Diffusion of Innovations – One Author’s Perspective

The Diffusion of Innovations concept has been a beacon for many of us who are innovators or seize ideas early.

We not only don’t understand the mind of those at the opposite end of the bell curve… in some cases, we don’t speak their language, at all. That can impact our success as writers, as well as our marketing efforts.

While I don’t have time to go into all the nuances of that, I want to share a few things that are on my mind, this morning.

First off all, here’s the Diffusion of Innovations process, courtesy of Wikipedia (links will take you to Wikipedia references):

Innovators Innovators are the first individuals to adopt an innovation. Innovators are willing to take risks, youngest in age, have the highest social class, have great financial liquidity, are very social and have closest contact to scientific sources and interaction with other innovators. Risk tolerance has them adopting technologies which may ultimately fail. Financial resources help absorb these failures. (Rogers 1962 5th ed, p. 282)
Early adopters This is the second fastest category of individuals who adopt an innovation. These individuals have the highest degree of opinion leadership among the other adopter categories. Early adopters are typically younger in age, have a higher social status, have more financial lucidity, advanced education, and are more socially forward than late adopters. More discrete in adoption choices than innovators. Realize judicious choice of adoption will help them maintain central communication position (Rogers 1962 5th ed, p. 283).
Early Majority Individuals in this category adopt an innovation after a varying degree of time. This time of adoption is significantly longer than the innovators and early adopters. Early Majority tend to be slower in the adoption process, have above average social status, contact with early adopters, and seldom hold positions of opinion leadership in a system (Rogers 1962 5th ed, p. 283)
Late Majority Individuals in this category will adopt an innovation after the average member of the society. These individuals approach an innovation with a high degree of skepticism and after the majority of society has adopted the innovation. Late Majority are typically skeptical about an innovation, have below average social status, very little financial lucidity, in contact with others in late majority and early majority, very little opinion leadership.
Laggards Individuals in this category are the last to adopt an innovation. Unlike some of the previous categories, individuals in this category show little to no opinion leadership. These individuals typically have an aversion to change-agents and tend to be advanced in age. Laggards typically tend to be focused on “traditions”, likely to have lowest social status, lowest financial fluidity, be oldest of all other adopters, in contact with only family and close friends.

Here’s the traditional graph:

A few people discover the trend (and your book), then more people do, then a lot of people do… and then things taper off, sooner or later. From Model T cars to go-go boots to mullet hairstyles, history is littered with products and trends that peaked and then faded.

Flash-in-the-pan (aka “viral nonfiction”) books are likely to follow that blue bell curve. It may last weeks or months, but — in most cases — that’s the very best you can expect from those books.


Here’s my modified graph that can explain audience interest, especially if you’re planning to remain in a niche for a long time:



I’ve added two lines, one red and one green.

The red line indicates the evergreen audience. They’ve probably been in your niche since forever. Their numbers were pretty small, until a trend (fad, TV series, celebrity attention) made the subject popular.

The evergreen audience — people who will remain interested, whether the niche is popular or not — will grow slowly. New people will discover the topic due to its sudden popularity and exposure (or despite it) . Some of that evergreen audience will lose interest in the topic, either because they’re bored or because they’re unhappy with the fad-followers who temporarily dominate the field. Others will replace them. That’s normal, in any niche.

But, when the fad is over, you’ll still sell books to the evergreen audience. And, with some luck, that audience will continue to grow at a stable pace.

However, if you expect to continue to sell books at the same pace as you did when the topic was at its peak… that’s unlikely. (Not impossible… just unlikely.)

The gap in sales is indicated by the green line (peak sales level) and the arrow pointing to where your sales are likely to be when the fad concludes.

If you’re in a niche for the “flash-in-the-pan” sales, the blue line (bell curve) is what to expect, depending on when you enter the niche, and whether the book can sustain interest after the fad is over.

If you’re in a niche for the long haul, the red line is the one to focus on. You’ll still have a bell curve of sales, but at some point — especially if you don’t keep up with the fad and maintain appeal to the trend-following audience — your book sales will drop to the red line.

There’s nothing wrong with an evergreen book that sells reliably, month after month and year after year. That’s the bread-and-butter of most authors. It’s what pays the mortgage and puts food on the table while we’re researching and writing other books… or just taking some time off.


If you’re coming into the niche early into its popularity, you’ll need almost no effort to sell your books, as long as you’re presenting genuinely new, fresh, interesting material, well written.

But, if you have any illusions of sustaining sales once they reach their peak — without considerably more effort — you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.

And, if you continue marketing your older book the same way as you did when you first published it… ditto. With each phase of the diffusion curve, your marketing must change.

Early Adopters buy (and read) a book because it’s new and sounds interesting. Maybe another Early Adopter mentioned it, or maybe they stumbled onto it at the bookstore (virtual or brick-and-mortar)… but they didn’t find the book because “everyone’s talking about it.” (The “everyone talking about it” is what sells to the Late Majority. And, for Laggards, it has to be talked about — not necessarily favorably — by people they consider their peers.)

Students of diffusion have noted that it is usually the wealthier people in a village,the most prosperous doctor, the upper middle class school district, etc., that adopt innovations first. — Dr. Peter J. Richerson, Diffusion of Innovations (emphasis added)
photo courtesy of happy batatinha

Those are the people in your target audience, if you’re presenting new ideas or you’re an early adopter of a trend, and you want to catch that wave of popularity.

For continued sales, you need to think ahead to the Late Majority and Laggards. Your marketing has to find them, through many social layers. It helps if they can identify with you (or your book’s hero) — as Everyman — as well.

Example: Einstein was considered “just an egghead” until the media popularized him with the sticking-out-your-tongue photo.

Social marketing isn’t just about the initial splash. It’s something you’ll need to grow, steadily — and never let up — if you want to continue selling briskly (or as briskly as possible) to the Late Majority and Laggards.

Decide early. Lay the foundation of your social campaign and — as Stephen Covey says — begin with the end in mind.

Otherwise, it’s a daunting task that will tyrannize your time and — unless you outsource the work — prevent you from writing your next best-seller.

If you decide to follow this path, understand both the trend and the buying audience. (Recommended reading: Understanding Diffusion of Innovations, by Les Robinson. [PDF])

But, at a certain point, you’ll need to trust that your book is good enough that it’s going to sell to your evergreen audience — who may enter at any phase of the Diffusions curve, relative to when they become interested and why — and forget the Laggard audience. That ship has sailed.

That doesn’t mean you won’t sell books. It depends on where the red line is, when the trend is over. (My graph is just a suggestion of a normal-ish evergreen audience.)


Your book might remain a popular classic.

Here’s the poster child for authors: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (or, in the UK, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone).

How long has it been since you saw an ad for that book? Even the movie is practically an “oldie.” Adults and children don’t buy the book because it’s new and innovative… they have other reasons, largely supported by social proof.

Here’s how that book ranks at Amazon in April 2013, more than ten years after its release:


Look at that. Over 7,000 reviews.

Seriously, does anyone buy that book based on individual Amazon reviews, now…? Probably not. And, keep in mind, practically every public library in America owns multiple copies of the Harry Potter series. It’s not like anyone has to buy a copy now, to read it.

My point is: If you’re researching niches to see what’s trending or popular, aiming for quick sales, expect that blue bell curve.

And, as a side note: You may want to consider why people keep adding reviews. As I’m writing this, six people have left new reviews in the past 24 hours. What makes the Harry Potter books so magnetic, people still want to feel as if they’re part of the dialogue? Emulate that with your books.

If you’re writing books for the evergreen audience represented by the red line in my graph, enjoy the peak sales if and when the topic becomes a popular trend. But, at least 80% of your efforts (marketing, additional books, and merchandising) should focus on your evergreen fans.

Caveat: Make sure your evergreen audience is worth your full focus. Were other authors successful in that niche, before it started trending? (Anne Rice did just fine, long before Twilight.) If only ten people buy your $2.99 Kindle book each month, that’s not going to help your budget very much. Either write more books or find more ways to earn income in that niche… or expand into a related niche… or choose another niche altogether.

If that niche has always sustained writers, be satisfied with your core audience… the fans who will remain once the trend has come and gone. They’ll continue to go to Star Trek and The Prisoner conventions. They’ll never stop analyzing the hidden meaning in 1984. They’ll always save Saturday nights for the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Even Blake’s 7 and Space: 1999 have enduring audiences.

In marketing terms, your evergreen followers an entirely different audience than those who grab onto a trend and follow it until the next shiny fad comes along.

And, like the return of Doctor Who, you never know when the evergreen fan following will launch a fresh trend, due to enduring popularity. (Remember, the root of the word “fan” is “fanatic.”)

Choose your business model for the book you’re working on now. Never forget that the red line and the blue line are very different. Market accordingly.

Then, move on to your next book, whether it’s for that same audience or a different one.

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