The Role of Followers in the Diffusion of Innovations

Many people have heard of sociologist and communications theorist Everett Rogers’ famous work that he published in 1962. Diffusion of Innovations was Rogers’ explanation of how people adopt new ideas and technologies. I wanted to pick up on a different facet of a post of mine that examined how to be an early adopter of technology. First, I will quickly explain the very basics of Rogers’ theory. Then I will tackle what I feel is the vital role that followers play in the adoption process.

Key Elements in the Diffusion of Innovations

According to Rogers, there are four key elements that influence the way in which a new technology is diffused through a system: innovation, communication channels, time, and a social system.

  • Innovation  – something that is new to people
  • Communication channels – how people share information about a new innovation
  • Time – two parts: innovation-decision period (how long it takes people to decide to adopt an innovation) and rate of adoption (speed at which people adopt an innovation)
  • Social system – systems and relationships that influence adoption of a new innovation


Rogers also defines three types of innovation-decisions based on two criteria: who makes the decision and whether the decision is made freely or mandated. The three types are:

  • Optional innovation-decision – decision by an individual who had choice
  • Collection innovation-decision – decision by a collective group in an organization
  • Authority innovation-decision – decision by a few individuals for an organization

Stages of the Adoption Process

Rogers’ theory describes five steps in the technology adoption process:

  1. Knowledge – An individual is exposed to new information, but does not yet have the motivation to continue learning about it.
  2. Persuasion – The individual is motivated to learn more about the innovation.
  3. Decision – The individual weighs the advantages and disadvantages of the innovation and decides whether to adopt or reject the innovation.
  4. Implementation – The individual uses the innovation to varying degrees, depending on the context. The experiences in this stage can influence the extent to which the individual fully adopts the innovation.
  5. Confirmation – The individual finalizes his/her decision to use the innovation to its fullest potential.

In the Decision stage, the most difficult stage of adoption, an individual decides whether to adopt or reject a new innovation. Rogers identifies five intrinsic characteristics of technology that influence whether an individual will decide to accept or reject it:

  1. Relative advantage – how well it serves a purpose over past or existing technology
  2. Compatibility – how easily an individual can incorporate it into their life
  3. Complexity/Simplicity – how easily an individual can understand and learn to use it
  4. Trialability – how easily an individual can use it as they begin to adopt it into their life
  5. Observability – how often an individual sees others using it, and the positive or negative outcomes of the observed use

Adopter Categories

Rogers created the following adopters categories diagram that is helpful for explaining the levels of adoption and classifies people as they adopt a new innovation. The five categories of adoption are:

  1. Innovators – Actively seek out new innovations and take on the risk of trying them first. Have easy access to news and emerging innovations in networks of those who are also interested in new innovations. Sometimes give little thought to the implementation process or how to counter resistance.
  2. Early Adopters – Weigh pros and cons of innovations carefully before accepting or rejecting them and adopt new technologies more discreetly than Innovators. Are often considered leaders in their organizations with high degrees of opinion leadership.
  3. Early Majority – Adopt new innovations at the same time as the majority of people, after seeing leaders take them on. Create mass momentum that creates the tipping point that many people look for before taking on a new innovation. Are not often considered opinion leaders in their organizations.
  4. Late Majority – Adopt new innovations after the majority of people have already done so. Are more skeptical about new innovations than the majority of people.
  5. Laggards – Last to adopt innovation, and often resist and slow the innovation process for those who are ‘on the fence’ in the Late Majority category.

Followers as Key Elements

So with Rogers’ theory in mind, the question is, how do we leverage the Diffusion of Innovations to allow people to adopt new ideas and practices easily? What can we do to help educators move away from the traditional model of lectures and assessments with little meaning, to a collaborative one of shared learning experiences through the purposeful use of technology tools for real-world work and problem solving?

For me, one of the most important keys to adoption of teaching practices throughout an organization like a school, are the members of Rogers’ Early Adopters category. They are the first followers, as Derek Sivers entertainingly portrays in his video, First Follower: Leadership Lessons from the Dancing Guy. It’s not all about the leaders–it’s about the followers.

When we examine the role of followers, we have to look at ourselves and see what kind of adopters we are. Recall the point at which you used a photocopier, mobile phone or digital camera for the first time, or when you joined Facebook or Twitter, or bought a smartphone. Why did you try a new technology? What motivated you to try it, learn to use it, and work it into your everyday life? In my view, Early Adopters (or first followers) are the key to these changes. Early Adopters:

  • Are considered leaders who research innovations carefully and therefore have credibility with the majority of people. People trust their opinions more than they do Innovators who might pursue new innovations despite overwhelming evidence than the innovations will have little benefit to the majority of people.
  • Are highly visible and social and therefore, reach large numbers of people in their demonstration of technology use. They are honest about the benefits as well as the limitations of technologies and present a level-headed approach to persuading people to try new innovations.
  • Have well-developed communication skills and can clearly persuade people to try innovations and teach them how to use them.
  • Help authority figures show the majority of people that a new innovation is feasible and useful, especially if the decision to adopt it was made via the authority innovation-decision process.
  • Are not overly dedicated to one particular innovation the way Innovators can be. Therefore, if an even more suitable technology comes along and does a better job, they will advocate for it instead, without feeling as though their ideas have been forgotten.
  • Educate themselves about new technologies and take the time to experiment with them. They are often thought of as experts in certain fields.
  • Understand the adoption process and let those around them know that it is not always smooth or perfect. This is one of the most valuable actions that first followers can take in order to help people try new technologies.

To end this post, I will challenge you to think about the last time you were an Early Adopter and realize that you don’t have to be the first in the ring, but you do need to stay connected to new ideas approaches. And if you have the ability to help Innovators get a great idea off the ground, then you should take on this challenge. What are your thoughts on the role of Early Adopters? Please share!

(Reference: Rogers, Everett M. Diffusion of innovations. 5th ed. New York: Free Press; 1962.)

One thought on “The Role of Followers in the Diffusion of Innovations

  1. Pingback: An Old Dog Who Can Still Teach us a Trick or Two | May The Forge Be With You

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