‘Minimum Viable Product’ is critical to startup success. If you’re trying to win early users, you need to get the product live and give people something to try out. Because early adopters are happy with a less than perfect product, the MVP is the best way to gather data and see how users react.
Without one, you’ll be investing too much time and money into launching a ‘finished’ product that the majority won’t adopt because no early adopters have tried it first.
We’re a product studio, not a marketing company - so we’ll keep it limited with regards to how you can ‘get your product out there’. For us, the important thing is proper user research and MVP launch, which gives initial users and feedback to act on.
However, marketing is important. Just as Tinder was marketing through direct interaction with communities, you can also aim to win over early adopters by going after niche groups and interests. If your new product solves a specific problem, find the communities that care about it. You can do this in loads of ways, including:
Reddit: find subreddit communities built around your product’s niche.
Social media: target specific users based on job title, hashtags or industry.
Events: find specific events relevant to your niche or product and either organise a demonstration or opt for a more traditional tactic such as flyers.
Soft launch: get your MVP out there on early platforms like ProductHunt, betapage, Launchingnext etc. Get early feedback and start iterating. Dropbox did this in 2007, launching on Hackernews and gathering user feedback to begin improvements. It relaunched on Digg a year later and went from 5000 subscribers to 75,000 in one day.
But honestly - there are LOTS of ways to market your product. The important thing to grasp here is that you’re NOT trying to market to everyone. At first, your goal is to market to the early adopters who want innovation and are willing to accept flaws in order to have it. By getting those users involved, offering feedback and ultimately becoming brand advocates, you can push your product along the adoption curve and achieve mainstream success.
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