What do you mean by early adopter?

Using the examples of Google Wave and FourSquare, this RWW post by Audrey Watters cautions tech companies not to get to excited by “early adopters” – the throng that flock to the newest, coolest technology. What they like may be unlike the preferences of other users, so success with early adopters may not foretell broader market success.

True, and worth a closer look. Who are early adopters of technology, and how are they different from the mainstream? There is more than one difference. Early adopters tend to be young and male. They like technology because it is new and different. They are interested in the new thing because it is cool, and move on when it stops being cool. They are willing to put up with sharp edges for something that is cool, useful, or both. They are willing to experiment with new practices.

Let’s look at FourSquare and Wave and think about how the early adopters might be different from the mainstream.

Google Wave incorporated technology innovation – it was a collaboration tool based on a synchronous chat protocol; it was a brand new and mindbending blend between the synchronous aspects of chat, the stream aspect of a threaded discussion, and the text presentation of a document. It got attention because it was new and different. and yet using it required new and different practices. It’s not unusual for new tools to require new practices; forums require moderation, wikis often use discussion to complement final-form documents, and so on. In the end, those who experimented with Wave never did establish practices that made it understandable and useful to others.

Several commenters to the RWW post observed that Wave was hard to understand. This comment points to Geoffrey Moore’s classic “crossing the chasm” methodology which focuses on building use cases and social references to help more conservative later adopters, who lack the early adopters’ experimental bent.

FourSquare, as shown by recent research is mostly appealing to young men. The initial design of the service focuses on competition (becoming the mayor of your local hangout), and this may be one of the reasons that it hasn’t yet broken out of the early demographic. FourSquare and other location based services are seeking to appeal to segments with other motivations, by providing different sorts of badges (collecting, exploring), and different sorts of rewards (for example, the practical, financial rewards created by linking to marketing loyalty programs for discounts).

The FourSquare research shows that the service hasn’t spread beyond it’s initial population of urban hipsters. By contrast, Facebook spread far beyond its early niche of college students. What makes a trend spread beyond the initial group? This comment to the RWW post talks about trend spreaders, people with a broad network of friends, are open to try new things, and tell their friends and family about their positive experiences. It seems that Facebook was popular with trend spreaders, not just trend-setters.

Then there’s the tendency of the fashionable to move on. Another risk to FourSquare is that as a social service, it’s more compelling when one’s friends are participating and much less compelling when friends don’t use it anymore. It is vulnerable to the flock rising up and flying away. Restaurants and nightclubs have thrived and declined by this dynamic forever. In the case of trends in clothes, the dynamic is all about who’s cool and what’s in style.

In the case of trends in technology, fashion is part of the story. This commentor points out that it’s actually white teenage girls are who are trendsetters. Yes for some kinds of clothes, certainly not for bicycle styles or San Francisco restaurants. But whether it’s white girls, Robert Scoble, or uber-foodies, this point about the aspect of early-adopterism that is about fashionability and social status. The fashion ends when the cool kids move on.

Trends in technology are partly fashion, linked with other attributes. Once upon a time, Motorola and Nokia phones were fashionable (remember back then?) But Apple came out with the most beautiful and usable smart phone. The iPhone is elegant, but the Androids haven’t been tied to AT&T’s poor phone service; Android market share is growing because the thing works better.

So, the cases of Wave and FourSquare illustrate different properties of early adoption.
* Wave was hard to understand; the tools and the practices around it didn’t grow fast enough to make it useful before Google pulled the plug. It not impossible that in the open source afterlife of the dead commercial product, someone may figure out uses, practices, and interfaces that make it work and catch on.
* FourSquare appeals to a psychographic attribute of the early adopter community. For location-based services to catch on, it needs to appeal to a broader set of motivations, and to reach people who are good at reaching out.
* FourSquare is vulnerable to the cool kids going elsewhere, for reasons that are partly social and partly more appealing service

So, if your product or service appeals to early adopters, there are a variety of things to consider in order to break out of that niche:
* work on use cases, usage practices, and ease of use that work people who value familiarity over experiment
* consider the psychographic – is there some way your early population is different from the broader market, and what needs to make it appealing beyond the early community
* consider social adoption patterns – is your service not only easy to share, but appealing to people who like to share
* keep improving or your early adopters will move onto something better

Just thinking about “early adopters” isn’t precise enough – think about how your product or service are working for early adopters, and what may need to be different to break out.

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