Les Robinson Fully revised and rewritten Jan 2009
Diffusion of Innovations seeks to explain how innovations are taken up in a population. An innovation is an idea, behaviour, or object that is perceived as new by its audience.
Diffusion of Innovations offers three valuable insights into the process of social change:
- What qualities make an innovation spread successfully.
- The importance of peer-peer conversations and peer networks.
- Understanding the needs of different user segments.
These insights have been tested in more than 6000 research studies and field tests, so they are amongst the most reliable in the social sciences.
What qualities make innovations spread?
Diffusion of Innovations takes a radically different approach to most other theories of change. Instead of focusing on persuading
individuals to change, it sees change as being primarily about the evolution or “reinvention” of products and behaviours so they become better fits for the needs of individuals and groups. In Diffusion of Innovations it is not people who change, but the innovations themselves.
Why do certain innovations spread more quickly than others? And why do others fail? Diffusion scholars recognise five qualities that determine the success of an innovation.
1) Relative advantage
This is the degree to which an innovation is perceived as better than the idea it supersedes by a particular group of users, measured in terms that matter to those users, like economic advantage, social prestige, convenience, or satisfaction. The greater the perceived relative advantage of an innovation, the more rapid its rate of adoption is likely to be.
There are no absolute rules for what constitutes “relative advantage”. It depends on the particular perceptions and needs of the user group.
(I suspect, however, that three relative advantages are more influential than others: personal control, time saving and social connection. See
2) Compatibility with existing values and practices
This is the degree to which an innovation is perceived as being consistent with the values, past experiences, and needs of potential adopters. An idea that is incompatible with their values, norms or practices will not be adopted as rapidly as an innovation that is compatible.
3) Simplicity and ease of use
This is the degree to which an innovation is perceived as difficult to understand and use. New ideas that are simpler to understand are adopted more rapidly than innovations that require the adopter to develop new skills and understandings.
This is the degree to which an innovation can be experimented with on a limited basis. An innovation that is trialable represents less uncertainty to the individual who is considering it.
5) Observable results
The easier it is for individuals to see the results of an innovation, the more likely they are to adopt it. Visible results lower uncertainty and also stimulate peer discussion of a new idea, as friends and neighbours of an adopter often request information about it.
According to Everett Rogers, these five qualities determine between 49 and 87 percent of the variation in the adoption of new products. 1
These five qualities make a valuable checklist to frame focus group discussions or project evaluations. They can help identify
weaknesses which can be addressed when improving products or behaviours.
The importance of peer-peer conversations and peer
The second important insight is that impersonal marketing methods like advertising and media stories may spread information about new innovations, but it is conversations that cause them to be adopted.
Why? Because the adoption of new products or behaviours involves the management of risk and uncertainty. It’s usually only people we personally know and trust – and who we know have...