Have you heard about the chasm? It’s that gap in the diffusion of innovation curve where many projects curl up and die a quiet death! In this episode, we’re going to explore the chasm and how we can avoid it in our work as enablers of change.
In previous posts we’ve talked about the Diffusion of innovations theory, where we’ve tried to give a balanced view of both the positive aspects but also the concerns that some people have about it. Whether we like it or not, this theory is not going away anytime soon! It remains as one of the most widely referenced theories across all the social science disciplines. Everett Rogers obviously did a good job of writing that first edition of his book, back in 1962!
However, Geoffrey Moore, an American marketing consultant, wrote a book Crossing the chasm back in 1991. He suggests that moving along the adoption curve is not as simple as we would like to believe. Instead, he asserts that there are gaps between each of the segments, known as psychographic groups. The gaps represent the dissociation between each of the groups. Consequently, Moore suggests that each group needs to be treated slightly differently from the preceding group.
If we think back to Everett Rogers’ work where he discussed the characteristics of each of the groups he starts by saying that innovators are the ones working on the cutting edge and are willing to take risks. Rogers characterised them as venturesome, and are comfortable with risky, if not rash, activities. Early adopters he characterised as respectful, the early majority as deliberate, the later majority as sceptical, and those often maligned laggards he characterised as traditional.
Characteristics of the adopter categories (Source: modified from Rogers, 1962)
Now here is the important part. Moore says that for some innovations there is a large gap between the early adopter group and the early majority. However, this is only the case for discontinuous technologies, where the adopters are required to substantially change their behaviour or to modify other products and services they use. Unfortunately for us, that sounds like a lot of our extension projects! So while there are gaps between each of the segments, a rather large one referred to as the ‘chasm’, exists between the early adopters and the early majority, as shown in this figure.
Representation of the chasm (Source: Smith 2018).
This implies there are two separate markets for the product on either side of the chasm, the early market and the mainstream market. Moore asserts that leading-edge adopters are looking for a competitive advantage (such as lower product costs, and faster time to market) and accept this will involve the pain of changing from the old, established ways to the new, improved ways. They accept that there will be bugs and glitches involved in the change, but they do it regardless, so as to gain the business advantage. In other words, the first group is willing to put up with the inconvenience and high cost to get their business advantage.
In contrast, the early majority are seeking productivity improvement for existing operations. They want ‘evolution, not revolution’, and expect the technology to dovetail with their existing systems without any glitches. While the early majority seek references from other users to validate their purchasing decisions, they do not consider early adopters as suitable references. This means there is a catch-22 situation, where the early majority only respect the opinion of other early majority members and this results in fewer innovations surviving past the chasm.
It is worth noting that while many authors refer to Moore’s work, only a few have actually tested the hypothesis. An Australian study (Brennan et al., 2007) investigated the poor adoption of decision support software by farmers and tested Moore’s hypothesis, but sadly the results were inconclusive. In his fifth and final edition of his book, Everett Rogers specifically makes mention of the work by Moore, and emphasises that the innovativeness continuum does not have any pronounced breaks in it. Rogers could find no research backing Moore’s assertions.
So where does that leave us? Well, what if we go along with the concept of a chasm and apply a dose of common sense to it? For us as enablers of change, if we are wanting to launch a new innovation, we need to remember that early adopters are quite different from the early majority. We should stop trying to apply a one-size fits all approach to our engagement and communication activities. Instead, we should consider what percentage of the target population have already started using the innovation.
For instance, if about 20% have done so, then that is probably the innovators and early adopters taken care of, and we are now dealing with the early majority. Remember that these are the people who are busy with other things and just want the new thing to fit in seamlessly with their existing operations. Using the ideas from Moore’s work, we would keep an eagle eye out for members of the early majority who have used the product and who are well-respected by their community. We then use them to help promote our product. We tailor our messaging to suit this group, and highlight that it is tried and tested, reliable, and ready to go (Robinson, 2012).
Then, once we have about half the target population using it, we swap over to targeting the late majority who are often only adopting something because they feel they are being left behind. We can use phrases such as ‘everyone else is using it’. Technically, once we reach 80% saturation, we are then trying to entice the laggards to use it, but often this is not worth the effort. Do not forget that there will always be a group of people who never adopt a particular innovation, and they are not represented on the bell curve. The other point to note is that we might be an early adopter for one product yet a member of the late majority for another.
On that note, there is an interesting admission by Everett Rogers in 2003 in the 5th edition of his book. He recalls how in 1954 when he was gathering data for his PhD, that he interviewed 148 farmers in the Iowa community. He was interested in their use of agricultural innovations including the 2,4-D herbicide, which was being recommended by the university back then. One farmer in particular said he did not want to use it as he noticed it killed the earthworms and birds. Back in the 1950s that seemed irrational, so Everett classified that farmer as a laggard on his innovativeness scale. Fast forward 50 or so years, and Everett now realises that this farmer was more likely a super-early innovator of what is now called organic farming (Rogers, 2003 p. 193). A pretty amazing insight from the farmer involved! And also pretty amazing that Everett was transparent and willing to change his views with new information!
So, in conclusion, if we want our new product or service to be widely adopted, it is better to focus on each of the segments and appeal to the characteristics of that particular group. If we do not then may end up at the bottom of that chasm!
Well, you have read our thoughts, now we would like to hear yours! Add a comment below and tell us about your experiences with targeting your communications in this way, including any tips and further ideas about it. We do not want this to be just a one-way conversation—join in by sharing your thoughts and ideas with us!
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Brennan, L., Hochman, Z., McCown, R., Darbas, T., Carberry, P., Fisher, J., Hall, C., & NP, D. (2007). Using computer-based technologies to support farmers’ decision making. RIRDC.
Moore, GA 1991, Crossing the chasm: Marketing and selling high-tech products to mainstream customers, Harper Collins, New York.
Norman, DA 1999, The invisible computer: why good products can fail, the personal computer is so complex, and information appliances are the solution, The MIT press.
Robinson, L. (2012). Changeology: How to enable individuals, groups, and communities to do things they’ve never done before. Green Books Limited, UK.
Rogers, E. (2003), Diffusion of innovations fifth edition, Free Press, New York.
Smith, M.S. 2018, Models for Predicting the Future: Geoffrey Moore’s “Crossing the Chasm”, available online.