Creating Adoption for a New Product

Trying to get your product to appeal to early customers? Limit features and dramatize key benefits to make it feel cool.

How Facebook dominated a crowded category.

In 2005, Friendster was the rage. Its founder Jonathan Abrams had appeared on the cover of many publications like Time and Esquire. It achieved 3 million users in its first months and entertained a rich offer from Google. Despite a revolving door of CEO’s, it still went on to achieve 115M users by 2008. Perhaps more successful than, Friendster was MySpace, a social networking site that bands loved because it emphasized users’ musical tastes. MySpace quickly signed up new users through internal company contests. Its rapid growth and traction with a young demographic made it a desirable acquisition target for News Corp, which eventually acquired MySpace for $580M. It then went on to hit 100M users by Aug of 2006.

Now imagine in 2005, in the face of the rising giant social networks, Mark Zuckerberg going to pitch venerable venture capitalists on Sand Hill Road in Silicon Valley on another social networking site. He thought that he had a better take on how to make social networking broadly understandable and appealing. His idea was to make social networking feel more familiar by designing it like a college directly. He even named his company The Facebook to drive home that idea and user adoption took off like wildfire at Harvard. His next plan was to target all universities and colleges and you needed capital to do it.

To many venture capitalists, Mark Zuckerberg’s take on social networking seemed quaint and too niche. Yet as we famously know, it’s his recipe that popularized social networking and made Facebook the clear winner at 1.2B users. There were others too. Orkut, Bebo, Ning, and SixApart all tried and failed. Facebook wasn’t a chaotic experience that aggregated thousands of different looking personal pages nor did it emphasize an abstract concept like ‘circle of friends’ that was difficult for users to implement. Instead it created a highly curated experience built from the metaphor of a college directory that made it feel familiar, understandable and safe.

All new technologies face the challenge of adoption.

The history of social networking illustrates just how difficult it is to bring new technologies to market. Many companies fail miserably, yet others succeed wildly in bringing new technologies to market. Why? New technologies are hard for people to understand. What can companies do to target the right people, innovators, early adopters or early majority, to craft their product and messaging so they understand the benefits of a new product? The answer lies in leveraging adoption theory. This article explores the phenomenon of adoption with early adopters and how to create strategies for successfully gaining market traction with them.

Target Early Adopters with distinctive products that are selective in their functionality.

The next group after Innovators to begin adopting a new technology is Early Adopters. Early Adopters are unique, because they can see a new technology’s benefits and map it to their life. Social currency is very important to them. They seek to maintain respect in their circles and need to be perceived as “in the know” and credible. Therefore, they make judicious decisions. Companies like to target Early Adopters, because they’re influential among their peers, who look to them as filter for what’s new and good. Getting a foothold with early adopters is often a sign that an idea will be widely adopted. To appeal to early adopters, companies need to practice restraint by dramatizing a very small set of features that make the new technology’s benefits cool, simple and understandable. At Jump we dubbed it the Curate strategy. Here are a few principles for how to do this.

Make it familiar.

Even for early adopters, new technologies can feel foreign. Target use cases and design features that make your product feel familiar. Increase appeal for your product by humanizing the technology and hiding what’s happening behind the scenes. Using metaphors and referring to well know product experiences will make your new product feel more recognizable.

Nest thermostat is a new smart thermostat. It uses motion sensors to determine when someone is home and analyzes HVAC usage over time to optimize the temperature for comfort and energy savings. It also allows people to control their home HVAC remote via wireless chips. It’s clearly a very different type of thermostat. Yet, it still looks like a thermostat, albeit a very beautiful one. Its design language harkens back to the original circular home thermostat designed by Henry Drefus in the 1960s. Not only is it round and proportionally similar, its functional affordance is the same too. To adjust the temperature, the user rotates the edge of the thermostat like a dial, just like the original. These product characteristics help the Nest feel familiar and humanize the technology underpinning the product.

Develop an icon.

New technologies can often feel unrefined. Build simple forms and elegant features to create a stronger product narrative and distinct personality. Using material and design elements that are noticeably different from existing solutions and simple and distinctive enough to be recognized at a distance enhances the iconic aspects of a product.

The iPod was dramatically different than preceding MP3 players. Unlike other MP3 players it limited its functionality to a very simple and easy to use music library acquired through iTunes. It dramatized this feature by reinterpreting traditional music stereo system knobs into a large scroll wheel. It only came in white, had very few buttons and was dimensioned to the golden mean to be pleasing to the eye. The combination of these product choices created an iconic product that particularly appealed to Early Adopters, because it made them feel cool when they showed it their friends.

Create a clarifying feature.

New technologies can be difficult to understand. Limit the product to a core set of features that explain the technology. Finding ways to dramatize these features will help explain the unique benefits of the technology.

When Toyota first launched the Prius it looked almost identical to the Toyota Echo, except for one thing — the dashboard. It wanted to highlight the efficiency of its hybrid system, which was literally under the hood. It knew that drivers could mistake the vehicle for simply another extremely efficient internal combustion engine (ICE), instead of appreciating its parallel system of electric and gas motors and regenerative braking that continuously recharged the battery. To help drive the message home about the benefits of its hybrid technology, it built a computer display dashboard that provided continuous visual feedback on the workings of the system and its remarkable efficiency that encouraged drivers to hypermile.

Combine these strategies for maximum effect.

Launching a new to the world product is fraught with challenges. Successfully appealing to Early Adopters is a critical step to driving the widespread adoption of your new product. Their needs and mindsets are significantly different that Innovators and without them, you will not succeed. It’s important to understand the broader context of their life, because in some categories they might early adopters like electric vehicles, but other categories like smart thermostats not. What’s more, because social opinion is so important to them, understanding their networks is also important. Account for these nuance, try these strategies and you’ll have clarity about how to best design the product and take it to market.

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