Most marketing professionals understand that insight into the hearts and minds of your customers is central to successful product innovation. But which customers? Who is going to buy my product first? What happens after that? How can I eventually grow my customer base to one billion people?

These are the hard questions that successful technology companies are addressing every day. Distilling these questions down to reveal essential truths requires a bit of focus and a framework for understanding and appreciating the fact that not all people are the same. It begins and ends with an audience-first approach, but one that is grounded in the principles of the Diffusion of Innovation Theory.

So what might that look like?

The product adoption bell curve

Applicable to virtually any industry, the Diffusion of Innovation Theory uses a bell curve to show how ideas spread in a population, or effectively how consumers adopt innovations, by dividing them into five segments or cohorts: Innovators, Early Adopters, the Early Majority, the Late Majority, and finally the Laggards. This is more commonly known as the product adoption curve.

The product adoption curve matters to tech innovation in a couple of important ways:

First, it is essential to understand that someone has to be the absolute first person to buy your product. Who will this be? Why will they buy? What are their motivations, passions, and desires? What messages resonate with these people? These are all questions we must address to understand our Innovators, the first 2.5% of the total market who need to be the first to buy your product. The important things to understand are not only their qualitative behaviors and personalities, but what features matter to them. What are must-haves? Research that effectively addresses both the what and the why can help us develop products that will be successful upon initial launch. Sure, we still have work to do with our advertising, messaging, and placement. We are not totally off the hook after understanding the what and why behind behind needs and desires, but we can have greater certainty in product market fit because of this understanding. The tech companies who are doing this well are integrating both survey and non-survey data to understand the complete consumer who makes up this audience.

Getting this understanding dialed in will only take us so far though. After we get past the first 2.5% of the market, the question becomes, who is going to buy my product next? These are your Early Adopters. They don’t want to be the absolute first people to buy your product, but they are not far behind. We also need to recognize that they are influenced by those Innovators and in all likelihood have been talking with them, following them on social media and the like.

The passions, motivations, and desires are quite different for this group. That means the product needs to speak to them in a different way. Successful tech companies who understand this are doing their deep research into this cohort so that they can tailor messaging to them. Different words, placement, and advertising are needed. In addition, different features matter. Perhaps comfort is more important than style to them. Or maybe they put value above price. It is absolutely critical that if a technology product—any product really—is going to be successful beyond the initial launch that it is tweaked in such a way as to be appealing to this second cohort, the Early Adopters. If we fail to recognize the differences and treat them the same as we treated the Innovators, we risk missing the mark completely and/or turning off those consumers from our product all together.

The same holds true with our third cohort, the Early Majority. A successful research strategy will employ similar techniques to understand the core audience prior to each stage of product development and market maturity so that we can stay one step ahead of the curve and make sure that we are getting the right features and messages to market just in time.

Bottom line is that there’s no one-size-fits-all tactic to reach and resonate with everyone as a whole. Instead—and this is key—each cohort requires its own set of marketing tactics and product features to ensure success.

Why tech innovations fail

In tech, two of the most important cohorts have always been the Innovators and Early Adopters. Innovators are the biggest risk-takers, the ones who are the first to try anything new and work through the kinks and quirks. Early Adopters take their cue from the Innovators, reasoning that if someone else is willing to jump, they can jump too. Together, they make innovation and disruption not only possible, but exciting.

Further downstream, or along the curve, the Early Majority take their cue from Early Adopters and so on, until the Laggards—the last to adopt a new product—finally follow suit.

So what causes products to fail?

Product failure occurs primarily for two reasons, the first being a result of solely focusing on the Innovators, as we talked about above. If we do this, we will have a great launch followed by a quick decline and stagnating sales. The second, and perhaps more common, cause for failure happens when traditional companies who are still stuck in norms testing try to fit a product for maximum appeal to a broad audience. Too much focus is placed in the middle of the curve, say with the Early Majority and Late Majority. This leads to a failure to launch. Ever heard of Coca-Cola BlāK? Everyone drinks coffee and soda, right? Yes. But who wants to drink it together? Almost nobody. Trying to change a majority cohort right out of the gate disregards the Innovators and Early Adopters who are needed to crucially “seed” the change in the market. In this instance, the product never takes off because it never lands in the first place.

Grounding the hype in deep audience understanding

So much of tech innovation is fueled by hype— i.e., attracting the early part of the product adoption curve. And with valid reason. What has started out as many a novel disruption has eventually gained momentum and changed huge swaths of our culture permanently and for the good because Innovators and Early Adopters were willing to jump.

But to avoid stagnation in product growth because other segments may fail to respond to your innovation, you have to first understand each segment deeply so you can get in front of each product iteration and evolve positioning and messaging accordingly. That way, you’re prepared in advance with quality audience insights at each phase of the tech adoption lifecycle and along the product adoption curve.

In practical terms, this can be done by combining and applying different tools and methodologies from both UX and marketing—usability and interaction, understanding customer habits and preferences, and knowledge of the market—to identify in detail the small consumer niches that will drive the most impact at each stage and beyond.

By layering the science of UX with the art of marketing, you can develop a holistic and more finely tuned picture of the consumer. A recent webinar dives into how these combined methodologies enable collaboration, help to uncover niche audiences, and benefit the continuous learning and iteration that are the hallmarks of tech product innovation.

The logical result is that you can use deep and specific audience insight to build in personalization for each customer segment, thereby harnessing their power to adopt innovation and spread ideas. In turn, you achieve not only launch success but the long-term product growth that’s needed to give you a competitive upper hand.

About the author

Keith Johnson is the Chief Product Officer of GutCheck with over 15 years of experience building and creating businesses, leading corporate expansion into new markets around the world, and growing leading brands.

Featured image via Unsplash.