How Ideas Spread: The Diffusion of Innovations Theory
New ideas are difficult to spread. Even when they’re right. Even when they save lives.
In 1846, a Hungarian doctor named Ignaz Semmelweis had a brilliant idea. If implemented quickly, it would save the lives of thousands of mothers in his own hospital. And millions of lives worldwide. But that’s not what happened.
Semmelweis discovered that deadly infections were spreading through the hospital because doctors were not using disinfectant to wash their hands. He implemented a handwashing protocol and deaths from infections vanished in the hospital.
However, his colleagues took offense because Semmelweis’s idea made it looked like their actions had been killing people. Their dirty hands had been killing people, but they didn’t want to admit that. They were angry. Angry enough to fire Semmelweis. Semmelweis continued promoting his idea through Europe, but nobody listened.
In a deeply sad and ironic ending, the stress led Semmelweis to be committed to a mental asylum. It was there that he died, from an infection that was spread into his bloodstream—because his doctors hadn’t been washing their hands—the very problem he had dedicated his life to eradicating.
From this, we can recognise that simply having a great idea is not enough.
Everett Rogers showed, in his book The Diffusions of Innovations, how ideas spread through society. We can gain confidence in Roger’s Diffusion of Innovations theory because his theory spread—it was successfully diffused. It has influenced tens of thousands of tech entrepreneurs and gained widespread popularity when expanded by Geoffrey Moore in Crossing The Chasm.
We have our own ideas which are worth spreading, whether to society as a whole, an industry, a boss, a friend, or a family member.
How can you get your idea to spread? It starts by improving it—by ensuring it embodies five key traits.
Improving Your Idea
If you want your idea to spread, it must be better. There are so many ideas out there that most new ideas get ignored. And for good reason—they’re not good enough. For a new idea to spread, it must be better.
Everett Rogers identified five traits that are present in ideas that spread. But these five traits aren’t a checklist to determine if your idea will spread—they’re five things you need to embed into your idea.
1. They’re Better
When a new idea is better than an old idea it’s more likely to spread. Like evolution. If it’s cheaper, more convenient or has more social status people are more likely to accept it.
In Action: The Ford Model T was better than the alternative of horses is it was faster and safer. In fact, The Ford Model T was so much safer, its slogan was “Broken arms prevented.”
2. They Fit in a Current Category
People fear what’s alien. By positioning a new idea as a slight change from an already accepted idea it is less confronting and more acceptable.
In Action: The Model T was first marketed as a motorised horse and carriage.
3. They’re Easy to Use
If we have to learn new skills to adopt a new idea, we are less likely to adopt it. Difficulty-of-use is a barrier to adoption. Easy ideas get used.
In Action: Motoring clubs were established to help people learn to drive the Model T.
4. Opportunity for Experimentation
You’re not likely to buy a new car without taking it for a test drive. New ideas are the same. There is less risk if you can try a new idea before adopting it.
In Action: Ford set up dealerships across the country so people could test drive the Model T.
5. You can See the Effect
When we see something with our own eyes it becomes real. And when we see how it helps us, it becomes real and desirable. So show people how your idea benefits them. You can even compare your new idea to an old idea to highlight your improvement.
In Action: Sitting in your horse and carriage you would see a Model T zoom past you.
If our idea doesn’t have these five traits we must find a way to incorporate them. The more our ideas embody these traits the more momentum they will gather.
If we do that, our idea will get people talking.
How Ideas Travel
Ideas travel via conversation—in person, through email and on social media. They move from a father to a son, an office worker to a coworker and a from a celebrity to their fans. If you want your idea to spread, you must get people talking.
Forbes ranked Red Bull as the 74th most valuable brand in the world. In 2015 they sold 5.96 billion cans. Yet Red Bull don’t rely on traditional advertising to sell their energy drinks. They create events that get people talking.
Here’re a few of Red Bull’s stunts:
- Skydiver Paul Steiner climbed from one plane to another plane while in mid-air.
- Dirt bike rider Robbie Maddison jumped off a ramp onto the top of the Vegas Arc de Triomphe. And then rode off of it.
- Skydiver Felix Baumgartner jumped from the edge of space. This little stunt prompted over three million tweets.
Conversations influence because social-proof persuades. We trust the people we talk to. Our family, our colleagues and our friends.
By adopting a new idea, we risk losing money, wasting time or looking silly. But if people we trust adopt the idea, it does two key things.
Firstly, they give the idea credibility. Because they trust it, we think it will be successful. The idea becomes more valid to us if our friends accept it.
Secondly, we aren’t alone if we adopt the new idea and it fails. If we lose money, waste our time or are humiliated, we don’t feel as bad when we have the comfort of friends in the same position.
For example, in 2010, buying a Tesla from the electric car manufacturer came with risks. You would place a down payment, unsure whether the company would be able to actually manufacture the car. And there were many vocal doubters waiting in the wings to mock people if that happened.
Yet many people took the risk. Technologists and celebrities alike. That increased the credibility—people began believing the cars would be made. Secondly, they realised if the cars never even got manufactured, they would be in the company of smart and successful people who had made the same decision of placing a deposit.
That is how ideas spread. A few brave people take the risk early, and over time more and more people follow as the risk is decreased. New ideas can spread through society.
The Adoption of Ideas Through Society
It’s true we need to get people talking to make our idea spread, but as you’ve probably realised, we need to get the right people talking about our idea at the right time.
New ideas are not rationally analysed by everyone who hears about them. People don’t have time for that.
To make decisions easier, we rely on the decisions of others. When other people adopt an idea, it is a signal that we should adopt it too. Ideas move through society when people accepting them, from group to group—starting with innovators.
Innovators – Visionaries
Think Steve Jobs. Innovators have vision. They see an idea not only as what it is, but what it can become. Possibilities excite them. They have a higher risk tolerance than other people, making them the perfect people to test a risky new idea.
Innovators are not following anyone. There is no one to follow. They must deliberate on the merit of an idea for themselves. Since they are the people that determine whether an idea will gain any traction they’re especially important.
How to encourage innovators to adopt your idea:
- Promoting them as they promote you. They are thought leaders and want to be seen that way. Mutually beneficial.
- Involving them in your idea. In business that can mean offering equity, in politics it can mean giving them public credit and in social affairs it can mean asking for their help.
In Action: Google was founded by Larry Page and Sergey Brin. The innovators who first supported them were Stanford University followed by Venture Capitalists. They envisioned the impact that Google could have on the world (and the impact on the Venture Capitalists bottom line).
Early Adopters – Leaders
Early adopters are trendsetters. Innovators and early adopters motives are different. The innovator is thinking about the amazing benefit it can have on the world, the early adopter is thinking about the amazing benefit it can have for himself.
Early adopters are looking for a benefit that the majority hasn’t realised. They want an advantage. They read the latest book to get a business advantage and they buy the latest car so they will later be seen as a trendsetter. Early adopters are competitive and see new ideas as tools for social or economic success.
How to encourage early adopters to adopt your idea:
- Making your idea more pragmatic.
- Helping position them as trendsetters.
- Seeking feedback to determine the benefits they value.
- Investing in them. Give them extra support and discounts. Don’t worry if you’re making much or any money off them — the real money is made on the majority.
- Listening to their ideas—their feedback will improve your product.
In Action: Google AdWords launched in October 2003. Google’s early adopters were 350 companies who realised they could get undervalued advertising.
Early Majority – First Followers
Like the early adopters, the early majority are looking for benefits. But the difference is they are more pragmatic.
They require more evidence of value before adopting the idea as they are more risk averse. They are looking to follow, not lead.
How to encourage the early majority to adopt your idea:
- If you have a product, remove the risk by offering a guarantee.
- Promoting the acceptance of your idea by influential and relatable people. This is the “Four out of five dentists…” principle.
- Making your idea as easy to use as possible.
- Providing support and responding promptly to questions.
In Action: In early February 1999, Google had proven to be the most popular search engine with over 500,000 searches. The idea had been proven by the leaders, so non-techies could use the site knowing they were not taking much risk.
Late Majority – Weary
I can’t think of anybody from the late majority to use as an example—not because they don’t exist, but because we never ever notice these people. These are the people who look left and right five times before crossing the street. They make their decisions by seeing what everyone else is doing and then do the same. They fear not fitting in. They fear risk. They are ruled by threats as opposed to early adopters who were ruled by opportunities. They are the hidden majority.
How to encourage the late majority to adopt your idea:
- Show idea as social norm, the standard
- Make it even easier to use
- Play on fear of being left out
- Manage PR carefully. Don’t want bad press / opinions now. Want to make it seem as safe as possible. As the saying goes, “You don’t get fired for buying an IBM.”
In Action: By 2010, twelve years after incorporation and a decade after Google had become the most popular search engine in the world, it was now completely safe for the late majority to use Google.
Laggards – Resistors
Laggards have a contrasting psychology to the late majority. They are independent thinkers. They don’t adopt an idea because everyone else has. It must make sense to them.
How to encourage laggards to adopt your idea:
- Give them control over the idea. Allow them to mould it to fit within their requirements.
- Respond in-depth to their issues and look for a compromise.
- Provide examples of other laggards who resisted, but ultimately adopted the idea.
In Action: Despite Google’s worldwide success in providing search, it has been blocked by China.
The people within each stage are not fixed in that stage. For example, the same person may be an innovator when buying a car, but a laggard when buying kitchen appliances.
The further an idea makes it through each stage the more it permeates society. Many ideas may reach the innovation, early adopter or early majority, but go no further. There is an evolution of ideas. To get your idea, product or brand to spread, you must target the appropriate
group—innovators at the beginning, right up to resistors at the end.
We know, thanks to Semmelweis that simply having a great idea is not enough to get it to spread. If we use the ideas in the diffusions of innovations theory; moulding our idea to be as attractive as possible, helping it be a talking point, and targeting the right group at the right time, our idea has a better chance of succeeding.