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Digital Diffusion of Ideas: we are all in media

23 Feb 2013

Digital Diffusion of Ideas: we are all in media now

On Jan 27, 2010, Steve Jobs launched the digital media tablet - the iPad - in Cupertino, California. The crowds of geeks, tech writers, and Apple observers received it with love, woots, and fandemonium. Of course. Steve's fanfare and hyperbole on stage hit new levels of amplification.

Perhaps deservingly so.

Steve prefaced the launch and demonstration of the iPad with the big hypothetical question if there was room for a ‘3rd Category Device' between the smart phone and the laptop. He made Jobs-esque sweeping (yet impactful) statements that ‘everybody uses a smart phone and a laptop', and invited us to consider that for there to be room for a ‘3rd Category Device' that didn't evolutionarily sit in the category of smart phone or laptop, it had to meet a pretty high standard, and do a bunch of digital things better than both the smart phone and the laptop. It had to outperform these devices in the experience that it offers to you when you browse, email, photo share, watch videos, play games, and read eBooks.


Steve categorically dismissed that this ‘3rd Category Device' was the netbook which was starting to become popular at the time, by saying that a netbook is not better at anything, and that it was just a cheap laptop. There is nothing like dissing your competitors while the world is tuned in for your glorified sales pitch is there?

Of course, this was Steve's chance to show us the real deal, the ‘3rd Category Device' of the future. We call it the iPad. And it's very thin.


Steve went on. He told us that what this device does is ‘extraordinary'. It's ‘unbelievably great'. Living up to the high standards he'd set for a 3rd category device - the iPad - in Steve's words, is ‘way better than a laptop', ‘way better than a smartphone'. The iPad even enables you to hold the ‘internet in your hands'. It's ‘phenomenal for mail', and it's a ‘dream to type on'. He concluded the pre-demonstration hype by claiming that the iPad is ‘more intimate than a laptop', and ‘more capable than a smart phone'.


Steve thus pulled off one of the greatest sales pitches in history. Why?


Because he managed to sell us on a Platypus-like concept - the digital tablet, which didn't neatly fit into any one evolutionary box. It wasn't a smart phone, it wasn't a laptop. Just like the Platypus which shares features with mammals (it lactates), birds (it lays eggs), and reptiles (it is venomous), the iPad became a curious, well branded, unique "thing" - it became a device we wanted for the future.

It was a digital idea, a memetic virus, which took hold in the hearts and minds of innovators and early adopters around the world. It was the epitome of the digital diffusion of an idea.


And it changed the media landscape. It changed the media landscape both in the way we consume media and how companies need to think about the business that they are in. We didn't know what it was, we just knew we wanted one. Because Steve told us we needed it. Digital diffusion.


Anyone who is in marketing and sales is in the business of selling ideas. The iPad is a wonderful case study in how to sell a disruptive idea, and creating demand for the adoption of services and products associated with that idea. The idea of the iPad quickly moved beyond the innovators and the early adopters, who are the first movers when it comes to new digital ideas, and into the mainstream. To explore this concept of digital diffusion of ideas, we will overlay sociologist Everett Rogers' idea of the Law of Diffusion of Innovations across the launch of the iPad.


When you read this, think about how a new product or service launch in your business could be executed in a similar fashion and how both the digital and analogue aspects of the communications form an essential component in how you sell in ideas to your clientele and prospects.


To really succeed in business, in a digitally disrupted era, you must learn how to diffuse ideas across society and ensure adoption - in a digilogue way it turns out.

Law of Diffusion of Innovations iPad

Everett Roger's idea in its essence is this: innovation, no matter how good it is, cannot be successfully adopted without social acceptance and behavioural change.


This takes time, which is indicated on the horizontal X-axis. Over time, as an innovation is adopted, market share and reach improve, which is indicated on the vertical Y-axis. Everett Rogers studied the diffusion of innovations in different societal groups, and noticed a pattern in how ideas and innovations are adopted, and the different groups and their indicative sizes in society are visualised in this illustration, according to the wave-like curvature.


Categories of adopters are: innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards.


As you study this illustration, imagine that a digital idea takes root in the hearts and minds of the innovators on the left of the horizontal, and in a wave-like fashion spread to the laggards on the right. As it does, the S-like arrow climbs higher, indicating the diffusion of the idea in society at large, and that it reaches critical mass. It is important to note here that adoption is an individual process detailing the series of stages one undergoes from first hearing about an innovation to finally adopting it. The diffusion process, however, signifies a group phenomena, which suggests how an innovation spreads among consumers. Overall, the diffusion process essentially encompasses the adoption process of several individuals over time.


Let us take a look at how this played out in the case of the iPad, and how it is relevant to how you market your ideas in a digilogue fashion in your business.


On Jan 27, 2010, Steve Jobs launched the iPad via a digilogue live event, simulcast around the globe, to a select group of influencers - the innovators. Innovators constitute around 2.5% of the population at large, and they have a high risk tolerance. In fact, risk tolerance see them adopting new technologies which may ultimately fail and many of them have a ‘constant beta'-mindset. They are of high social class, have financial resources, and tend to be well connected socially and professionally. Apple didn't extend a democratic invite, but rather segmented and targetted a group of invitee-only innovators who could blog about, rave about, fantasize about, and geek out about the iPad. The innovators included investors, tech bloggers, Apple fans, partners, channels, and vendors who were also interested in the success and wave of diffusion of the idea of the iPad. For those who weren't invited to the actual event, some "2nd grade innovators" had to camp out outside of an Apple store for days, as the iPad made its way through to the retail channels around the world. It's the only time a retailer will be ok with people in sleeping bags on cardboard outside their entrance. If you're an innovator, there is merit in simply having the latest device, and being able to show it off, and (if you weren't invited to the Cupertino launch) to share the pictures of your sleep-out outside an Apple store. 2.5% is not enough to cause a digital wave of diffusion however. Apple was keen for more. And it knew it would come.

Early Adopters

This is where the early adopters come in. They constitute 13.5% of the population, and tend to be young in age, they have a high degree of opinion leadership, are influential, and have more advanced education than the population at large. While they are slightly more cautious in their adoption of new technologies compared to the innovators, they are still amongst the first adopters, and their more judicious evaluation of new technologies, provide them with a greater depth of thought leadership, persuasiveness, and influence in society than the innovators. Their nuanced opinions matter, and they are more focussed on making the "right" adoption decision, rather than making the "first" adoption decision. These were the people who waited until reviews, blogs, and the social twittersphere had reacted to Steve Jobs' launch. They were the ones who compared the benefits and features of the iPad with the suspected benefits and features from future competitive devices. Combined with the innovators, the early adopters provide a bell weather indication of the likely success of digital diffusion, as they represent 16% of the population combined, and without their support the iPad wouldn't have gotten off the ground.

The Chasm


Between this group of early adopters and innovators, and the next cohort of the market place - the early majority - there is a chasm that any digital idea needs to cross in order to create a crest of mass consumption.


Rogers argues that there are 5 intrinsic characteristics of the innovation idea that are critical at this stage for diffusion. Importantly they are a combination of digital and analogue factors. Digilogue is critical for the diffusion of ideas, services and devices.

  1. Firstly, relative advantage - how improved an innovation is over the previous generation. In the case of the iPad this wasn't an issue as it was the first main stream tablet that came onto the market, and that's why Steve pitched it as a 3rd category device which had certain relative advantages compared to smart phones and notebooks. 
  2. Secondly, compatibility - the level of compatibility that an innovation has to be assimilated into an individual's life. The iPad was easily integrated into the lives of innovators and early adopters, particularly those who were already using Apple products and iTunes. The iPad easily plugged into this ecosystem and became compatible with existing behaviours. This compatibility made the leap across the chasm to the early majority more achievable. 
  3. Thirdly, complexity or simplicity - if the innovation is perceived as complicated or difficult to use, an individual is unlikely to adopt it. Steve's demonstration of the iPad, and the subsequent viral videos of toddlers using the iPad and figuring it out intuitively, as well as the mobility of the iPad and its consequent public visibility in terms of usage became a powerful persuasive force. 
  4. Fourthly, trialability - how easily an innovation may be experimented with. If a user is able to test an innovation, the individual will be more likely to adopt it. Thus, it was critical for Apple to make the device available through its retail channels, so that people on both sides of the chasm could play around with the device and explore its benefits, and ease of use. 
  5. Fifthly, observability - the extent that an innovation is visible to others. An innovation that is more visible will drive communication among the individual's peers and personal networks and will in turn create more positive or negative reactions more broadly. We know that the iPad was easily observable, and because of its mobility and novelty it quickly became a feature in cafes, on aeroplanes, at airports, and in lecture halls.

Early Majority

This is how the digital idea of the iPad made its way across the chasm. Because of these 5 factors, the early majority became convinced. The early majority tend to be well educated, but are not as quick in their adoption of new technologies as the innovators and early adopters. They constitute 34% of the population so they are of critical importance in any mass adoption and success of a digital idea. The early majority have above average social status, are in contact with early adopters, and seldom hold positions of opinion leadership in the social system. I would rank reasonably tech savvy Baby Boomers and Generation Xers in this category in the context of iPads. It may be that their kids or their early adopter / innovator friends and colleagues pestered them about the benefits of the iPad, until the early majority eventually succumbed, and got onto the bandwagon of the idea. Once adopted, they realised the merit in a tablet, and what kind of media it gave them access to.

Late Majority

The top of the crest of the wave of selling a disruptive idea is formed jointly by the early majority and the late majority. The late majority is represented by my parents. I gave them the first model of the iPad when I upgraded to the new iPad in 2012, and I received an email back from my mother illustrating how some of her friends had sent her a ‘how to use the iPad as a chopping-board' video. For a digital native like me, this sent shudders down my spine. Six months after giving them the iPad, the iPad had only been used once, and I asked them to re-gift it to my brother, who would actually use it. And not as a chopping board. Like the early majority, the late majority constitute 34% of the population, and this category will adopt an innovation after the average member of the society. These individuals approach an innovation with a high degree of skepticism and after the majority of society has adopted the innovation. Late majority members are typically skeptical about an innovation, on average have below average social status, and less financial lucidity than the previous categories. They are mostly in contact with others in late majority and early majority, and very little opinion leadership in society at large.


Finally, the last category are the laggards. These guys constitute 16% of the population, and may well think that iPads are new-fangled eye-pads. They are the last to adopt an innovation. Unlike some of the previous categories, individuals in this category show little to no opinion leadership. These individuals typically have an aversion to change-agents and tend to be advanced in age. Laggards typically tend to be focused on "traditions", likely to have lowest social status, lowest financial fluidity, be oldest of all other adopters, and are mostly in contact with only family and close friends. In the case of the iPad, these were not the key target market for Apple, but in a twist, the brand has been able to reach some of the laggards as well.


In 2011, I was on my way back from the US to Sydney and I happened to sit next to an NBC executive who was travelling to the Australian Open Golf. We were talking about digital diffusion, and he lamented the decreasing contact he was having with his veteran generation mother. I enquired, curiously. On he went, well you know Anders, my mother lives in a retirement community in California, and we used to bring her home for family dinners on Sunday nights to spend time with us and the kids. However, the community has recently introduced an Apple user group on Sundays which means mum doesn't have time for us any more, because she and her retiree buddies are being coached by an Apple genius and sharing tech advice amongst each other. However, we do hope that this means she might be able to join us on Skype in the future, Anders. Digital diffusion of ideas never seizes to surprise.


The adoption numbers following the digital diffusion of the iPad idea


So let us take a look at the adoption numbers, and get a sense for the diffusion across the wave. Apple's tablet helped define a new market that is constantly growing. The original iPad sold, in the first days after the release in 2010, barely 100,000 units. A year later, analysts suggested that Apple sold around 800,000 iPad 2 over the launch weekend. In 2012, the company proudly announced 3 million new iPads sold in the first days of availability. Perhaps even more impressively, the iPad created the market for tablet devices, and enabled competitors to ride on the wave of the crest Apple created. So, even though Apple's market share is predicted to fall from the highs of 83.9% in 2010 (when it sold the disruptive idea) to 47.1% in 2015 as competition ramps up, that is within the context of the growing 3rd category device market that it created. According to Intel, the tablet market will continue to grow between 73% and 88% by 2014, which buoys the market both for media companies producing content, as well as application developers, software providers, and hardware companies alike. In 2012, there were 54.8 million tablet users in the USA alone (more than 16% of the total population), with predictions this will reach 89.5 million users by 2014. (I should make clear here that the Diffusion of Innovations concept doesn't mean that every person in each group has adopted the idea and made a purchase.) These statistics show that a large percentage across several of the adoption groups had accepted the diffused idea, and that many had also backed the idea with their hard-earned cash. The tablet has now gone well and truly from its initial adoption phase of innovators and early majority, and made significant inroads into the early majority, late majority, and laggards. The wave of diffusion keeps rolling.


So what can we learn from this case study of the iPad's rise to digital fame, and from the model of digital diffusion of ideas? Here are some key take-aways.

  • The model is a great illustration of how ideas and concepts spread in society. Whether you are selling an idea or a product, ask yourself who you should be targeting the product or service for. Is it crucial that innovators and early adopters take up the product or service, or should you be targeting one of the other groups?
  • If you're selling soft services such as consulting and thought leadership, who are the innovators and early adopters you need to influence? Make sure you write a list of the associations, conferences and blogs these guys hang out at so that you can connect with them, and get your services in front of them, as these guys shape opinions and are likely to give you the kudos required to launch your ideas into the market place. 
  • When you're thinking about digital or analogue ideas that you want to spread in society, ask yourself whether your ideas have a. relative advantage, b. compatibility, c. simplicity, d. trialability, and e. observability on your side. If not, how do you tweak their packaging to make it easier to adopt your innovation?
  • When selling an idea, concept or your thought leadership, consider a. which stakeholders you need to communicate with and persuade of its merits and which communication channels can best influence them, b. how much time might be required to influence the influencers, and how they might in turn influence the masses, c. which social system you are selling the idea into and what cultural barriers might exist against adopting the idea?

For a quick visual refresh, here is the model again.


Law of Diffusion of Innovations iPad Case Study

We are all in Media Now


Because of the iPad we are all in media. The uptake of the device is a great example of how a disruptive idea became mainstream. Its very nature as a media tablet also gives all of us a chance to sell our ideas, services and products into an increasingly digital market place. The tablet enables, whether an iPad or a Samsung galaxy, businesses to both broadcast and narrowcast its messages, and see those ideas go mobile. Diffusion happens faster as a result of the mobile smart phone and tablet world. Whether you are a media company or not, we all need to start thinking like media companies. What does this mean? Media companies are in the industry of sending out messages, and ensuring their messages are diffused in the masses. Distribution of the ideas used to be controlled by large analogue players like the major newspaper players or TV stations. Today, that is no longer the case, and a small player, a small business, or a small brand can all of a sudden play a big game. Equally, non-traditional media players like large retailers, food and beverage companies, professional services firms and management consultancies need to adopt a media mindset, where distribution and diffusion of their ideas and messages is critical. This asks a lot of leaders, but with Cisco predicting that 90% of all data by 2013 will be comprised of video messages, it also serves as an opportunity for leaders to ask themselves how they can represent themselves and their organisations as active media players. The tablet media devices are there in the hands of the target market, waiting for a strong signal in the noise - waiting for a good idea to be diffused.

The social nature of the tablet amplifies the social diffusion of ideas. Let us compare and contrast some statistics. It took:

1. The analogue phone 75 years to reach 50 million users
2. The analogue radio 38 years to reach 50 million users
3. The analogue TV 13 years to reach 50 million users
4. The digital Facebook 3.5 years to reach 50 million users
5. The digitally mobilised Angry Birds 35 days to reach 50 million users

In other words, the rate of adoption of new technology is speeding up, and has reached dizzying speed. And the question is what this means for your business?

Mobile Media


It means you need to think about mobile media. And it means that you need to create engaging content, just like a media company. No matter whether you're a farmer, a fertiliser company, a law firm, a thought leader, a consultant, a retailer, or a grocer. Blog to your heart's content, record HD video, tweet weird yet interesting content, Instagram enticing photos relevant to your clients, fans and prospects. Invite people into your world, and use mobile media to both capture fascinating content, and to distribute it to those millions of devices that sit in the hands of a captive audience who is waiting for signal amongst the noise. For your ideas to resonate you need to invest in your own media platform. This is also known as earned media, and it's the kind of media that people opt in to hear about. It's the kind of media that those same people will come back for. Again and again. It is estimated that management consultancies spend up to 5% of gross revenue on what the consultancy industry call ‘thought leadership' which in many ways is a glorified term for free educational information. Online, content is king, and increasingly we access engaging content on the go, socially, and locally.


Think of each of these screens as a way to digitally diffuse your ideas, and position your brand.


Digital Tipping Point Futurist Anders Sorman-Nilsson


We have reached a tipping point. In 2011, there were more smart phones and tablets shipped than there were PCs and notebooks shipped. And this trend is likely to continue, as people take the web into their own hands, as you can see. Increasingly, this trend is also buoyed by the decreasing prices of tablets and smart phones, which means these devices will penetrate emerging markets, and become the preferred way to access the web. As Steve Jobs foresaw, we now have the internet, ‘right there in our hands'. The disruptive idea of the iPad tablet is a wonderful case study in driving the diffusion of an idea, and seeing the mass adoption of a new technology concomitant with that idea. Contemporaneously, it has also forced companies to play a more front-of-mind role in filling the media tablet with content. This is a huge opportunity in the context of digilogue. Imagine what your brand can do in terms of story telling, in terms of inviting the customer or client into your world, in providing them a human analogue experience of what your brand is like in real life, not just in 2nd Life. This digital diffusion of innovation is a critical opportunity to level the playing field and give access to slower players and bricks and mortar businesses to access a new world of information, and to provide the mobile world of the internet with great media about your brand.

To learn more about the digital diffusion of innovations, contact Thinque now - - for strategic consulting around this concept and how to apply it in your business. 



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