The Laggards of Innovation: on using old theories to explain new trends

The secret to what makes innovations spread has always been sought after – both within and outside the world of marketing. Some of the ideas behind a product’s success have been around for a surprisingly long time, yet still hold something of a cult status in marketing. Fifty-five years after its publication Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovation (cited over 85 thousand times) remains uncritically accepted as the how-to manual on product adoption. The same can be said about Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point (published in 2000), which explored how the right time, place, and people can create a hit product or idea.

Since publication both theoretical frameworks seem to have survived the technological advances and cultural transformations. Previously unimagined modes of communication have changed the marketing landscape beyond recognition. Yet scores of marketers continue to resort to old models; one predated the www, the other barely five years into the www. With so much having changed – how and why do they remain relevant? What explanatory power do they hold, and when do they struggle to reflect on contemporary society?


The diffusion of innovation

Rogers’ main legacy to marketing theory is his consumer segmentation model, based on the propensity of users to adopt an innovation. The early adopters ahead of the rest, willing to take this risk and try out new things; the early majority getting comfortable with the idea and late majority following suit; with laggards (obviously) lagging behind.

The degree to which this model has been accepted is unparalleled. Most of its contemporary applications don’t even attempt to diverge from the comfortably familiar fourfold structure. Take Datassential’s Menu Adoption Cycle as an example. The Chicago-based firm studies food trends, seeking to understand what makes and breaks the likes of kale and quinoa (or any food for that matter). They faithfully mimic Rogers’ adoption curve.

The inception phase, where an ingredient is introduced by finer dining and ethnic independents, mirrors the early adopters. Adoption and proliferation phases correspond to early and late majority. Ubiquity phase, which sees the likes of Walmart and McDonalds jumping on the bandwagon, is where the laggards come into the picture.

Evidently, Rogers’ social segmentation appears to be exceptionally powerful even fifty years after its conception. It has dated well partly because it looks less at specificities of social change (which alter within decades, if not years) but rather at the underlying psychological traits that guide people’s decisions. These appear to be deep-rooted enough to have survived the last fifty years.


Mass Media and Face to Face as Drivers of Adoption

However, there are other factors at play in Rogers’ theory that are a lot harder to reconcile with contemporary society. The process of social change and epidemics of ideas, Rogers argued, strongly depends on peer to peer conversations and networks. He looked at the ways in which informal conversations amongst family, friends and colleagues spread adoption. The informality and proximity of close networks established trust, helping people manage risk and uncertainty associated with a new product or idea. Product adoption by the early / late majority is dependent on this face-to-face communication. If in the beginning mass media (of the good old broadcasting type) holds considerable sway, overtime it recedes into the background, as interpersonal communication begins to dominate.

Enter the web

The rise of the internet and social media has done away with mass media as Rogers knew it. As face-to-face communication has undergone colossal changes, the line between mass and interpersonal has become blurred. Instagram and Youtube influencers are a striking of example of how a familiar face can help brands reach out to millions of users. A familiar face yields not just trust, but authenticity – which in its turn suggests a more personal, intimate relationship with the consumer. Viral marketing campaigns that rely on social media stars have come far from close friendship circles, where product experiences are shared informally. The general principle may be the same; but the process is entirely different.

Immeasurably more powerful than Rogers’ mass media and interpersonal networks put together, social influencers’ product reviews and shares struggle to fit into a model that predates www and social media. They line up a bit better against what Gladwell famously described as the Law of the Few.


The few and the many

Gladwell identified three types of infectious individuals who could turn a product into a hit: mavens (experts spreading knowledge with friends and family), connectors (highly connected, centres of social gravity) and salesmen (typically charismatic and influential sales people).

Today’s social influencers, however, do away with these distinctions and merge the three roles into one. Typically expert in a particular field (be it makeup, fashion or clean eating), they are connected to millions of followers around the world and possess salesman enthusiasm and capacity to advocate new products. Where ‘authenticity’ of influencer marketing reaches its peak (and brings value to the brands), is that most of the time people don’t even realise that what they see is advertising. (This also explains why Youtube influencers with 7m or more followers earn an average fee of $300,000 per post).

Similar to Rogers’ interpersonal networks, Gladwell’s Law of the Few works on a general level – but looks dated as soon as we start looking at the specificities of today’s advertising.

These examples suggest that models of adoption based on sociological processes of change struggle to keep up with the times. Models that look at psychological factors, on the other hand, fare much better. Gladwell’s ‘stickiness factor’ is another example of how such a model can thrive for decades.

Sticky wisdom

The importance of expressive, functional and emotional aspects remains unaffected by changes in the way people discover new products and ideas. Whether we look at internet memes or campaigns such as Movember or #NoMakeupSelfie, the things that made an idea sticky almost twenty years ago still hold. Movember, a men’s health awareness campaign that started in 1999 in Australia (having spread to 21 countries and raised over $700 million since), ticks a whole number of ‘stickiness’ factors. It generates positive associations by supporting health programs that help combat cancer; it has a distinctive character and personality as well as a certain aesthetic appeal; it has a rich expressive value that allows campaigners to feel connected to others around the world.


Models ‘for’ and models ‘of’

Rogers’ and Gladwell’s answers to what makes ideas spread have come to define 21st century marketing. However, originally created as explanatory frameworks, their models have increasingly become a toolkit for marketers to launch ideas. And while Rogers’ and Gladwell’s ideas about the underlying psychology of consumers survive such practical application, their theories of change and adoption processes simply cannot be applied to a different time and context; that’s where they fail to tell a convincing story. The content and the context are constantly changing, and the relationship between the influencers and the influenced continues to evolve. We should avoid being the laggards, always relying on the comfortable and familiar models, let alone using explanatory frameworks as user manuals. Instead, we should seek out new models that describe the transmission, reception and adoption of ideas.