The Marketing Classic Few Marketers Have Ever Read

First published August 22, 2013 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

It may be the best book you’ll ever read on marketing, but you won’t find it in the marketing section of Amazon.  They have it variously filed in three different categories: Politics and Social Sciences, Technology and Text Books. The book is Everett Rogers’ “Diffusion of Innovations,” and you should add it to your reading list.

The book is a comprehensive review of how new ideas spread and take hold in our society, and although it was first written in the 60s (it’s currently in its fifthedition), the findings are as fresh and relevant as ever. Its relevance to marketing is immediate and tangible. After all, what else is marketing but promoting the  adoption and diffusion of new things?

Rogers traces almost a century of diffusion research to see how everything from new high-yield corn varieties to birth control were adopted in various cultures. While there are not a lot of examples purely from the consumer marketplace, the generalized observations beg to be applied to marketing campaigns pushing new (and hopefully improved) products.

Consider these five innovation-specific variables that affect how quickly a new idea is adopted:

1)   Relative advantage – How much of a true advantage does the new innovation offer over what is currently being used? Rogers offers an important caveat here: “The receiver’s perceptions of the attributes of an innovation – not the attributes as classified by experts or change agents, affect its rate of adoption.”

2)   Compatibility – How well does the innovation fit into the framework of the customer’s current situation? Is it an incremental innovation, easily added, or a discontinuous innovation, requiring significant pain on the part of the user to adopt?

3)   Complexity – What is the learning curve that comes bundled with the innovation? The steeper the curve, the slower the rate of adoption.

4)   Trialability – Is it possible to try the product firsthand to determine the relative advantage (see #1)?

5)   Observability – Being the herders we are, adoption is sometimes a matter of “monkey see, monkey do.”

These factors may seem fundamental, but every day new “innovative” products are turned loose on the market, there to wither and die, simply because one or several of these check boxes remain unchecked.

Rogers also spend significant time looking at the social dynamics of diffusion and adoption, including the role of early adopters, change agents, influencers, mass communication channels and interpersonal persuasion. I found amazing close correlations to the findings of my own research into buying behaviors in the B2B world.

At the risk of oversimplifying this seminal work, Rogers found that adoption balances at the intersection of risk and reward. Risk stalls adoption, reward drives it forward, and clarity of communicating this risk/reward balance in a relevant way is either the catalyst or the inhibitor that determines how steep the adoption curve is.

This is a textbook, so expect a small investment of effort to wade through the rather academic delivery, but if you persevere (and to be fair, I’ve suffered through much worse in other books) you’ll come away with perhaps the clearest summation of marketplace dynamics ever put in print.

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