June 12, 2008

The Five Stages Of Early Adopter Behavior

Early adopters serve an important role in the world of Web services and technology gadgetry. helping to act in a multi-pronged position that can blur the line between journalist, customer and partner.

The best early adopters not only help spread the word about a new product, but they can help argue its features, they are eager to offer feedback to its developers, and at times can be indistinguishable from the service's PR or Marketing team. But with time, if not coddled, this crowd can often turn against the very service they helped champion, as they move on to the next new thing, sometimes taking an army of followers with them.

This relationship between service and early adopter is a healthy one, assuming the Web service has, in the interim, grown to the point they no longer need the initial proponent's efforts, having expanded to a more mainstream audience, or achieved sustainable organic growth. But if this doesn't happen, it's a very short trip from promotion to abandonment indeed.

With not too much research, you can see evidence for five major stages of early adopter behavior, as I've summarized below.

1. Discovery, QA and Spreading the Word

The first weeks and months of a service can be very exciting. The early adopter often works with the developer behind the scenes to learn as much as they can about a product, often posting a new story that introduces the site. If there are any bugs with the product, they are easily glossed over as ones which will undoubtedly soon be fixed. If the site doesn't seem all that useful without a multitude of users, this too can be ignored, as the early adopter hopes everyone will see the service's full potential, and will use it the way they expect to.

In this phase, the early adopter has what can be construed as a personal interest in the success of the product, as he or she has gone out on a limb to associate the name with the third party brand. The adopter will not only be a frequent user of the service, but will track other posts or comments about it everywhere, and repeat the agreed upon talking points. Should they actually find a major issue with the product, they will e-mail or call the developers directly, rather than making the issues public.

At times, everything on the Web can be seen through the lenses of just how this new product will be affected, or how it could change everything else. All of a sudden, what may have been a hammer is proclaimed to be a Swiss Army Knife.

2. Promotion and Collaboration

As the service gains momentum, the early adopter befriends the first users of the product, who may have nothing in common except that they share interest in that product. At times, the product may be used only to discuss the product itself.

The early adopter, as new voices discover the service, will push follow-up posts, giving public suggestions to the company, in an extremely positive way, on how they believe the service should change and grow, showing themselves, in front of the world, to be an integral part of the product's development. Should the product incorporate any of these suggestions, whether due to the adopter's input or not, the early adopter will either take credit, or follow up and show how they were "right".

Now using the product a great deal, at the exclusion of others, the early adopter will openly mock those people who haven't jumped aboard yet, pointing them out as being stuck in the past, or married to clearly inferior products.

3. Mainstream Use and Engagement

Having grown tired of the part-time job of delivering free PR for the service, at this point the early adopter no longer feels the need to architect every story and every product through the lens of the service. Instead, having felt vindicated that the masses are now seeing the potential he always knew the product had, he or she remains engaged, trying to act as a "model citizen" for the product, engaging with newer users, but keeping in mind the higher visibility and trying to act as an example.

At this point, follow-on users have now picked up the ball in terms of promoting the product, announcing each of its aspects in the same breath-taking manner the early adopter once did for the service itself. At this point, the early adopter already knows his or her readers and peers know they like the product, and the need to constantly remind people they are using it is no longer necessary.

4. Sense of Entitlement, Nitpicking and Reduced Use

At this point, often in part due to favorable feedback from the service's authors, the early adopter feels a sense of entitlement, that the product absolutely must be architected in the way they say so, even if to move in that direction wouldn't serve the larger installed base. Now, instead of suggesting quick ways the service could update, the calls are more like ultimatums, and if not quickly seeing a response, the early adopter can get extremely frustrated, at times, seeing this annoyance bubble up to the same degree their first comments on the product reeked of praise.

Now disgruntled, the early adopter can be seen using the product less frequently, with less enthusiasm, and will even take consecutive days off, hoping the remaining audience notices the change.

5. Migration to Something New, Call to Move Followers

Having come full circle, from the exciting discovery stage, where the adopter considered themselves a team player, helping a threadbare company grow on the back of continuous praise and promotion, to a high-profile user role, the individual can come crashing down, lashing out at the product, the company's leadership or the product direction. The adopter often finds a tangential service that now draws their eye, and is seen as a replacement for the original product.

The adopter will, at this point, start heaping lavish praise upon the new product, in a quest to assert their dominance, and prove that they can, again, make a service successful, and to prove that all their belly-aching in the preceding months was valid. The adopter will use their blog and both the new and old service to call followers to migrate as a group, both helping the new shiny toy, and in turn, damaging the old one, out of spite and frustration.

On the Web, this process can be extremely fast. One month's golden boy can be next month's afterthought. One week's addiction can be next week's memory. For a service to succeed, it needs to attract those early adopters who can help propel a strong population, but it needs to do all it can to keep those adopters feeling like partners and mainstream users, before letting neglect fire up their egos so much that they leave you altogether. Making a successful Web service is more than writing the best code. It's also about relationships. And while the early adopter crowd is notoriously fickle, they're not going away all that soon.

Take a tally in your head of some of the services you use each day. If you're an early adopter, what stage are you in? If you're not an early adopter, but you know someone who is, what products do they make themselves part of? And do you see these stages progress? I know I do.