The rapidity of diffusion vs. the rabidity of marketing.


Diffusion of innovations research tracks how new ideas and products — innovations – spread across large populations. Everett Rogers’ 1962 treatise has spurred a vast number of similar studies. Here’s a quick visual summary of some of the conclusions of diffusion theory and research:

There are two related curves in the image above. One is an S-shaped growth curve, showing the total number of adopters of a popular innovation over time. The other is a familiar bell-shaped curve, showing how population members are distributed by their rate of innovation. “Innovators” adopt innovations earliest; “laggards” adopt latest.

Diffusion of innovations research finds widespread applications among those who wish to manage and control diffusion. However, diffusion now takes place in a very different environment than in Rogers’ heyday. We now have many more innovations to choose to adopt, and the pace at which those innovations diffuse is much more rapid.

The rapidity of an innovation’s diffusion conventionally indicates something about its ultimate penetration. In new media environments, however, initial diffusion may occur equally rapidly for virtual products and services with very different levels of subsequent use. For instance, Google and Facebook exhibited very rapid diffusion — resulting in vast numbers of users. But Twitter and World of Warcraft have also exhibited a rapid diffusion rate and have since plateaued — with about 150 million and 13 million adopters, respectively. And while a viral video might race through the internet like a grass fire in high wind, there is little significance or sustenance to its eventual passing.

Thus, initially rapid diffusion may mean less in new media contexts than in old. Currently, Apple’s iPad seems to be diffusing very rapidly, but the iPad – and tablet devices in general — may fall well short of the penetration of Facebook, or Google, or television sets.

Nevertheless, the rapid and continuous diffusion of virtual products and services tends to promote the innovation process. This is certainly a boon to new technology companies, but may not be as favorable for the status quo. For this reason, entrenched technology companies are increasingly forced to devote as much thought and effort into sustaining as achieving market success.

Some current strategies exemplifying this devotion: 1) associating products and services with tribal identifiers, either psychological or sociological, that inspire instinctive (and hopefully brand-related) loyalties, e. g., the rabid fanboy culture of Apple; 2) bundling products and services in hopes of masking the disadvantages of an outdated product or service with the advantages of some other, e. g., cable companies requiring the purchase of lower-level programming tiers in order to access higher-level tiers; and 3) the brute force approach of requiring long-term commitments to short-term products, e. g., the ludicrously long 2-year contracts proffered by leading cell phone service providers.

Can marketing strategies like these inhibit innovation and slow diffusion?