Understanding idea adoption (you’re not a slot, you choose a slot)

In the last year, millions of people have bought a copy of 50 Shades. Here's the thing: they didn't all do it at the same time.

Some people bought it when it was a self-published ebook. Others jumped in when word of mouth started to spread, enough that it became a bestseller. Most people, though, waited until it was on the bestseller list, in piles at the bookstore and the subject of positive and negative discussion and even parodies. And a few people are going to buy it two years from now, after everyone else who was willing to read it already has.

Another example: Just about all of the people who read this blog have read one of my books, and yet, just about no one who reads this blog has read my newest book yet (less than 2%, surely).

This is what almost always happens. Individuals choose a slot based on what sort of leadership or risk or followership behavior makes them happy right now. Early adopters and nerds like to go first. But some people are early when it comes to shoes, or to mystery novels, or records, while others adopt early when it comes to political ideas or restaurants.

Most of the time, most of us choose to be in the slot of mass. The masses wait to see the positive reviews, or they monitor the bestseller lists. The masses know they have plenty of time, that they'll get around to it when they get a chance, and mostly, they are driven by what their peers (the early adopters, the ones who keep track of this stuff) tell them. "Why waste time and money on the wrong thing," they argue, with some persuasion. So they wait for proof. Social proof or statistical proof.

[Beyond mass: No, everyone is not going to sign up for your new online service or buy my new book. We're talking about pockets of people, micro markets. But within those micro markets, everyone is not the same. Within those micro markets, some people are itching to go first, and plenty of people are waiting patiently to get it right.]

The glitch in the system is that many marketers obsess only about the launch. They put their time and money and effort into the first week on sale, and then run to work on the next thing, when in fact, the mass market, those that choose to wait for more than, "it's new!" haven't decided to take the leap yet.

Perversely, marketers look at what typically happens after the launch and say, "it's not worth sticking with this, because stuff that doesn't take off right away rarely does." And the reason? Because it was abandoned by the marketers who introduced it and then ran off to play with the next shiny object. It's self-fulfilling.

The fact is that almost all the profits of the record and book businesses come from the backlist, from Pink Floyd and Dr. Seuss. Apple sold almost all of its iPhones in the months after each launched, not the first day. Because that's what the market wanted. The exception that proves the rule: The Super Bowl only happens once a year, and it's just about the only time that everyone does everything at the same time.

I don't think the job of the marketer is to encourage people to jump from one chosen slot to another. I don't think it's worth the time or the energy to get someone who is comfortable with mass to suddenly turn into an early adopter, at least for today. Better, I think, to live in and work with and embrace your market, to go where they are, not to pressure them to change their habit.