It’s rare a new category is launched that lets us discuss some of the fundamentals of how technologies get adopted by the mass market. My firm, Creative Strategies, has some history on consumer adoption research as Tim Bajarin did landmark research on adoption cycles for IBM in the early days of the PC and for Apple in the early days of their desktop publishing and multimedia programs. When it comes to how technologies get adopted, there are a few fundamental observations to be made.
The Diffusion of Innovations
While in need of some modern updates, the “diffusion of innovations” still offers some clarity on the adopter groups.
This theory observes that there are customer segments who, by nature, are the earliest supporters and adopters of a new technology. Generally, these are the most enthusiastic consumers of a product, category, technology, or company. Some products never make it out of this section of the graph. Within smartwatches, products like the Pebble, Galaxy Gear, Moto 360 (Android Wear), these products are still in the innovators/techies phase and questions remain as to whether they get out of this phase or even past the early adopter phase.
Each of these phases is also relative to the total market size/customer base. It is notoriously hard to drive a new category of product from the techie/early adopter phase. It is noteworthy Apple has done this three times already.
What is central to this theory is how a company refines and polishes their product, using the adoption within their early customers, to create something mass market. When a new category is launched, mainstream consumers have very little frame of reference of what the product means or what benefits it creates. This is why the adoption cycle gets vetted by early customers and, if this group champions a product, whether out of the gate or over time with refinement, it is then when mass market consumers begin to catch on.
There has been a great deal of research, mostly looking at social influence in politics, which shows how influential one person can be to a group. In short, the research states that one person in a group of ten influence the other nine. Sometimes these are called the party planners or brand champions but, in this case, we will view them as the techies or early adopters in the bell chart above. Once this group deems a product worthy enough to champion it to their social circles, we begin to see innovations diffuse into the mainstream.
What has been interesting to dive into with this theory are areas where adoption cycles are increasing in the tech landscape. I could spend an entire series digging into this, but a main observation I’d make is how this increase of adoption of new technology may very well be isolated to Apple’s ecosystem and customer base.
This does not mean the diffusion of innovations framework is not useful but that the stages may develop much quicker for Apple than other companies.
What makes Apple Watch interesting in this light is how Apple Watch day one may appeal to more sections on the diffusion graph than most products. Which means that not just the techies/early adopters are going to go to Apple stores to check out the Apple Watch. I’m betting, and this is also largely thanks to Apple retail stores and experience, that even the pragmatists and the conservatives will check it out. This is where things get interesting.
From my demo time with the Apple Watch, I went into it looking for just a few key use cases I was interested in such as communication with digital touch and notifications. But through this demo I spent more time examining all the watch could do. I tried the health elements, the app/visual media elements, the watch faces, and host of other things. After seeing all it could do, and getting the whole demonstration, I walked away significantly more impressed with this product than I thought.
Generally, with adoption theory, we observe that simple value propositions drive adoption. This is because when something is new, it is easier for customers to grasp a few basic value propositions than a plethora. My sense is one or two key things may get consumers to check out the Apple Watch. Maybe it is the health elements. Maybe it is the communication elements. Maybe it is the apps, or perhaps something else. What gets them in the door may be a few simple things but once they see the whole demo, as I did, the true depth of value the Apple Watch offers becomes clear. Whatever gets them in the door, it will be the entire demo of ALL the Apple Watch can do that will close the deal.
As I rationalized my Apple Watch estimates, I used some of the adoption cycle philosophy for the early stage volumes. We know there is a big tech/early adopter customer base for Apple. The question remain about how/if it trickles down to the mainstream. There are mixed opinions from many public pundits and commentators. However, after getting the full demo, and knowing some of the simple features will get people in the door, I am bullish that the Apple Watch will go mainstream by 2017. Or possibly sooner.