Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Early adopters or early majority?

Moving on from Rogers' model, we're now looking at Geoffrey Moore's Chasm Theory, which questions the Innovation Diffusion model that the opinion leaders (early adopters) hold the key to product diffusion. An account of Chasm Theory shows that Moore argues that it is vital to target the early majority if a new product is to spread to most consumers. He argues that there is a ‘chasm’ between the early adopters and early majority.

Here are my musings after reading the Tanahashi account.

If, as this article suggests, innovators tend to focus on novelty value, I would think it’s not surprising that innovators in education are relatively few - real educators know they need something more substantial than something flashy and new. [Diversion: This reminds me of a nice piece about Clicky Clicky Bling Bling elearning ("eLearning with lots of whiz, lots of bang, lots of clicky-clicky in a lame attempt to add pizzazz to dry content and to make it more engaging... when you unwrap the sparkle, you’re left with junk")]. So it’s the early adopters (termed opinion leaders in this article) who need to know what the new benefits are of an idea. I think in a sense this is rather disparaging of innovators, suggesting that novelty value is inherently cheap and nasty. It can’t be, or the early adopters wouldn’t have anything to pick up when they’re evaluating the value of an innovation, but clearly not all innovations are good, and some of those which aren’t, won’t be adopted.

The point about the formation of word-of-mouth networks around opinion leaders I thought was an interesting one. Clearly it’s a well known adage of the marketing world, but we also see it in elearning. I think an example of this in action might be the buzz around e-portfolios. There are plenty of institutions now saying “these are great, we need to get them, let’s build them into our VLE” etc, but fewer who have really taken the time to understand what need they are trying to meet, how e-portfolios will help, and what they need to do to make it a successful intervention (besides just running the install script and hoping for the best). These institutions are following the opinion leaders, because they’ve heard it’s the thing to do.

Marketeers (is that a word?!) are well aware of the influence that opinion leaders can have over other consumers, and the article notes that opinion leaders are said to hold the key to product diffusion. This made me think of the Stephen Fry effect - a celebrity with a known penchant for new consumer technology, and a prolific user of various social media. I don’t have any stats on this, but I’m sure that any product which elicits a Tweet from Stephen Fry will see web searches, and most likely sales, spike as a result. I don’t think the elearning market is as quick to jump as buyers of consumer electronics are. There are greater political and financial pressures at play, and snap purchases just aren’t feasible. However, that’s not to say that poor purchases are not made by institutions which seem to believe a technology is going to solve a problem, even without the necessary implementation plan to support it.

Another interesting point was regarding the fact that when a product is adopted, its uses begin to differ from those originally intended, and it is these new uses which can earn it its place in the market. I haven’t come up with an elearning example of this yet, but I'm sure there are many - answers in a comment please!

Moore’s Chasm Theory suggests that there is a hidden chasm which impedes diffusion of a product to a larger market beyond the initial innovators and early adopters. He suggests the reason for this chasm is that early adopters want to stay ahead of the competition with products that nobody else is using, but that early majority consumers will want to keep up with the competition, knowing that lots of other people are using that product. I’m not sure this is entirely consistent with the articulation of Rogers’ Innovation Diffusion, as I understood that to suggest that the early adopters want to know the new benefits of an idea before they buy into it. Perhaps they can do that as well as staying ahead of the competition. Chasm Theory suggests that because early majority consumers take up a product only when plenty of other people are using it, if it is only being used by a limited number of early adopters then the early majority will be reluctant to purchase.

Moore (or perhaps Tanahashi - I’m not sure where the statement comes from) therefore suggests that there is no motivation for early majority consumers to buy a product. This I found a bit confusing, because clearly something which does happen which allows an innovation or product to move from early adopter to early majority take-up. The article argues that for a product to make the jump to early majority purchasing, it’s necessary to show that early majority population examples from the very beginning. I thought this point was interesting as I can relate to it from an elearning and mainstream consumerism point-of-view. As we’ve noted, early adopters want to know what they get which is new, and the early majority need to know that they get secure benefits with minimal risk. Both groups can be supported by the provision of examples, and it’s this desire and need to see something in action before committing that seems common in education to me. It also relates to the trialability feature mentioned in the course notes - something is more attractive if it can be trialed, and benefits demonstrated with minimal risk. It also made me think of the advertising that we’ve seen recently for Windows 7 and iPad

The course notes also prompted us to consider the strengths and weaknesses of Moore’s Chasm Theory. I was generally confused by the argument that the early majority won’t buy/take up something until they’ve already seen lots of people (presumably the early majority) already using it. But how could those people be using it if they wouldn’t have wanted to buy it because too few people were already using it? It sounded like a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem to me, and while the argument that early majority need to be provided with examples in order to encourage them seemed fair, I’m not sure this made the basic maths of it make any more sense to me.

In implications for elearning generally, I think it reiterates the common-sense idea that to move beyond low take up by just the opinion leaders, you really have to give a good reasons to people for them to commit to a new innovation. This is clearly true in tough economic times, but also relates to non-financial aspects - educators need to know how and why this innovation is going to improve some aspect of teaching and learning, and whether that is sufficient added value from the current situation to make the commitment to jump (which is more than just financial, it has far wider cultural and organisational implications).

Thinking of trade shows in the training and education world, I think there are a lot of stands which still attempt to sell based on their new shinyness, or on being cool, or just because they incorporate the latest consumer electronics - that must be good right?(!) Moore’s Chasm Theory might suggest that this type of advertising will be sufficient to attract the early adopters (who want to be a bit different to the majority), but that it’s unlikely to win over the early majority who need to know other people are using something. Generally though I think that educational institutions need to be so careful with their buying decisions, that marketing is unlikely to have too much sway.

The course notes suggest thinking about whether you would promote an elearning innovation differently to clients/colleagues depending on if you saw them as early adopters or early majority. The question leads you to speculate whether you spend more time demonstrating the software to one group rather than another. To be honest I find it really hard to imagine a situation where an audience would be satisfied if I didn’t demonstrate the software to them. Yes, perhaps you show the groups different aspects (you would tailor it to the client anyway), but I don’t believe that most organisations, and certainly not educational institutions have the resources to spare that they could just jump on a new innovation without some solid evidence about why it was appropriate for them.

Bean, C. (2010) And a Clicky-Clicky Bling-Bling to You! [online]
Moore, G.A. (1991) Crossing the Chasm: Marketing and Selling High-tech Products to Mainstream Customers, New York, HarperBusiness.
Rogers, E.M. (2003) Diffusion of Innovations (5th edn), New York, Simon and Schuster.
Tanahashi, H. (2005) The Innovator Theory [online], Tokyo, Mitsue-Links


  1. Hallo Alice,

    no wonder that you receive so much visitors from around the world, this blog is really worth visiting it. Well done.

    I found the last part of the task as well quite difficult and therefore my blog entry is only a draft so far, because I simply did not know what to answer. I guess considering my time pressure I just skip it ;-)

  2. Thank you so much Sylvia. Generally the blog is written for myself - my reactions to the course activities etc. The MAODE courses are so busy that I assume that most people won't have time to read the blog much anyway, but I do get a thrill from seeing the visitors :-)