The idea that some people adopt faster than others has almost become lore. Everett Rogers is known for his work with adoption through his work with farmers. During that work, he noticed something interesting about the distribution of people who were implementing farming innovations. The groups of people seemed to fall along a standard deviation curve.
The bell curve has a name, and it’s standard deviation. It’s a measure of the samples from the mean of the set. The best way to think about it is the way that Francis Galton envisioned it. Imagine a board that has pegs on it. Directly on top of the first peg, a ball is dropped – it can go either left or right. Below that are two more pegs. So that the ball can go left or right. This continues, and the board gets wider and wider, so the pegs form a triangle. At the bottom, you place channels to catch the balls that fall between each of the bottom row of pegs.
If you drop a large number of balls through the board, they’ll form a standard distribution with most of the balls falling near the middle and fewer balls falling along the edges. In a standard distribution, the first cutoff is about 34% from each side of the mean. The second deviation is about 13.6%, and beyond that is roughly 2.5%.
What Rogers realized was that the people who were innovative represented about 2.5% of all the farmers. These people were willing to try anything to get better and to test new ideas even without proof. It was the innovators who broke the inertia for an idea and got it started.
The Early Adopters
The early adopters weren’t so far out. This 13.6% or so were willing to try things with little – but not without – proof. They’d accept the experiences of the innovators as proof that the innovation would work and could make a difference. More importantly to the adoption of an innovation, they were enough like the majority to create the proof they needed to make a change.
The Early and Late Majority
The early and late majorities represent 68% of the total population, and they need proof. They need the proof that the early adopters bring to feel like it’s safe enough to adopt. During this stage of any adoption, the individuals are consuming proof that the change is working for others, and they’re recording their successes (and failures) as well.
Rogers grouped the second deviation and beyond into a single category he called the “laggards.” The laggards are those who require a substantial amount of proof or who need special assistance to feel like the change can be possible for them.
The primary implication of this model is that you need innovators to kick off the process and early adopters to bridge the gap between the innovators and the majority. The innovators are too dissimilar from the majority to be able to influence them. The early adopters bridge this gap and make it possible for a small number of innovators to be translated into a major wave of adoption.