May 17, 2009

Early Adopters and Finding "The Next Shiny Object"

About a year ago, I put forth a theory I called "The Five Stages Of Early Adopter Behavior", chronicling how we, as self-proclaimed early adopters, like to find cutting edge products and services, but can go from the most vocal proponents to their most visible detractors in a short amount of time, sometimes putting something in its grave even before the rest of the mainstream has found it exists. A corollary to this theory is that once an acceptable service or product is found, eventually the early adopter group will slip into a comfortable malaise, looking around for the "next shiny object" that will take their attention away from what to them has already become old hat. And this quest, this desire to find what is next, is what drives many of us to sign up for everything under the sun, kick its tires, and debate its worth with our peers. But just because we look for something new doesn't mean everything we use today will eventually be discarded.

The Five Stages of Early Adopter Behavior (June 2008)

Back in June, I wrote:
"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."
You can sit on the sidelines and see this happening everywhere. In fact, much of the backlash against Twitter of late has been from the early adopter community who has been largely ignored, in favor of the celebrity of the week, making those who pushed the service initially feel like they are unwanted.

This lust for the next big thing, and the desire to be first to find it, is much of the reason you see online media write bigger and bolder headlines for products that are fairly incremental to activity, and not game-changers. Be it yet another search engine, a new location awareness tool, or a widget that combines multiple previous offerings, there are presumed "bonus points" for being the first to call it a "Killer".

Amidst this, the truth is that some of these products do take hold and become part of our everyday activity - including Google Reader, Facebook, LinkedIn, FriendFeed, the iPhone and others for me, of course, and if they continue to please customers, they don't end up seeing even the most-aggressive users moving from what I called "Engagement" to "Entitlement" and eventually, "Migration". As FriendFeed's Paul Buchheit slyly asked of me last year, "I hope this doesn't mean you're moving on to stages 4 or 5 Louis...", prompting me to say that "some sites have the potential to be a permanent 3," referring to "Engagement".

Can Sites Be a "Permanent 3"? I say, Yes.

And yes, it can be tempting at times to stomp my foot and expect some of the apps I like and use the most to behave a way I want them to, but for the most part, I think I've held off, even as I continue testing any and all newcomers.

In a thread this week, perennial early adopter Robert Scoble jokingly told one commenter, after they asked what "the next shiny object will be", that "Louis Gray hasn't figured that out yet, so we have at least six months." As if I had that much power...

Looks Like It's Up to Me, Then?

As I see it, we have been lucky enough to find some shiny objects very early that have become active sites for a good number of people. We were the first to report on TweetDeck back in July of 2008, and TweetDeck is arguably the most popular desktop client for Twitter. Its success can even be seen in the development of competitors, such as Seesmic Desktop. We were also the first to report on Socialmedian, which was acquired by XING in December for a cool 7.5 million after seeing strong momentum. We were the first to really dive into the world of shared item aggregators, and were the first to report on ReadBurner, RSSmeme and other competitors. We were the first to highlight the launch of Toluu, a place to share your OPML and discover new feeds. We were the first to talk about Feedly, which is reshaping the way you organize and find data in your Google Reader stream. We were also the first to report on Twazzup, a new search engine for Twitter, as well as other tools.

So what am I saying with all this? Aren't these shiny objects? Didn't TweetDeck change the game? Aren't early adopters enjoying these services that haven't yet been absorbed by the mainstream and celebrities? They are.

Early adopters can do more than just discover new tools. Our job, as it were, is to help take something that's undocumented, and discover its potential and its use. What are we already doing that these new tools make better? What can I do that I couldn't do before? Does this new tool make anything I already do easier, or is it executed in a more clear way? It's not about finding new tools just for the sake of getting one more blog post on the chart. It's about hopefully rewarding developers for their efforts, rewarding early adopters and readers here by their getting early access to things that make a difference, and rewarding ourselves by building out the community in a new place. We are always on the look out for shiny objects. We find them all the time and are happy to share with you. But if I've found one that works for me, you can expect me to latch onto it like a barnacle.