Forget The Early Adopters: Gadget Companies Should Target The Late Leapfroggers

from the skip-a-generation-or-two dept

Clive Thompson shows, once again, why his articles and columns tend to be fascinating must-reads. He’s written up some details of some research suggesting gadget makers rethink their marketing strategy of going after early adopters, and instead, consider targeting late adopters. Now that might sound counterintuitive at first. Getting early adopters helps build buzz and then word of mouth passes down the chain to everyone else under the curve, right? Not quite. What the research shows is that “late adopters” are often so late that they never adopt certain generations of a technology. But, when they do “upgrade” they’ll upgrade to the latest. So they basically “leapfrog.”

[Jacob] Goldenberg offers the following thought experiment. Imagine that John is a laggard who buys a Walkman and listens to it while he jogs every day. Eventually, the Discman comes along, but John doesn’t upgrade because he doesn’t see anything wrong with his Walkman and doesn’t want to re-buy his music on CD. Then MiniDisc players come along, but John still holds on to his Walkman. Then, 16 years after he bought his portable tape deck, MP3 players become the hot new thing.

By now, though, John is finally starting to feel self-conscious about his huge, bulky Walkman, and maybe it’s starting to break down. He’s finally ready to buy a new music player, so he becomes–ironically–one of the first people to get an iPod.

The research shows that this is often the case. The folks normally considered “late adopters” skip multiple generations, but when they upgrade, they upgrade to the latest and greatest, and are often among the first buyers of those devices, often planning to hang onto them for another few generations. Amusingly, as I thought about this, I realized that this actually describes me! For example, I tend to keep mobile phones for four or five years before upgrading, but when I do upgrade, I get something pretty new and snazzy and then use it until I’m almost embarrassed to show it (“wait, you write for a tech blog with that phone?” has been said to me more than once). Same with other gadgets as well. I have an ancient mp3 player and no intention of upgrading. I had the same super bulky and not very good digital camera for seven years before I recently bought a brand new one that puts the old one to shame.

The research then suggests that targeting those “late leapfroggers” rather than the early adopters can actually do quite a bit for the bottom line:

Goldenberg argues that the economic impact of leapfrogging laggards is huge. By his calculations, if only 10 percent of laggards leapfrog, their purchases can drive profits from a new gadget 89 percent higher than they would be without leapfrogging. “And that can be the difference between succeeding and not succeeding,” he says.

If Goldenberg is right, marketers have made a colossal error by snubbing laggards. Instead, they ought to be frantically figuring out how to market to them. After all, early adopters don’t need much convincing. But if you can figure out how to tip just 1 percent of laggards into the “buy” category, the upside is huge. What’s more, Goldenberg thinks word-of-mouth recommendations from laggards are supremely persuasive: If John can handle that new gizmo, anyone can, right?

Thompson then wonders if some of this is driving the early sales success of the iPads. Sure, early adopters are buying it, but for some “laggards” who never bought a smartphone or a laptop, perhaps it’s a reasonable buy? I’m not completely convinced that’s the case, but it’s an interesting theory. Would love to see some actual data on how many iPad buyers didn’t already have a smartphone or a laptop.

That said, this story got me thinking about a concept that I’ve been pondering lately, which often explains why people have so much trouble understanding certain aspects of trends: it’s because people have difficultly conceptualizing dynamic markets as an ongoing connected process, but instead, automatically think of them as an encapsulated unit. If you look at any product totally in isolation, the normal “adoption curve” that Geoffrey Moore built his career on makes sense.

It assumes an orderly progression from beginning to end, with your typical bell curve. But that assumes that each product is a market unto itself, without impact from additional innovations and newer products. That’s not the case at all. Many of the “late adopters” never actually get around to adopting, and when they adopt, they may have jumped up onto another, higher curve, rather than coming down the back end of the adoption bell curve. Recognizing such dynamic market forces isn’t always easy to do, and it’s a huge reason why people sometimes have such difficulty predicting market trends.

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Comments on “Forget The Early Adopters: Gadget Companies Should Target The Late Leapfroggers”

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JeffR says:

Describes me for a number of things.

Most of the people I know don’t go out and get every generation of a given technology.. most of them will skip at least a generation…

I recently bought a Droid Incredible.. replacing the first cellphone I bought in the spring of 2000. I’m in the market for a new laptop, to replace my 4 year old Core 2 duo based Dell… and have been for some time because I’ve not found the right mix of features that I want that would get me to pull the trigger on a $2k purchase for a new gaming laptop.

The key, as always is that there needs to be a compelling reason to buy.. a significant capability increase of some sort (which could be convenience, usability, new stuff, longer life, whatever).

Tailsnake says:


I think his analysis is a bit of a artifact of how he defines an early adopter: I think his definition of someone that’ll buy new tech at high prices all the time accounts for far less than the 13% or so of the market he claims. I just see anyone willing to buy untested tech as an early adopter of that technology, (anyone buying a laptop in the late 90s was an early adopter, any one buying blu-ray players in 2006 was an early adopter, etc). When you start looking at markets as a whole, that ~13% early adopter segment fails and what you get are people with many different reasons for buying early, from Thomson’s “Laggards/Late Adopters” to people who are curious, or people who are loyal to the brand, or people whose old devices happen to break and need new ones.

It seems like his definition of early adopter comes from looking at specific device life cycles, while his definition of Late adopter comes from looking at the market as a whole and he mixes and matches definitions as he pleases to make his point.

Anonymous Coward says:

So how is a company supposed to know when their product will attract leapfrog customers? How was Sony supposed to know that its MiniDisc wouldn’t be the rage and attract the leapfroggers?

Of course this exists but predicting when the marketplace will be ripe for the product is still tough to predict unless you use hindsight.

tuna says:

There are other factors involved but this pretty much discribes the Win OS history. A lot of prople went win 3.x, win 98, win XP, win 7; skipping 95, ME and Vista.

I also think the tech experienced are the late adapters. I have no desire to Beta test a core product which is what most new releases (hardware and software) have become.

The least experienced, tech wise, where I work have always been early adapters. they think it makes them look tech savvy.

If I see some one with a new phone the day after it is released I know where that person falls on the curve.

Peter says:


Seriously this isn’t enlightening, it is utter nonsense. It doesn’t make sense to waste money marketing to someone who isn’t going to upgrade for several product generations.

How exactly do you even go after the late adopter. It sounds more like someone who is going to buy when their current product fails.

Let me give you an example, an semi early adopter is someone like me who bought DVD early (and now Blu Ray), if you didn’t get the early adopter, your product fails in the market, you have no chance at getting a late adopter at the beginning of a cycle.

Later adopters, my mother/grandmother… Or are they? I bought both of them DVD players, otherwise they might still be using VHS. Pointless to market to them.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

But laggards aren't in sync

I’m a leapfrogger myself. I’m about replace my 5 year old phone with an Incredible, for example.

But… do we “bunch up” and decide to replace our old tech simultaneously?

Intuitively, it seems that everyone would have their own replacement cycle, out of sync with each other. If that’s the case, then the effect is greatly attenuated — some people will be buying new stuff, while others are going to sit pat for another couple of years. It would all tend to average out.

Could you not treat this effect as a constant? I think you can, and if you can — that’s great news, because it means you can effectively target it as a market. You don’t have to time product releases to trends, so you won’t guess the trend wrong.

Some of the comments are to the effect of “how can we possibly address the leapfrogger market?” I can think of a few ways (assuming the constancy I spoke of), but the most obvious is to design and market your product to the consumer who is buying because they’re replacing something.

Make sure your product solves their problem (remembering and learning from the fact that the product they’re replacing successfully solved their problem) at least as well as the old stuff.

Don’t work too hard to try to “move” them into doing things in new ways.

Make sure that they don’t lose features. This might be harder than it sounds. Any tool that is used for a long period of time will begin to be used in ways the tool was not actually designed for. These new uses count as “features” and should still be possible with the new product.

Don’t sell image. Sell effectiveness, stability, and a little sprinkling of the new sexy.

Anonymous Coward says:

John F, don’t sell image? What, you want to change advertising?

Apple sells image and they do a pretty good job of it. Beer companies sell image (do you really think drinking Bud Light will get you young hot chicks? Trust me, it won’t, I know from experience.) Baseball bat manufacturers sell image, unless you believe that if you buy the bat that a certain retired NY Giant defense player is shown with will soon be playing major league baseball.

tennised (profile) says:

What Research

Mike – “The research shows this is often the case.” What research? The Wired article references only ONE survey of only 105 people in ONE country for ONE product type (portable audio players) in only ONE year (2003). That’s hardly “The research shows…”. Nor do you cite any additional sources. Leapfrogging may, in fact, be real, but taking one tiny bit of isolated data and jumpting to broad conclusions is something I expect of the RIAA, not Techdirt.

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