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Targeting the Right Readers


Audience analysis using the technology adoption curve

Until recently, I saw audience analysis as fairly straightforward. Now, however, I’m convinced that targeting thought leadership demands a more nuanced approach.

Targeting content used to be fairly simple—decide which people in which positions in which functions in which kinds of organizations you wanted to reach, put yourself in their shoes, then figure out what would be useful and motivating to them. The “figure out” part would usually be based on your experiences and conversations with clients and prospects, and perhaps primary or secondary research.

But when developing thought leadership, figuring out which segment your audience inhabits on the technology adoption curve (a/k/a product adoption curve or technology diffusion curve)—or, in certain contexts, within a maturity model—will help you target your messages even more precisely.

This analysis should be incorporated into the analysis I noted above, along with any other targeting approach you prefer, including developing personas.

Curves Ahead

The technology adoption curve (developed by Everett Rogers in the early 1960s) looks like this:

Technology Adoption Curve


Here are the key points to grasp:

  1. The percentages in the figure apply to the sequence in which adopters buy or use a new technology, product, service, or process. The first 2.5 percent to adopt are the Innovators, the next 13.5 percent are the Early Adopters, the next 34 percent are the Early Majority, and so on.

  2. The curve applies to adoption of specific technologies, products, services, and processes. A person may be an Innovator or Early Adopter for motorcycling gear but a Laggard for home entertainment systems, or an Early Adopter for clothing fashions but a Late Majority Adopter for new travel destinations. (Those who never adopt are not on the curve.)

  3. You can apply the curve to organizations as well as to individuals. Citibank was an Innovator and Early Adopter of technology back in the 1970s when they deployed ATMs all over New York; today, they are experimenting heavily with blockchain technology. Companies tend to have a certain approach to adoption of certain things in their DNA, though it is subject to mutation.

  4. Each group monitors the group in front of it—except for the Innovators.

  5. The Innovators are the risk takers, the pioneers who break new ground, the explorers, discovers, and trailblazers. They are comfortable with no one to follow, and they are willing to incur the risks and costs of being the initial users. They want any competitive edge they can get.

  6. The Early Adopters are close behind, and from a pure business perspective they can be savvier. They let the Innovators bear the risks and costs of being first, and learn from their mistakes. The most aggressive Early Adopters watch the Innovators very closely.

  7. The Early Majority watches the Early Adopters, and are willing to incur fewer risks and costs as the product or service becomes more refined and widely used. But they want to be close to the adoption frontier and ahead of the other 50 percent in their space.

  8. The Late Majority watches the Early Majority. At this point, the product or service has seen widespread adoption as risks and costs have fallen dramatically.

  9. The Laggards adopt a product or service after it becomes the new standard, often kicking and screaming, clinging to their old ways. But don’t knock them—they too are adopters because they are on the curve.

Who’s your audience?

In my view most thought leadership should be directed toward Innovators and Early Adopters. But it depends on your services, clients, and business model. For some firms, the Late Majority and Laggard audiences may be fertile markets (though by then the content should probably be more of a purely how-to nature than inspiring, hey-look-at-this material).

Why is this my view?

True thought leadership, by definition, aims to present new ways of addressing new or existing problems and opportunities. It leads readers to new processes, methods, solutions, and gains. So, a lot of thought leadership will naturally target organizations, functions, and individuals at or toward the front end of the adoption curve.

A lot of it, but not all of it. That Early Majority represents a huge opportunity. They want and need to know what the Early Adopters are up to. The risk-taking, cost-incurring ways of the Innovators scare most of the Early Majority (and terrify the Late Majority and the Laggards). But the Early Majority will read stuff that tells them what’s working and not working for the Innovators and Early Adopters.

Ready? Aim.

So, when you target your audience, think deeply about them. Yes, you need to identify their positions, functions, and types of companies. But you also need insights into their thinking and motivations. The technology adoption curve can help you toward those insights.

A final, very important thought: When you are crafting thought leadership, it is tempting to try to focus on a really large audience. But that’s not always the best approach. It’s also easy to discuss a topic at too basic or too advanced a level, or to strike the wrong tone for a given audience.

Thinking about where your readers sit on the adoption curve, given the topic you’re discussing, can help you hone your message far better than scattershot approaches that “aim” for the largest readership.

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