Diffusion of Innovations: How Adoption of New Ideas and Technologies Spread

Friday, August 21, 2020
Christopher Sirk
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What is diffusion of innovation?

Innovations are never adopted all at once. 

Different people come to them earlier and later. It can take a long time for new concepts and products to become ubiquitous. Each social system has its own response.

Diffusion of innovation (DOI) attempts to explain this phenomenon. 

DOI is an enduring social science theory. It’s derived from the 1962 book Diffusion of Innovations (New York: Free Press of Glencoe). Written by Everett M. Rogers, a communication theorist and sociologist. 

Diffusion of innovation theory seeks to explain the adoption of new ideas and technologies. How and why they spread among people. And at what rate of speed.

Stages of adopters (adopter categories)

Source: Wikipedia Diffusion of Innovation

The theory outlines 5 different categories of adopters. It shows how adoption decisions are taken in waves.

These adopter categories are as follows.

Innovators

Innovators are the first to try new ideas and technologies. They are also people who are invested in new concepts.

They are adventurous and risk-taking. Motivated by the idea of being change agents.

They tend to be financially well off. And to operate in more cosmopolitan social circles.

Innovators comprise roughly 2.5% of the population.

Early Adopters

Early adopters provide opinion leadership. They want to be first. They want to take on a leading position, as role models and trendsetters. 

These opinion leaders embrace the opportunity for change. The segment tends to be integrated into the local social system. They have social status, and can exercise concentrated influence in their area.

Early adopters comprise roughly 13.5% of the population. 

Early Majority

The early majority is very social. They have deliberate contact with peers. 

They are comfortable changing their behavior. But only insofar as it improves their lifestyle and/or productivity. 

They want proven ideas and technology. So they need new ideas and tech to be vetted by peers and colleagues.

The early majority comprises roughly 34% of the population. 

Late Majority

The late majority are skeptical. They tend to adopt ideas later than the average person in a given social system. 

When they do adopt ideas, it’s often out of social or economic necessity. In other words, because they are pressured by system norms.

The late majority comprises roughly 34% of the population.

Laggards

Laggards tend to be older. They are focused on traditions and often have limited socializing. 

Since they are more-or-less only in contact with family and close friends, they are not as pressured to adapt. 

They view innovators and innovations with suspicion. So they adopt very late. To the point the original innovators may well consider the innovations obsolete. 

Laggards comprise roughly 16% of the population.

Elements of diffusion of innovation

According to Rogers, there are 4 elements that influence innovation diffusion.

Innovation

An idea, practice, or object. It is perceived as new by an individual, group, or organization. It need not be “new” in the pure sense.  

An innovation’s characteristics influence its chances for adoption. These include complexity, adaptability, and compatibility. As well as the relative advantage offered.

Another important characteristic is “trialability.” Trialability refers to the ability to “try out” ideas on a partial basis. Innovations that can be tried out in instalments will gain adoption faster.

Finally, there’s “observability.” This is the degree to which the results of an innovation can be seen by others. Adoption rate is influenced by the perceived basis of innovativeness. 

Communication Channels

Communications are an important factor in the diffusion process. People have to get the word out on new technology and new concepts. 

Communication channels can generally be divided into mass media and social networks. In mass media, information travels from a channel to an individual. In social networks, information travels from individual to individual. 

Means of communication include face-to-face, broadcast media, mobile, electronic, and written.

Social System

According to Rogers, a social system is a set of interrelated “units.” These units may be individual people, groups, or organizations. The key is that members of the system cooperate to some extent towards a common goal. 

Members of a social system can facilitate or impede adoption. If an innovation is compatible with a culture’s structure, it will succeed. If it isn’t, it will fail.

Innovation needs to be adopted widely to sustain itself. Human capital has to be on its side.

It has to reach a point of critical mass. If an innovation doesn’t reach the “tipping point,” adoption can stall. 

One sees this with electric vehicles, for example, which have been around for decades. 

They are now on their third wave of adoption. Thanks to Tesla and other innovators, they appear to be set to gain ubiquity after all. But in earlier times, they failed to achieve critical mass and largely faded from public consciousness. 

Time

Adoption of innovations takes time. Thus time is an important variable in the study of diffusion. 

Time is analyzed in terms of the Innovation-decision process. This refers to the interval between first knowledge and formation of an opinion. Leading to a decision on adoption or rejection and a final confirmation of decision. 

Potential adopters may need to be exposed to communications for a long period. Before decision-making takes place on whether to adopt or not.

Most innovations have an “S” shaped curve for adoption over time. This shape appears when the rate of adoption is plotted according to cumulative frequency. 

The Rate of Adoption

The rate of adoption indicates how fast an idea reaches a certain percentage of people.

Adoption rate often increases exponentially after early adopters get hold of an idea. Opinion leaders exercise a very strong influence on the early majority. 

This also creates the necessary momentum to get to critical mass. And from there, adoption rate tapers offer as late adopters take on the innovation out of necessity. 

Certainly, there are many psychological and socio-economic reasons behind this phenomenon. But the basic, no-fuss explanation is that most people are drawn to conformity. 

Social systems function with a large degree of day-to-day sameness. Most people only feel comfortable with incremental change. Large disruptions are not desirable. 

Five stage adoption Process

Awareness, persuasion, decision, implementation, and continuation. These are the five stages of adoption according to diffusion of innovation theory. 

Awareness: A person becomes aware of the innovation. They have some idea of what it is, and what it does.

Persuasion: A person develops an attitude towards the innovation. A favorable or unfavorable one. They are compelled to seek information about the innovation. 

Decision: A person weighs the pros and cons of making use of the innovation. They decide to adopt or reject it. 

Implementation: A person puts the innovation to use. At this stage they are still determining how useful it is. 

Continuation: A person checks the results of the innovation decision. They come to a final decision on whether to keep using the innovation. This decision may be motivated by group confirmation (interpersonal factors). 

The Spread of New Products

The five stage adoption process can shed light on how and why new products spread.

Awareness and persuasion stages account for the diffusion of product information. The final three stages account for the actual adoption of the product. Its usage and continued usage. 

The model allows product designers to track the stages of the consumer life cycle. They can pinpoint what went right, and what went wrong. They can get insights into why certain bad products do well. And why superior products sometimes fail. 

Application of diffusion of innovations

The theory has an incredibly diverse range of applications. This is perhaps not surprising, given how the study of hybrid seeds became a general theory of idea adoption. 

Diffusion research is used to study technological innovation. Social change. And also reinvention, the process by which an idea is translated, modified, and adapted. 

It can be used by marketers to predict product market share. To study why important, useful ideas don’t always become widespread in healthcare. 

Below are but a few examples.

Diffusion of innovation examples

Health care

The health care industry is always changing. New technologies and insurance models are always coming out. Public health regulatory changes are common. 

Thus diffusion of innovation can be applied to many, many case studies

For example, take the introduction of X-rays in 1895. German engineer Wilhelm Röntgen’s invention had an obvious “relative advantage.” It allowed non-invasive viewing of internal organs and bone structure. 

The innovation did have disadvantages, and these were found out early. By 1896 the negative effects of radiation for health were apparent. But this wasn’t enough to dissuade would-be users.

For one, they had trialability on their side. It was possible to try an x-ray machine once and see the results immediately. 

It also had great observability. Other people could verify the technology worked and pass on tangible results. 

X-rays diffused rapidly across the world. And to this day they are the biggest revenue generator in healthcare.

Television

Digital televisions were a major innovation in the early 2000s.

They had better image resolution. They also offered connectivity with computers and the internet. 

Digital TV was the biggest innovation since color TV. But it needed adoption if it was going to survive. 

Diffusion studies show that digital TV proliferated in large part because of digital cable. The adoption of digital cable was congruent with Rogers’ model.

Digital cable offered tangible relative advantages. One could record programs for later viewing, and watch programs on demand. They could access a much broader selection of programming. 

Digital terrestrial television didn’t. Better resolution wasn’t necessarily enough to get people to switch. 

Digital cable, by comparison, appeared “inevitable.” The digitalization of television was, in many cases, mandated by governments. 

The US government took the lead, ending analog broadcasting by 2009. This signalling from opinion leaders helped to inspire conformity and speed adoption.

Personal computers

Rogers’ diffusion theory does a good job of explaining PC adoption. 

Take one study covering US cities from 1990-2002. It showed that personal computers were first adopted in places with “fast wage growth for college educated workers.” In other words, metropolitan areas with higher education levels.

Human capital played a large role in PC adoption. Highly educated workers were more likely to find productive uses for computer technology first.

These innovators and early adopters demonstrated the relative benefit of the technology. Then the early majority came in, seeing that it could help productivity. And produce better economic results.

Communication channels also played a key role. 

San Francisco took the lead in PC usage in the early 90s. This makes sense given it was (and is) at the core of the US computing and IT industry. The local social system was plugged into the innovation and its benefits first.

Background of diffusion of innovations theory

The concept of cultural diffusion arose in the late 19th century. It was used in the fields of anthropology, geography, and sociology. 

In the early 20th century, diffusion theory became popular in the field of rural sociology. Specifically in the midwestern United States. It was used to study how independent farmers came to adopt hybrid seeds.

Everett Rogers came out of this field. He got his Ph.D. in Rural Sociology at Iowa State University in 1957. 

Diffusion of Innovations (Rogers, E.) built on the ideas of fellow sociologists Bryce Ryan and Neal Gross. In 1943, Ryan and Gross put forward a theory of the “adoption of a process.” Rogers added to their ideas and made a general argument for innovation, across societies and industries.

The book, now in its fifth edition, led Rogers to a storied career. It ended with him being Chair of the Department of Communication and Journalism at the University of New Mexico. 

His ideas have become familiar. They’ve entered the general culture to the point we don’t think about their provenance.

Case in point, the term “early adopter.” Yes, he coined it. 

His book diffused it. Then it was adopted, 100%.

  

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