Marketing Disruptive Technology

Leading the herd

Scrolling along my Twitterfeed I came across an HBR article about how the Royal Marines manage risk. Reading about how the Marines prepare for the uncertainty by subjecting recruits to a variety of experiences and situations began to make sense from a psychological point of view. Our instincts are only as good as our experience, or so say psychologists like Daniel Kahneman, but when we are faced with an entirely new situation, we attempt to find similar situations from our past experience to draw reasonable assumptions, conclusions, and build a plan of action. So while the Royal Marines cannot prepare for the unpredictable, they can prepare for decision-making when faced with uncertainty.

But can customers prepare for new products and services which they have no point of reference? It’s difficult at best, especially given that most people are risk adverse.  So how can marketers make the purchasing decision for the radically new easier for consumers?

Guy Kawasaki writes a bit about the importance of the First Follower, in Enchantment: The Art of Changing Hearts, Minds and Actions. The First Follower is the first user who signals to everyone else that your new widget is A-OK. In the absence of appropriate associations and comparables, people look for other data points to help make a decision and ease anxiety. One of these data points is whether others have given their stamp of approval – a sort of herd mentality.  Thus the importance of early adopters, which helped make Apple’s iPod so popular.

But it’s more than just one follower; it’s also ensuring the right follower. Early adopters of the iPod were Apple lovers, creative types who preferred individuality over conformity. These early adopters helped define the radically new product enforcing the “cool” and “innovative” positioning Apple was seeking.  So targeting is especially crucial in the early phases of a product life-cycle and perhaps even more so if the product is unlike anything else on the market.

That’s good news! Marketers don’t have to convince everyone, just the right one. Of course researchers have long known about the influence customers have on each other and recently, MSU published a study with a suggested framework for controlling these effects.

With the rate at which new technologies and services are being developed, future leaders, like those of us in MBAs, are likely to be faced with overcoming the challenges of marketing and selling entirely new products and services more so than our predecessors. Understanding the influence of “herd” behavior and the importance of the right first follower can be the difference between something interesting and a run-away hit.

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