Early adopter angst

Dang, there has been a spate of early adopter angst lately.

Just read Alex Vanelsas to see a good example.

Today Frederick over at the Last Podcast gets into the act, writing “I kept wondering if the gap between early adopters and mainstream users isn’t expanding more and more and what that means for services that cater mostly to early adopters.”

Over the last few days I’ve seen another misconception: that Twitter is only Silicon Valley people talking to themselves. Do a search for “Silicon Valley” on Tweetscan and you’ll see a few of those. That misconception is easy to disprove: just watch Twitter Vision for a few minutes and you’ll see that very few Twitterers are in Silicon Valley.

There ARE huge differences between early adopters and others. I was in Alana Taylor’s Ustream channel the other night and many people there told me they like hanging out there “because people understand what I’m talking about here.”

In other words, when someone says to “Tweet that” you don’t get blank stares, or, worse, derision.

If I get arrogant about the role of early adopters (some people call them influencers, or “passionates”) it’s because I’ve seen they are the ones who drive society. You really think that guy who I saw the other day on the plane using Windows 2000 and an old version of Lotus Notes is driving society? Riiiigggghhhhtttt.

I’ve seen this discussion happen EVERY TIME there’s a new technology. I remember back in 1977 that only nerds could use personal computers. Very few people (not even Steve Jobs or Bill Gates) understood just how big that would become.

I remember the days when email was only used by the nerds who had access to Unix terminals at universities or research labs.

I remember the days when people said “IM would never be used in enterprises.” Today it’s built into Lotus Notes and Microsoft Exchange. Seriously. They did say that.

I remember the days when the World Wide Web was only for nerds who did physics at places like CERN and weird kids who went to Stanford. I remember people actively betting against the Web. Luckily the guy I worked for, Jim Fawcette, saw its promise early in 1994 and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to build one of the first publisher’s Web sites. That investment is why I’m here today.

Today the angst is onto things like Twitter, FriendFeed, etc. Even older Web 2.0 properties like Flickr haven’t really gone mainstream. Last week we spent some time with Ansel Adams’ son. He had never heard of Flickr. Ansel Adams son!!! That dude should be the first that photo sharing sites pitch, since he’s always talking to press about photography and his company does tons of classes for photographers in Yosemite and other places. Heck, Flickr should figure out how to sponsor the Ansel Adams’ Gallery. But they don’t.

Why not? Because convincing late adopters to change their behavior is VERY hard and VERY expensive. It’s why Amazon doesn’t do TV advertising. Rather they build a product that early adopters, passionate computer geeks, and influencers like.

How does that affect their business performance? Well, compare Best Buy’s price/earnings ratio to that of Amazon’s. According to Google Finance Best Buy’s is 13.91 and Amazon’s is 67.03. I know which one I’d rather have.

Early adopters DO matter. Anyone who says that they don’t needs to go back to business school.

This is why I follow 20,000 Twitterers. I want to study what early adopters are doing and thinking. Twitter is the best place — by far — to do that.

That’s not to say that business people should forget about the late adopters. They are going to be the ones you need to see huge profitability and growth. I guarantee you that most of Ansel Adams’ business is among late adopters now. But then his business has been in Yosemite for 102 years and has one of America’s best-known brands. If you’re building a business today you don’t have those advantages. Your best option is to follow eBay, Amazon, Google, Flickr, Facebook, etc by talking and understanding early adopters first. Why? They are passionate and want to see something new. That guy with the Windows 2000 old Dell laptop? He isn’t looking for anything new. He isn’t going to adopt your newfangled service.

But the people on Twitter and FriendFeed and Facebook and MySpace and LinkedIn and Plaxo? They have already told you they are willing to try new things. Therefore they are probably going to be willing to try your new thing too.

We’ll be talking about this in 20 more years when some newfangled thing comes out, though. Most people have no clue about the role of early adopters, and/or totally misunderstand early adopters and/or even lie about them, hence the “only Silicon Valley people are on Twitter” meme.

While we’re talking about Twitter, Yuvi, the wonderkid in India, did an analysis of my usage of Twitter that’s pretty interesting.

186 thoughts on “Early adopter angst

  1. Robert, with all due respect, given your age there is no way in hell you remember the origin of the Frisbee craze, given that Wham-O released the toy in 1957. It was actually originally popular amongst college students. The point is, there was no “early adopter” period, per se. Wham-O did a great job of mass marketing.

    As for cars, you are also off base. Car companies trot out concept cars at auto shows, and make sure the press and the trades cover it enough to measure interest. Then they decide to go to market and build the real thing, then, again, they do a mass market advertising campaign. But there is hardly a time where a small selection of people and “celebrities” are driving a mass produced car no one ever heard of. I guess the closest example would be GM’s campaign of putting the new Camaro in Transformers. And yes, there is a small set of people that march into a dealership a put a deposit down on a car that has yet to be produced. I would not call them early adopters.

    You completely lost me on you Wii counterpoint. Again, Nintendo did a mass marketing campaign about the Wii that generated enough pent up demand for almost everyone to want one. There as no “early adopter” phase where a small set of the population was using the product and tried to convince others it was a cool thing. If there was a small set, it was only due to lack of supply, not lack of knowledge of the product.

    The early adopter concept applies more to technology than anything else. So, yes, Twitter is still being used by early adopters. And it may well continue to stay that way. And even if more normal people learn about Twitter, if they don;t see it solving a problem they don’t already have a solution for (IM, text messaging, email), it won’t catch on.

  2. Robert, with all due respect, given your age there is no way in hell you remember the origin of the Frisbee craze, given that Wham-O released the toy in 1957. It was actually originally popular amongst college students. The point is, there was no “early adopter” period, per se. Wham-O did a great job of mass marketing.

    As for cars, you are also off base. Car companies trot out concept cars at auto shows, and make sure the press and the trades cover it enough to measure interest. Then they decide to go to market and build the real thing, then, again, they do a mass market advertising campaign. But there is hardly a time where a small selection of people and “celebrities” are driving a mass produced car no one ever heard of. I guess the closest example would be GM’s campaign of putting the new Camaro in Transformers. And yes, there is a small set of people that march into a dealership a put a deposit down on a car that has yet to be produced. I would not call them early adopters.

    You completely lost me on you Wii counterpoint. Again, Nintendo did a mass marketing campaign about the Wii that generated enough pent up demand for almost everyone to want one. There as no “early adopter” phase where a small set of the population was using the product and tried to convince others it was a cool thing. If there was a small set, it was only due to lack of supply, not lack of knowledge of the product.

    The early adopter concept applies more to technology than anything else. So, yes, Twitter is still being used by early adopters. And it may well continue to stay that way. And even if more normal people learn about Twitter, if they don;t see it solving a problem they don’t already have a solution for (IM, text messaging, email), it won’t catch on.

  3. I’m not sure why there is so much hostility for the concept that they is a segment of the population that regularly “gets it” and begins using certain products and services before others.

    The fact that their have been certain things that have instantly resonated with the public at large does not negate this fact or indiscriminately label non-early adopters as less-thans.

    Of course electricity took off quickly – how hard was it for everyone to make the connection between lighting a candle with a match versus flipping a switch that would automatically supply a “candle” with an endless supply of power to light? Not hard at all.

    The value of many new technologies however are not as easy for the average person to grasp. in fact if you watch the conversations that have been going on Twitter etc you begin to see that even the most “cutting edge” early adopters are grappling with the role these kinds of technologies could play in our lives.

    That’s the point. Early adopters, by nature, are bent towards seeking out and developing an understanding of the value of new products. In the process they vet a product’s validity and tweak its focus and use. Products that find no really value or use in the early adopter community die on the vine and those that do find their place are slowly transferred to the population at large for use.

    Again – some innovations provide benefits that are so obvious that everyone immediately understands their use and – providing they are financially able to do so – they adopt them. For everything else there are early adopters.

    No morally good or bad – just fact.

  4. I’m not sure why there is so much hostility for the concept that they is a segment of the population that regularly “gets it” and begins using certain products and services before others.

    The fact that their have been certain things that have instantly resonated with the public at large does not negate this fact or indiscriminately label non-early adopters as less-thans.

    Of course electricity took off quickly – how hard was it for everyone to make the connection between lighting a candle with a match versus flipping a switch that would automatically supply a “candle” with an endless supply of power to light? Not hard at all.

    The value of many new technologies however are not as easy for the average person to grasp. in fact if you watch the conversations that have been going on Twitter etc you begin to see that even the most “cutting edge” early adopters are grappling with the role these kinds of technologies could play in our lives.

    That’s the point. Early adopters, by nature, are bent towards seeking out and developing an understanding of the value of new products. In the process they vet a product’s validity and tweak its focus and use. Products that find no really value or use in the early adopter community die on the vine and those that do find their place are slowly transferred to the population at large for use.

    Again – some innovations provide benefits that are so obvious that everyone immediately understands their use and – providing they are financially able to do so – they adopt them. For everything else there are early adopters.

    No morally good or bad – just fact.

  5. Ahh, more of the usual elitist tripe. Value in marketing and early looks, no matter whom, but focusing on edge-case needs is the surest way to product ruination, as you create things that appeal to very small segments, taking the simple and functional to the death-inducing complex.

    Entire industries SKIP early adopters wholesale and go product-marketing test base, heck, I live in Peoria, dead central for test marketing (I see this daily), they want the WIDEST demographic group possible, your Tweeting Geeks aren’t that.

    Twitter is a feature, IM gone broadcast, nothing more and much less, easily cloned. Stop wetting your pants over the latest shiny toy.

  6. Ahh, more of the usual elitist tripe. Value in marketing and early looks, no matter whom, but focusing on edge-case needs is the surest way to product ruination, as you create things that appeal to very small segments, taking the simple and functional to the death-inducing complex.

    Entire industries SKIP early adopters wholesale and go product-marketing test base, heck, I live in Peoria, dead central for test marketing (I see this daily), they want the WIDEST demographic group possible, your Tweeting Geeks aren’t that.

    Twitter is a feature, IM gone broadcast, nothing more and much less, easily cloned. Stop wetting your pants over the latest shiny toy.

  7. Not a new concept. The concept of ‘crossing the chasm’ has been around for years and was certainly well discussed back in the boom and it was chucked out there again with Tipping Point style discussions.

  8. Not a new concept. The concept of ‘crossing the chasm’ has been around for years and was certainly well discussed back in the boom and it was chucked out there again with Tipping Point style discussions.

  9. Danny: the car companies regularly make sure their cars are seen by early adopters/influentials/celebrities/passionates before they are seen by guys who are using old Windows 2000 computers.

    I remember the Frisbee. It got popular because early adopters bought it and showed it around at parks and got late adopters to join in games.

    Wii? OK, I didn’t buy one, but guys who still use Windows 2000 didn’t either. Who did? Kids who wanted a different kind of game. Dave Winer did too and still is showing his to me and trying to get me to buy one.

    The rest? They are so old that who knows who the early adopters were and how they popularized the things.

  10. Danny: the car companies regularly make sure their cars are seen by early adopters/influentials/celebrities/passionates before they are seen by guys who are using old Windows 2000 computers.

    I remember the Frisbee. It got popular because early adopters bought it and showed it around at parks and got late adopters to join in games.

    Wii? OK, I didn’t buy one, but guys who still use Windows 2000 didn’t either. Who did? Kids who wanted a different kind of game. Dave Winer did too and still is showing his to me and trying to get me to buy one.

    The rest? They are so old that who knows who the early adopters were and how they popularized the things.

  11. It’s almost laughable how clueless about basic business concepts people in tech are. Early adopter is a basic marketing classification. Just go read “Crossing the Chasm”, it explains everything Scoble is woefully trying to say in his post.

    Couple of things, Scoble: Neither Domino, nor Exchange come with IM built in. They are sold as separate server products. Guess you never go around to interviewing the Exchange team when you were at MS, nor ever go around to talking to that other tech company, IBM, about their collaboration offerings.

    “I can’t name a service that didn’t get popular with either early adopters or celebrities first, before going mainstream. Can anyone?”

    Uhh… electricity?. Mass transit? Insurance? Medical care. Home delivery? Prostitution? Gambling, As for products:
    The Ford Mustang. The Chevy Camaro. The Chrysler Mini-van. The iPhone. The Wii. the playstation. The Hula Hoop. The Frisbee.

    As for Twitter, for Early and Late Majority, it’s still a solution looking for a problem. A problem that segment already has a solution for: email, instant messaging, text messaging. The Early and Late Majority is not so insecure and narcissistic that it needs to “follow” hundreds of people and be informed and inform them of what they are doing or thinking. Until there is more value in Twitter than what they are currently using to stay in touch with their friends, it will still be the niche of the virtual SV crowd.

  12. It’s almost laughable how clueless about basic business concepts people in tech are. Early adopter is a basic marketing classification. Just go read “Crossing the Chasm”, it explains everything Scoble is woefully trying to say in his post.

    Couple of things, Scoble: Neither Domino, nor Exchange come with IM built in. They are sold as separate server products. Guess you never go around to interviewing the Exchange team when you were at MS, nor ever go around to talking to that other tech company, IBM, about their collaboration offerings.

    “I can’t name a service that didn’t get popular with either early adopters or celebrities first, before going mainstream. Can anyone?”

    Uhh… electricity?. Mass transit? Insurance? Medical care. Home delivery? Prostitution? Gambling, As for products:
    The Ford Mustang. The Chevy Camaro. The Chrysler Mini-van. The iPhone. The Wii. the playstation. The Hula Hoop. The Frisbee.

    As for Twitter, for Early and Late Majority, it’s still a solution looking for a problem. A problem that segment already has a solution for: email, instant messaging, text messaging. The Early and Late Majority is not so insecure and narcissistic that it needs to “follow” hundreds of people and be informed and inform them of what they are doing or thinking. Until there is more value in Twitter than what they are currently using to stay in touch with their friends, it will still be the niche of the virtual SV crowd.

  13. Jake: I think there’s a sizeable correllation between early adopterness (or, at minimum, what passionates and influentials think of said company) and P/E ratio.

    I’m not talking about owning the stock. Although I’d certainly rather own Amazon’s stock than Best Buy’s.

  14. Jake: I think there’s a sizeable correllation between early adopterness (or, at minimum, what passionates and influentials think of said company) and P/E ratio.

    I’m not talking about owning the stock. Although I’d certainly rather own Amazon’s stock than Best Buy’s.

  15. Robert you had me until you started talking P/E ratio. A higher P/E ratio does not necessarily mean you’d want to own a stock. A high P/E can be an indicator that a stock is grossly overvalued. A low P/E can mean that a stock is an excellent buy. There are many other factors that dictate whether or not making an investment in a particular stock is worthwhile.

    More importantly, P/E has nothing to do with the overall early adopterness of a company.

  16. Robert you had me until you started talking P/E ratio. A higher P/E ratio does not necessarily mean you’d want to own a stock. A high P/E can be an indicator that a stock is grossly overvalued. A low P/E can mean that a stock is an excellent buy. There are many other factors that dictate whether or not making an investment in a particular stock is worthwhile.

    More importantly, P/E has nothing to do with the overall early adopterness of a company.

  17. Early adaptors is a relatively new concept to me — coming from a study of the book “Remarkable Leadership” by group I’m in with 997Make Money Now.
    They may be the drivers of change, but constitute only 13.5 %.
    If people all follow them to all the tech “toys” as some put it, we really won’t be able to handle all the waste that is being discarded. The author of “Waste Makers” years ago had no idea what this would all lead to.
    I tend to agree with Casey in his statement “Early adopters do not drive society, they drive a segment of *consumption* within society. The consumption of technology-related products and services is primarily a sector of the economy which then arguably impacts cultural behavior, and ultimately society. Let’s not be so self-aggrandizing that we believe ourselves more relevant or influential than the public, or even of the agricultural sectors as each relates to “driving society”.

  18. Early adaptors is a relatively new concept to me — coming from a study of the book “Remarkable Leadership” by group I’m in with 997Make Money Now.
    They may be the drivers of change, but constitute only 13.5 %.
    If people all follow them to all the tech “toys” as some put it, we really won’t be able to handle all the waste that is being discarded. The author of “Waste Makers” years ago had no idea what this would all lead to.
    I tend to agree with Casey in his statement “Early adopters do not drive society, they drive a segment of *consumption* within society. The consumption of technology-related products and services is primarily a sector of the economy which then arguably impacts cultural behavior, and ultimately society. Let’s not be so self-aggrandizing that we believe ourselves more relevant or influential than the public, or even of the agricultural sectors as each relates to “driving society”.

  19. I mostly think that people are late adopters by choice, they wait for 5-10 people to tell them how great something is before (potentially) wasting their time on it.

    Non-early adopters think if something isn’t well known or popular it can’t be any good where as early adopters think the opposite – how many early adopters really like facebook for instance?.

    Also anyone who does actually adopt anything early tends to get all the problems and longer you wait the more the problems have been sorted out – early adopters tend not to recommend things to non-early adopters until these problems have died down.

  20. I mostly think that people are late adopters by choice, they wait for 5-10 people to tell them how great something is before (potentially) wasting their time on it.

    Non-early adopters think if something isn’t well known or popular it can’t be any good where as early adopters think the opposite – how many early adopters really like facebook for instance?.

    Also anyone who does actually adopt anything early tends to get all the problems and longer you wait the more the problems have been sorted out – early adopters tend not to recommend things to non-early adopters until these problems have died down.

  21. “…more than 1.8 million users
    have installed the Smilebox service since its launch in June 2006 and more
    than 1.3 million unique users worldwide access it monthly.”

    http://www.prnewswire.com/cgi-bin/stories.pl?ACCT=104&STORY=/www/story/12-11-2007/0004720355&EDATE=

    “..1.3 million total [Twitter] users three weeks ago…”"

    http://www.techcrunch.com/2008/04/29/end-of-speculation-the-real-twitter-usage-numbers/

    Smilebox and Twitter have roughly the same number of active monthly users and started about the same time. But how many times have you read about Smilebox on this blog, Techmeme, etc.

    I am sure there are other examples. Webkinz , games.aarp.org, etc.

  22. “…more than 1.8 million users
    have installed the Smilebox service since its launch in June 2006 and more
    than 1.3 million unique users worldwide access it monthly.”

    http://www.prnewswire.com/cgi-bin/stories.pl?ACCT=104&STORY=/www/story/12-11-2007/0004720355&EDATE=

    “..1.3 million total [Twitter] users three weeks ago…”"

    http://www.techcrunch.com/2008/04/29/end-of-speculation-the-real-twitter-usage-numbers/

    Smilebox and Twitter have roughly the same number of active monthly users and started about the same time. But how many times have you read about Smilebox on this blog, Techmeme, etc.

    I am sure there are other examples. Webkinz , games.aarp.org, etc.

  23. A higher P/E means that the market puts a higher value on what the company is doing than what they actually look like they are doing in revenues and expenses. It also means the market expects a lot more growth out of Amazon than out of Best Buy. Early adopters are driving both beliefs.

  24. College students are defacto early adopters. If they aren’t trying to improve their lives or learn something new, why go to college? Most college students I know are way ahead of people who are older than 40. That environment enables new ideas/things to spread very fast.

  25. A higher P/E means that the market puts a higher value on what the company is doing than what they actually look like they are doing in revenues and expenses. It also means the market expects a lot more growth out of Amazon than out of Best Buy. Early adopters are driving both beliefs.

  26. College students are defacto early adopters. If they aren’t trying to improve their lives or learn something new, why go to college? Most college students I know are way ahead of people who are older than 40. That environment enables new ideas/things to spread very fast.

  27. Robert – I’m pretty sure that Facebook became popular with the masses (college students), and not via early adopters or celebrities.

    BTW, can you elaborate on your price/earnings comparison? I know what P/E ratios are, but not quite sure what parallel you are trying to draw? Isn’t a P/E ration simply a multiple that the Street gives a stock based on current revenue and future expectations (i.e. discounting the future)?

  28. Robert – I’m pretty sure that Facebook became popular with the masses (college students), and not via early adopters or celebrities.

    BTW, can you elaborate on your price/earnings comparison? I know what P/E ratios are, but not quite sure what parallel you are trying to draw? Isn’t a P/E ration simply a multiple that the Street gives a stock based on current revenue and future expectations (i.e. discounting the future)?

  29. I agree with much of what you said, but IM is NOT built in to Exchange and hasn’t been for a long time.

  30. I agree with much of what you said, but IM is NOT built in to Exchange and hasn’t been for a long time.

  31. I am dealing with challenges here and found your post helpful.

    My strategy is to inform early adopters of what I am doing (Gnomedexers, and others on the bleeding edge) but build my product and marketing to appeal to the mainstream, using on-air cross-promotion and incentives to message them directly. The product is simple-stupid to use.

    The demographical dillemma is that we built a new media product that is targeted to the older demographic. Although we need early adopters to seed the community, we really need the mainstream to feel it is a place for them where they don’t have to know any Web 2.0 jargon to get around the site and the phone browser.

    So, I got advisors telling me to push to youth, but talk radio programming on our system that caters to the 35+ crowd of radio fans who are not all about online tools or podcasting.

  32. I am dealing with challenges here and found your post helpful.

    My strategy is to inform early adopters of what I am doing (Gnomedexers, and others on the bleeding edge) but build my product and marketing to appeal to the mainstream, using on-air cross-promotion and incentives to message them directly. The product is simple-stupid to use.

    The demographical dillemma is that we built a new media product that is targeted to the older demographic. Although we need early adopters to seed the community, we really need the mainstream to feel it is a place for them where they don’t have to know any Web 2.0 jargon to get around the site and the phone browser.

    So, I got advisors telling me to push to youth, but talk radio programming on our system that caters to the 35+ crowd of radio fans who are not all about online tools or podcasting.

  33. and I would add that it is understandable when you step back and look at the number of technological advances that have completely disrupted the way we live our lives in a very short period of time historically.

    You look at a timeline of history and it is plain to see that since the Industrial Revolution the speed at which socially disruptive innovations take hold has increased at an almost exponential level.

  34. and I would add that it is understandable when you step back and look at the number of technological advances that have completely disrupted the way we live our lives in a very short period of time historically.

    You look at a timeline of history and it is plain to see that since the Industrial Revolution the speed at which socially disruptive innovations take hold has increased at an almost exponential level.

  35. I have ZERO sympathy for any early adopter. Tech is a weird thing, and you have to expect potential issues, regardless of the product.

  36. I have ZERO sympathy for any early adopter. Tech is a weird thing, and you have to expect potential issues, regardless of the product.

  37. Frederick: >>I think the disconnect between early adopters and ‘mainstream’ users is getting wider at an increasing speed.

    I do agree with that to some extent. But that’s always been with us. We used to call it the digital divide.

  38. Frederick: >>I think the disconnect between early adopters and ‘mainstream’ users is getting wider at an increasing speed.

    I do agree with that to some extent. But that’s always been with us. We used to call it the digital divide.

  39. @Robert and @Aurelius: I think we fully agree about the long term – but in the short term, I think the disconnect between early adopters and ‘mainstream’ users is getting wider at an increasing speed.

    Needs change – absolutely – and often innovations create a (perceived) need. I’m just not sure the latest crop of social media tools will create those needs for most mainstream users.

  40. @Robert and @Aurelius: I think we fully agree about the long term – but in the short term, I think the disconnect between early adopters and ‘mainstream’ users is getting wider at an increasing speed.

    Needs change – absolutely – and often innovations create a (perceived) need. I’m just not sure the latest crop of social media tools will create those needs for most mainstream users.

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