How Do Good Ideas Spread?

by Lorne Mitchell on 26/04/2012

At the recent evidence for the House of Lords Communications subcommittee, I drew attention to a great piece of thinking which was written-up in a book by Everett M Rogers in 1962 called “The Diffusion of Innovations”.  It has since sold more than 30,000 copies, is now in its fifth edition and has become a classic on how ideas spread.

Often, when we think about innovation, we think of words like “new”, “creative”, “first-mover” etc.  Diffusion is not really a word that instantly springs to mind.  Yet Everett’s research has proved to be a robust model which has stood the test of time across many innovation cycles.  Here is a great cartoon which outlines Everett’s five constituencies that need to be convinced about a new idea, product or service:

I particularly like the cartoon because it includes “THE CHASM” as the first gap across which all innovations much leap if they are to be successful and grow beyond the first 15-20% of any given market.  How many ideas or innovations fail at this hurdle!

What is even more interesting to note are the different dynamics as you move from up the curve after the chasm has been crossed.  To capture the “early majority”, then a “word of mouth” or “refer a friend” strategy is the main mechanism for growth.  There are many examples on the internet where this has been institutionalised.

Once the early majority has been convinced, the late majority tends to be more convinced by the opinion of a number of  individuals or other social groupings.  Once again, the internet has helped to accelerate this in recent years with social media platforms and other types of discussion fora – further driven by well-designed applications that allow people to group themselves together in areas of common interest like Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter.

As the Internet has accelerated the diffusion of ideas around the world, distance has become less important than it was in the 1960s.  The fifth edition was updated in 2003 to address the spread of the Internet, and how it has transformed the way human beings communicate and adopt new ideas.  How much has changed, even since then!

I have found this a very useful model for all those struggling with marketing ideas, products and services in the age of the internet.  It is always worth remembering that the tactics used for getting over the chasm are probably not going to be much use when you have to convince the Laggards.  Perhaps the UK needs to understand the model better when looking at how we increase our usage for the internet as a whole – and particularly encourage the laggards to get online.  Hence my use of the model when talking to the Peers last month.

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