Thought Leadership Requires Going Beyond The Innovators
Every office has a gadget fetishist. These people can be indicators of technologies that might be interesting, but they're not 100% reliable. It's in the nature of experimentation to make occasional hits (iPhones, Flip video cameras, GPS navigation devices, noise-canceling headphones that actually work) and frequent misses (USB-powered toothbrushes, Segways, most noise-canceling headphones, anything applied directly to the forehead). Not everyone wants to be an experimenter, or can afford to be one.
Consequently, gadgeteers – "innovators," in the terminology of people who study the diffusion of innovations – are always a very small minority of the population. Given their hit-or-miss track records, others treat innovators skeptically.
Why then do many technology vendors, in their quest to become thought leaders, market to a tiny minority of buyers that others in their organizations don't see as reliable guides to technology investments?
Social technology start-ups provide the most obvious examples of this strategy. Foursquare's Web site, for example, is clearly pitched at the social enthusiast, someone who takes the value of giving "you & your friends new ways of exploring your city." The site's main page provides links to Foursquare apps written for the iPhone, BlackBerry, and other mobile devices, assuming that having Foursquare on your phone might be a good idea. Being a thought leader in location-based social networking, in Foursquare's case, means marketing to the tiny population of people willing to dive head-first into its service, figuring out its value as they go. If Foursquare, as a thought leader in social technology, is ahead of the market, there's always a population of social networking enthusiasts willing to experiment with them.
It's not fair to pick on start-ups, since even the biggest, oldest, and even the stodgiest companies often treat thought leadership in the same way. They, too, bring not just new, but extremely novel technologies to market, with unclear use cases and even fuzzier value propositions. Faced with this situation, some vendors fall back on the old reliables, developers. (Maybe I should say, "Developers, developers, developers!") If the people who, someday, will use the technology don't quite get it, the smart people implementing the technology will. What the developers build and deploy will be so useful that the rest of the company eventually will see the light.
This strategy is commonplace among established vendors. Microsoft, for example, has depended on developers becoming advocates for its platform technologies, such as Azure. Even when there's a user-accessible application, such as SharePoint, Microsoft expects developers to be at the point of the adoption spear. When it releases new products, Oracle frequently raises the technical bar very high, with the expectation that it can fall back on the Oracle developer community to help drive adoption.
There are a lot of problems with this approach, not least of which is the glib assumption that all developers love spending their available time fiddling with untested technologies. The bigger problem, though, is the reliance on developers. Even if all developers were, by nature, innovators (in the precise sense I used that term earlier), less technophilic people have more influence over adoption.
Attitudes about technology, ranging from love to hate, are normally distributed. Therefore, technology adoption follows a familiar S-curve, with the "innovators" at the very beginning and the "laggards" at the very end. Since the innovators represent only 2.5% of the population, real adoption doesn't gain momentum until the next group, the early adopters (13.5% of the population), start giving the new technology serious attention. Not only are the early adopters more numerous, but the rest of the organization sees them as more credible than the innovators. The early adopters are in the vanguard of people who both understand what the technology does and how to successfully use it to address business problems.
Expanding adoption from innovators to early adopters is always challenging, even when there's not a huge chasm to cross. Worthy technologies don't always survive the passage. Technology vendors have a vested interest in giving the early adopters – and, for that matter, the early majority – as much help as possible. By "help," we mean useful information, not claims of your own genius as a forward-thinking vendor. Vendors earn the status of thought leaders when they convince more than just 2.5% of their potential customer base to give them serious consideration.