Review of Diffusion of Innovations

Published: Last Edited:

This essay has been submitted by a student. This is not an example of the work written by our professional essay writers.

Much has been made of the profound effect of the "tipping point", the point at which a trend catches fire - spreading exponentially through the population. The idea suggests that, for good or bad, change can be promoted rather easily in a social system through a domino effect. The tipping point idea finds its origins in diffusion theory, which is a set of generalizations regarding the typical spread of innovations within a social system. In an effort to judge the truth and power of epidemic spreading of trends, I read Everett Rogers's scholarly and scientific Diffusion of Innovations (1995), which has become the standard textbook and reference on diffusion studies. What I find in this comprehensive and even-handed treatment is an insightful explanation of the conditions that indicate that an innovation will reach the much-hyped tipping point. In this review, I will outline these basic characteristics of an innovation and its context that correlate with its diffusion. Furthermore, I will show the ways in which these understandings improve our capacity to take efficacious action to speed it up. At this point, I will be able to evaluate the claim that the tipping point makes it easy to spread change.

The Mechanism of Diffusion

Diffusion is the process by which an innovation is communicated through certain channels over time among the members of a social system (5). Given that decisions are not authoritative or collective, each member of the social system faces his/her own innovation-decision that follows a 5-step process (162):

1)      Knowledge - person becomes aware of an innovation and has some idea of how it functions,

2)      Persuasion - person forms a favorable or unfavorable attitude toward the innovation,

3)      Decision - person engages in activities that lead to a choice to adopt or reject the innovation,

4)      Implementation - person puts an innovation into use,

5)      Confirmation - person evaluates the results of an innovation-decision already made.


The most striking feature of diffusion theory is that, for most members of a social system, the innovation-decision depends heavily on the innovation-decisions of the other members of the system. In fact, empirically we see the successful spread of an innovation follows an S-shaped curve (23). There is, after about 10-25% of system members adopt an innovation, relatively rapid adoption by the remaining members and then a period in which the holdouts finally adopt. I will review Rogers's assessment of the factors affecting the adoption of an innovation with the goal of elucidating how the earlier adopters of an innovation profoundly affect the innovation-decisions of later adopters.

The innovation-decision is made through a cost-benefit analysis where the major obstacle is uncertainty. People will adopt an innovation if they believe that it will, all things considered, enhance their utility. So they must believe that the innovation may yield some relative advantage to the idea it supersedes (208). How can they know for sure that there are benefits? Also, in consideration of costs, people determine to what degree the innovation would disrupt other functioning facets of their daily life. Is it compatible with existing habits and values? Is it hard to use? The newness and unfamiliarity of an innovation infuse the cost-benefit analysis with a large dose of uncertainty. It sounds good, but does it work? Will it break? If I adopt it, will people think I'm weird?

Since people are on average risk-averse, the uncertainty will often result in a postponement of the decision until further evidence can be gathered. But the key is that this is not the case for everyone. Each individual's innovation-decision is largely framed by personal characteristics, and this diversity is what makes diffusion possible. For a successful innovation, the adopter distributions follow a bell-shaped curve, the derivative of the S-shaped diffusion curve, over time and approach normality (257). Diffusion scholars divide this bell-shaped curve to characterize five categories of system member innovativeness, where innovativeness is defined as the degree to which an individual is relatively earlier in adopting new ideas than other members of a system. These groups are: 1) innovators, 2) early adopters, 3) early majority, 4) late majority, and 5) laggards (262). The personal characteristics and interaction of these groups illuminates the aforementioned domino effect.

Innovators are venturesome types that enjoy being on the cutting edge (263). The innovation's possible benefits make it exciting; the innovators imagine the possibilities and are eager to give it a try. The implementation and confirmation stages of the innovators' innovation-decisions are of particular value to the subsequent decisions of potential adopters.

Early adopters use the data provided by the innovators' implementation and confirmation of the innovation to make their own adoption decisions. If the opinion leaders observe that the innovation has been effective for the innovators, then they will be encouraged to adopt. This group earns respect for its judicious, well-informed decision-making, and hence this group is where most opinion leaders in a social system reside (264). Much of the social system does not have the inclination or capability to remain abreast of the most recent information about innovations, so they instead trust the decisions made by opinion leaders. Additionally, much of the social system merely wants to stay in step with the rest. Since opinion leader adoption is a good indicator that an innovation is going to be adopted by many others, these conformity-loving members are encouraged to adopt (319).

So a large subsection of the social system follows suit with the trusted opinion leaders. This is the fabled tipping point, where the rate of adoption rapidly increases. The domino effect continues as, even for those who are cautious or have particular qualms with the innovation, adoption becomes a necessity as the implementation of the innovation-decisions of earlier adopters result in social and/or economic benefit. Those who have not adopted lose status or economic viability, and this contextual pressure motivates adoption (265).

The last adopters, laggards, can either be very traditional or be isolates in their social system. If they are traditional, they are suspicious of innovations and often interact with others who also have traditional values. If they are isolates, their lack of social interaction decreases their awareness of an innovation's demonstrated benefits (265). It takes much longer than average for laggards to adopt innovations.

So we have seen potential adopters' uncertainty about an innovation is assuaged through a stepwise social process. The tipping point is marked by opinion leader adoption. Well-informed opinion leaders communicate their approval or disapproval of an innovation, based on the innovators' experiences, to the rest of the social system. The majority responds by rapidly adopting. This analysis suggests that the spread of an innovation hinges on a surprisingly small point: namely, whether or not opinion leaders vouch for it.

Affecting the Diffusion of an Innovation


Now that we know the mechanisms of diffusion, we have a basis for considering what efforts are most successful in encouraging the spread of an innovation. It used to be assumed that the mass media had direct, immediate, and powerful effects on the mass audience (284). But diffusion theory argues that, since opinion leaders directly affect the tipping of an innovation, a powerful way for change agents to affect the diffusion of an innovation is to affect opinion leader attitudes. I will examine the potency of the mass media and persuasion of opinion leaders in encouraging the diffusion of an innovation.

The mass media's most powerful effect on diffusion is that it spreads knowledge of innovations to a large audience rapidly (285). It can even lead to changes in weakly held attitudes. But strong interpersonal ties are usually more effective in the formation and change of strongly held attitudes (311). Research has shown that firm attitudes are developed through communication exchanges about the innovation with peers and opinion leaders. These channels are more trusted and have greater effectiveness in dealing with resistance or apathy on the part of the communicatee.

Persuading opinion leaders is the easiest way to foment positive attitudes toward an innovation. Rogers explains that the types of opinion leaders that change agents should target depend on the nature of the social system. Social systems can be characterized as heterophilous or homophilous. On one hand, heterophilous social systems tend to encourage change from system norms. In them, there is more interaction between people from different backgrounds, indicating a greater interest in being exposed to new ideas. These systems have opinion leadership that is more innovative because these systems are desirous of innovation (289). On the other hand, homophilous social systems tend toward system norms. Most interaction within them is between people from similar backgrounds. People and ideas that differ from the norm are seen as strange and undesirable. These systems have opinion leadership that is not very innovative because these systems are averse to innovation (288).

For heterophilous systems, change agents can concentrate on targeting the most elite and innovative opinion leaders and the innovation will trickle-down to non-elites. If an elite opinion leader is convinced to adopt an innovation, the rest will exhibit excitement and readiness to learn and adopt it. The domino effect will commence with enthusiasm rather than resistance.

For homophilous systems, however, encouraging the diffusion of an innovation is a far more difficult business. Change agents must target a wider group of opinion leaders, including some of the less elite, because innovations are less likely to trickle-down. Opinion leaders who adopt innovations in homophilous systems are more likely to be regarded as suspicious and/or dismissed from their opinion leadership. Often, opinion leaders in homophilous systems avoid adopting innovations in hopes of protecting their opinion leadership (295). Generally, in homophilous systems, opinion leaders do not control attitudes as much as pre-existing norms do. Change agents must, if possible, communicate to opinion leaders a convincing argument in favor of the innovation that accentuates the compatibility of the innovation with system norms. The opinion leaders will then be able to use this argument, which will hopefully resonate with the masses, to support their own adoption decision.

Successful efforts to diffuse an innovation depend on characteristics of the situation. To eliminate a deficit of awareness of an innovation, mass media channels are most appropriate. To change prevailing attitudes about an innovation, it is best to persuade opinion leaders. Further, what we find is that in homophilous social systems are likely to frustrate change agents with their resistance to innovation. It is only for heterophilous social systems that pushing an innovation to the elusive tipping point is a relatively easy thing to do.


Why has the tipping point become such a popular idea? Carefully researched analysis has shown that it is an undeniable phenomenon that once understood provides simple and valuable prescriptions for efforts in encouraging diffusion. There seem to be many innovations that are valuable for the masses, yet to date have resisted diffusion. For example, we still use the QWERTY keyboard despite the development of another keyboard that allows much faster typing for the average user. Also, there are many social ideals that a large number of people are very interested in spreading. In particular situations, such as our own relatively heterophilous nation, the research suggests that there is a reasonable chance that, given concerted effort, support for these valuable products and ideas may be pushed to the tipping point. And as our communication networks become denser through technological advance, the diffusion process is happening faster and faster. So it seems that understanding and utilizing diffusion networks can aid strategy aimed at quickly inducing system-wide change.


Have you ever been laying around on a Sunday afternoon watching the day go slowly by day dreaming of easy ways to become rich?You thought to yourself that the guy who invented the hula-hoop could have easily been you.Or maybe why you couldn't think to bake the cheese into the crust of the pizza.Only if you could just create one good invention that the entire world would want all your financial troubles would be over.Well, in between you moments of unconsciousness did it ever occur to you how these inventions spread through society?Just because something is new, improved or changed does not guarantee that people accept it, or whether they will actually hear about it.

According to Rogers, the diffusion of innovations is "the process by which an innovation is communicated through certain channels over time among the members of a social system."

To understand that definition you must first understand some key terms.

Innovation is used more generally here to mean an item, thought, or process that is new.

Good examples of innovation would be automobiles, brain surgery, and a new kind of running shoe.

It is important to realize that something can be an innovation in one place and have already been accepted in another.

The other key term in the definition is diffusion.

Diffusion is the process by which innovations spread from one locale or one social group to another.

People do not just welcome into their homes every innovation that is put in front of them.Every person reacts differently in the ways that they hear about, understand, and finally accept or do not accept an innovation.Before we dive right into the process of diffusion of innovations it is important to take a look at where the research and theories began.


The history behind the theory of diffusion of innovations can be traced back to the beginning of the century in German - Austrian and British schools in Anthropology as well as a French sociologist, Gabriel Tarde, who is responsible for the S-shaped curve which shows the level of adoption verses time for an innovation.

Although this is where the idea started, it was not until 1943 when sociologists Bryce Ryan and Neal Gross published a study dealing with Iowa farmers.The study focused on the diffusion and adoption of a new type of corn seed to be planted in Iowa fields.Not only did this research put diffusion of innovation on the academic map but it also made researchers realize that it is a communication process.

From that one research there have been over 3,000 other studies done on the topic to date.The next big step in research on the diffusion theory came in 1960.Here studies were being done on the diffusion of contemporary news topics.With this huge increase in interest on the subject diffusion research was being done globally.At this point researchers saw similarities in all of the studies being done in different fields and realized that it is one basic communication process.

Also in 1960, the KAP surveys helped make the diffusion of innovations more legitimate research.With all of this research going on it made logical sense for marketing agencies to begin their own studies involving adoption and diffusion of new products.

These studies have continued on through the past few decades answering many questions about the diffusion of innovation process as well as coming up with new questions to be answered in the future.



There are four main elements to the diffusion of innovations: (1) the innovation, (2) its communication, (3) in a social system, (4) over a period of time.

ï‚·Innovation - any item, thought, or process that is viewed to be new by the consumer

ï‚·Communication - the process of the new idea traveling from one person to another or from one channel to the individual.

ï‚·Social System - the group of individuals that together complete a specific goal (adoption)

ï‚·Time - how long it takes for the group to adopt an innovation as well as the rate of adoption for individual


When studying the diffusion of innovations it is important to understand that you are not just looking at the spread of an innovation through a society but rather the spread of different kinds of innovations through a society.As stated earlier, an innovation is an item, thought, or process that is new to a certain area but not necessarily to the world.There are three main types of innovations that are diffused in different ways.

ï‚·Continuous Innovation

This type of innovation is a simple changing or improving of an already existing product where the adopter still uses the product in the same fashion as they had before.An example of a continuous innovation is now seen in the automobile industry as it continues to change and develop.

ï‚·Dynamically Continuous Innovation

Here the innovation can either be a creation of a new product or a radical change to an existing one. Here the consumption patterns of people are altered some.An example of this type of innovation would be compact discs.

ï‚·Discontinuous Innovation

This is a totally new product in the market.This is the big idea innovation.In this situation, because the product has never been seen before, there are total changes to consumers buying and using patterns.

After discussing the three types of innovations natural progression moves us straight to the next topic of the five different characteristics if innovations.Each characteristic effect the rate of adoption of a innovation differently.

Like a lot of things in life, the innovation does not have to be better or easier to use than the product it is competing with but only be perceived to be better or easier to use by the consumer.This idea of perception is stronger than information is seen throughout the advertising world.

ï‚·Relative Advantage

This characteristic expresses to what extent the new product is better than the one it is replacing.Of course the first thought would be greater profit potential.Although profit does fit into the equation, relative advantage can be judged on other factors like ease of use and storage as well as uncontrollable factors like war.During wartime when workers are gone fighting industries find relative advantage in innovations that do not require as many laborers to run.


No matter how superior or efficient an innovation is it will not be successful if it does not take into consideration local values and customs of the adopters.Compatibility is the level of which an innovation fits into the specific society.The smoother the innovation fits into the culture, the faster the rate of adoption.The diffusion of certain types of birth control pills in certain areas is unattainable due to religious beliefs and cultural values.


This type of innovation is the extent of how difficult it is for an adopter to understand and use an innovation.It is very logical to think that the harder an innovation is to use, or at least perceived to use, the less likely that an adopter would be to consume it.A contemporary example would be the Internet.Although the Internet is easy to use, for someone who has never been on a computer it is extremely intimidating.


This refers to the ability of the consumer to give the innovation a test run before deciding whether to adopt it or not.Being able to try out a product before purchase helps increase the rate of adoption drastically.


This characteristic is simply stated as the idea that when an innovations benefit does not directly or immediately solve or fix a consumers problem or need it will not diffuse through a society as quickly compared to an innovation that is more of solution to a problem.A fictional example that helps understand this principle would be a new drug on the market that you would take everyday to ward off headaches before they come.Although the drug may work, because the results do not fit into our first problem then solution ideal, it would take more time for it to be adopted.

It is important to note that these five characteristics are not the only ones that affect the rate of adoption.Also the adoption of an innovation is not always a positive occurrence.Over-adoption, where adopters act irrationally without all the information or without full comprehension of an innovation can actually be harmful to the diffusion process.


It was first thought that the communication process of the diffusion of innovations was only a one-step process, from the mass media channels to the individual with little or no interaction between the individuals.This obviously is not the case.Not only do individuals communicate with each other, some individuals pass along their influence as well as their knowledge to other individuals.Opinion leaders are individuals in a social system that others come to for information and guidance.With the understanding of opinion leaders in society it is clear to see that the original one-step process invalid.Now the process takes us through mass media channels to opinion leaders then to the individuals.This two-step flow of communication is probably not complete as well, but the important idea to arrive at is that no matter how many steps are involved there will always be a two-step exchange of knowledge/influence at any given step during the diffusion process.

With the addition of steps to the communication process, the idea of personal influence comes into play.Personal influence refers to any communication between two individuals where one individual creates a change in consumer behavior in the other.A more practical way of stating personal influence is peer pressure.Looking at the three different types of selectivity shows why personal influence can be a stronger factor in the diffusion process than mass media.

ï‚·Selective exposure - the idea that an individual will be more susceptible to channels of communication, that already agree with their current attitudes and feelings (a democrat will listen to democratic media and not republican so they will never hear the other side).

ï‚·Selective perception - the idea that an individual will view new ideas in relation to their old ones.

ï‚·Selective retention - the idea that an individual will mainly remember a new idea if directly relates to their own situation or remedy a specific problem.

Social Systems

Social systems are referring to the group or groups of people that an innovation diffuses through.Earlier it was mentioned that who the people are can determine how they will adopt innovations.Social systems can be split into two categories of norms:traditional and modern.

According to Rogers traditional norms are characterized by:

(1)A less developed or complex technology

(2)Low levels of literacy and education

(3)Little communication between the social system and outsiders

(4)Lack of economic rationality

(5)One-dimensional in adapting and viewing others

According to Rogers modern norms are characterized by:

(1)A developed technology with complex jobs

(2)Strong importance placed on education

(3)Acceptance of free thought and new ideas

(4)Strong preparation and high importance on economic considerations

(5)Ability to see and understand other peoples situations

Not only do modern system accept and adapt to innovation faster and easier than traditional system but the individual is more likely to be innovative in thinking and doing in a modern society.




In medical school when students are learning about the human body they first have to understand it at a cellular level.Like biology, to truly understand the diffusion of innovations, one has to understand the adoption process of the individual consumer.As stated earlier, the difference between the diffusion process and the adoption process is the "who".The diffusion process deals with people or groups while the adoption process focuses on the individual person.To realize how an innovation diffuses through a society you must first understand how one person adopts an innovation.The adoption process is the steps a consumer take as they accept a new product, idea, or service.The process can be broken down into five stages.Keep in mind that these stages occur in all fields where adoption of innovation occurs.The first stage of the adoption process is awareness.At this stage the innovation is introduced to the person but there is no true knowledge of the product.Because of this lack of information the person does not feel the need to run out and find out more information, much less consider consuming it.The awareness stage merely sets the groundwork for the following stages.It is argued that a person often stumbles upon the innovation on accident during the awareness stage it will provide little incentive to get more information.Others feel that for a person to become aware, the innovation must fill a particular need in their life for them to notice.The second stage is interest.Here the person decides to invest time and energy into finding out more about the innovation.At this point the person feels good about the innovation but does not really know how or if it can be useful in their own life.The interest stage is purely to gather knowledge, not to decide whether to adopt.The third stage is evaluation.Here the person firsts begins to make a decision about the innovation.How could I use it?Do I really need it?Would it be to my advantage if I had it?These are all question the consumers ask themselves during the evaluation stage.Then if the innovation appears to be positive for their life they will try it out.If the innovation has a negative connotation to the individual they may seek the advice and knowledge of their peers.This leads into the next stage called the trial stage.Here the individual physically gives the innovation a chance by trying it out for a limited basis.What they are looking to find out during this trial stage is how the innovation can fit into their needs and desires.Research proves that most people will not adopt an innovation without personally testing it first to see if it really "works".The final stage is the adoption stage.Here the individual uses information that they have gathered in the interest and evaluation stages and with the outcome of the trial stage decides to adopt the innovation.At this point in the adoption process the individual not only adopts the innovation but embraces it for the future.There is, however, another possible stage to adoption process.After the individual adopts the innovation they may decide to reject it for whatever reason.This decision to reject the innovation after agreeing to adopt it is called discontinuance.




Now it is time to turn our attention to the adopters' side of the diffusion process.Although this is not one of the four main elements of the diffusion of innovation it does have importance to the process.Like the innovations side, there are certain characteristics that break adopters down into categories, which help us understand who they are and how they consume.It is very clear that people adopt innovations at different times and for different reasons.An example of this for everyone who ever attended high school is fads.Although fads are not necessarily innovations it is a good example to begin to see the idea of adopters.When a fad starts to become popular, not everyone is immediately involved.Only a few people adopt the fad in the beginning.As time goes by, more and more people adopt the fad until the majority is included.The point to be made with this example is not only do people adopt a fad at different a time, each group affects the following group.Also it is important to note that not everyone is involved.Complete adoption is not required for the diffusion process to work.There are five main categories of adopters.

ï‚·Innovators - These are the risk takers.They are the ones who put themselves up in front.Generally they are well educated and have a high income to absorb a mistake.They are the smallest in size of only two and half percent.They enjoy the rush of taking a risk but they also are willing to accept the consequences of failure.

ï‚·Early Adopters - This group are the next thirteen and a half percent.They are highly educated and wealthy like the innovators but are more visible and respected among their peers.Early adopters play a key role in the adoption process determining the time an innovation will be adopted by others and to what extent.Because of this reason they are the best target market for new innovations.

ï‚·Early Majority - They constitute thirty-four percent of adopters.They do not take the risk of being the first to adopt, like the innovators and early adopters, but do accept an innovation before the average person.They generally take a long time to fully adopt an innovation.They are above average in education and income but are followers in their social groups.

ï‚·Late Majority - They jump on right after the average person.Their education and income are limited and they are not willing to take a chance unless the majority has already fully adopted the innovation.Reasons for the late majority to adopt are either economic or peer pressure but are constantly weary.This group also contains thirty-four percent.

ï‚·Laggards - This is the final adoption group and it consists of the final sixteen percent.They are more in-tuned with the past than the future.They are skeptical of all new ideas and frequently by the time they adopt an innovation there is a new one already beginning to take its place.Their educations are small and generally laggards are socially surrounded by other laggards.

These five categories have developed through years of research and observation in the diffusion process in many different fields.Although there are exceptions in each group, this gives a good general breakdown of adopters of innovations.


The process of the diffusion of innovation has been around since the first new idea popped into some ones head.Before Gabriel Tarde people did not just adopt an innovation because they got a free coupon.They went through the same process as we do today.The diffusion process is not a math equation or a chemical reaction but rather a natural progression of peoples' attitudes, opinions, and feelings towards accepting a new idea.

The diffusion of innovations has four main elements: an innovation that is communicated in a particular social system over a certain amount of time.It is in its simplest form it is a communication process that can be plotted on an S-shaped curve.All four elements have many different factors that affect the outcome of the process as well as act intimately to affect each other.It is also evident that the diffusion process holds constant for social system adopting an innovation no matter that filed it is in.

When looking at the diffusion process it is hard not to see the importance to the advertising world.Learning the process an individual as well as a society goes through before they will accept an innovation is vital to the success of any company that plans to be on the frontier of innovation.Just coming up with the idea first only gets you a part of the way there.You must realize and be a catalysis for its diffusion into society.