October 1997 // Volume 35 // Number 5 // Feature Articles // 5FEA2

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If It Sells Soap It Can Help Sell Innovations: A Useful Lesson from Marketing

Promoting innovations is an act of marketing. Carefully conceived marketing plans can greatly enhance success. Understanding that different market segments have different product and information needs is a basic concept in commercial marketing. "Innovativeness" and "Stage in the adoption process" are two useful ways of segmenting a market. The Innovativeness-Stages Matrix, combined with an understanding of the different needs of market segments, provides a powerful tool for focusing marketing efforts without extensive marketing research or resources.

Thomas J. Bierma
Department of Health Sciences
Illinois State University
Normal, Illinois
Internet Address: tbierma@rs6000.cmp.ilstu.edu

Frank L. Waterstraat
Department of Health Sciences
Illinois State University
Normal, Illinois

Grear Kimmel
Cooperative Extension Service
University of Illinois
Urbana/Champaign, Illinois

Paul Nowak, Jr.
National Consortium for Environmental Education and Training
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, Michigan
(formerly with Cooperative Extension, Illinois)

Getting small businesses to adopt new ideas is largely a task in marketing. The "customer" will "buy" the new idea if it meets a need at the right "price." The greater the perceived need and the lower the perceived price, the more rapidly the customer will adopt the new idea. This is the challenge in promoting new ideas to small businesses. In this paper we present a practical tool to sort out your customers and target your marketing approach. We use several concepts from Diffusion of Innovation theory, as well as a number of other practices from commercial marketing. Waste minimization technology is used as an example "product" that a Cooperative Extension Service program may be marketing to small businesses.

Market Segmentation

The profession of commercial marketing has developed a number of highly successful tools and ideas for understanding the customer's needs and developing a product to meet those needs. One of the greatest developments in marketing was the recognition that not all customers are the same. Potential customers can be grouped in several ways which improve our understanding of them, and our ability to market to them.

"Market segmentation" is the ability to segment your market into various groups, each of which can be provided with a unique product or communication to directly address their needs. Take automobiles, for example. Manufacturers recognize that one segment of the market is looking for safety, one for fuel economy and dependability, and one for performance. They may address this need through producing different products or through communications which emphasize these different aspects of one product.

There are many potentially useful ways to segment a market. "Innovativeness" and "Stage in the buying process" are two segmentation strategies which can provide some valuable insights into marketing to small businesses.


Not all individuals adopt a new product at the same time; some will adopt very quickly; others will adopt much later. This personal characteristic is "innovativeness," that is the degree to which an individual adopts a new product (innovation) early relative to other potential customers. Innovativeness is a key concept in understanding the diffusion of innovations through a population (Rogers, 1995).

Marketing typically recognizes five categories, from "Innovators" who adopt new innovations rapidly even though they are risky, to "Laggards" who resist adoption until there is no choice. Table 1 briefly explains each of the five categories in the order in which they adopt. Adoption begins slowly with "innovators" and then "early adopters" leading the market. Adoption then accelerates, but finally slows as "laggards" gradually move to adopt the innovation. Each group typically looks to the preceding group for signals that the innovation is successful and worth the cost. Each group looks at the world quite differently and responds to different marketing messages.

Table 1
Adopter categories based on "Innovativeness" (presented in the order in which they would adopt a new innovation. Market percentages are approximations for typical markets).

1. INNOVATORS:(the first 2% of adopters)

Description: "Venturesome" - adopt rapidly, often because of product's innovative image, even if risks are relatively high; want to be first; like new, innovative ideas; willing to take risks; highly success-oriented; constantly thinking of the future; seen by most others as "too extreme" or "techy".

Messages: The new idea is highly innovative; from advanced scientific/ technological development; few others use it yet; the rational basis for need or idea; perhaps even emphasizing the daring or risky nature of the idea.

2. EARLY ADOPTERS: (the next 14% of adopters)

Description: "Respectable" - very open to change but more risk-averse, respected by most of the remaining market; highly success-oriented; constantly thinking of the future; constantly looking for competitive advantage; look to Innovators to prove the effectiveness of the idea.

Messages: The new idea offers competitive advantage; it meets an important need; proven effective by Innovators; its "the right thing to do", rational basis for need or idea.

3. EARLY MAJORITY: (the next 34% of adopters)

Description: "Keeping up with the Jones's" - well informed but waiting until product is proven; wish to avoid being left behind; strongly influenced by Early Adopters; "deliberate"; quite risk-averse; want to ponder a need or idea for some time; "Be not the first by which the new is tried, nor the last to lay the old aside".

Messages: The new idea accepted and proven by Early Adopters; need or idea becoming widespread and accepted by peers; offers competitive advantage over most other firms; failure to adopt idea may be risky.

4. LATE MAJORITY: (the next 34% of adopters)

Description: "Skeptical" - wait until adoption is the norm, skeptical of change; very risk-averse; will not recognize a need or adopt an idea until it is the clear social norm, but fear being left behind; tolerate almost no uncertainty; trust close peers and few others; peer pressure often required to get adoption; limited resources.

Messages: The new idea is well diffused through Early Majority; "everyone is doing it"; those who aren't doing it are falling behind; new idea proven beyond a doubt; little risk of failure with idea; needed resources are small or available.

5. LAGGARDS: (the last 16% of adopters)

Description: "Isolated" - typically have limited communication network, do not adopt until there is no other choice. Traditional; trust no one - only the past; highly fatalistic; may assume failure is inevitable; almost no resources.

Messages: May require threat or coercion; likely to fail without idea; idea accepted by everyone else; adoption as matter of course.

Stage in the Buying Process

"Stage in the buying process" reflects the typical sequence of steps most customers follow in buying a new product or idea. Table 2 explains a common sequence of stages. The marketing profession recognizes that potential customers need different information at each stage in the process. Providing the right information at a given stage allows the customer to move rapidly from stage-to-stage and ultimately to adoption. Providing the wrong information at a given stage can stall or abort the adoption process. Our work suggests that small businesses adopt waste minimization innovations in similar stages and that the type of information needed at each stage is similar to that for other innovations (Bierma and Waterstraat 1995a, Spring; Bierma and Waterstraat, 1995b).

Table 2
Typical stages in the process of adopting an innovation.


Description: Unaware of the innovation or the need for the innovation.

Messages: General information about needs; anecdotes from similar companies about need and benefits; mass media useful here; use "hot button" words.


Description: Aware that others may have a need for the innovation, but unaware of own need for the innovation.

Message: More detailed examples from very similar companies emphasizing needs and successes (particularly monetary); tools to easily assess own need; use narrower scope of contact - mass media less useful.


Description: Aware of own need which the innovation might meet.

Messages: Availability and simplicity of information on innovation; success of others in overcoming barriers to adoption; mass media may be useful here.


Description: The search for information on alternative products and evaluation of those alternatives.

Messages: Specific information on innovation; success of others; one-to-one contact usually needed.


Description: The decision and act of adoption.

Messages: Information on overcoming internal and external barriers; how others coped with risk and uncertainty; one-to-one contact usually needed.


Description: Experience gained through use of the innovation and the messages sent to others about that experience.

Messages: Correct negative experiences to stop negative feedback; seek companies with positive experiences as opinion leaders.

Source: Adapted from standard marketing models (Rogers, 1995; Kottler and Armstrong, 1991), but initial stages expanded using the Precaution Adoption Process model (Weinstein, 1988).

The "Innovativeness-Stages" Matrix

These two market segmentation tools, "Innovativeness" and "Stages in the buying process" can be combined in a matrix and used to assess the best approach to a particular market. Table 3 is an example of an innovation with relatively extensive diffusion through the market. Innovators and Early Adopters are already using it. The Early Majority recognize the need for the innovation and have begun to search for information about alternatives. In this case, widespread dissemination of technical information about the technology is warranted, as a large segment of the market needs such information to move on to the adoption stage.

Table 3
"Innovativeness - Stages" Matrix - Example of a P2 innovation with relatively extensive diffusion.
StageInnovatorsEarly AdoptersEarly Majority Late MajorityLaggards
1 IgnoranceXXXXX
2 Aware of other's needXXXX 
3 Aware of own needXXX  
4 Inform and evaluateXXX  
5 AdoptionXX   
6 Postpurchase behaviorXX   

However, Table 4 is a far more typical situation for many innovations being promoted by Cooperative Extension Service programs. Innovators have adopted the technology with little or no marketing effort. However, early adopters do not yet recognize their own need for the innovation. In this case, technical information about the innovation is of little value. What is needed is a marketing effort stressing the need for the innovation, particularly directed at Early Adopters.

Table 4
"Innovativeness - Stages" Matrix Example of a P2 innovation with relatively little diffusion.
STAGEInnovatorsEarly AdoptersEarly Majority Late MajorityLaggards
1 IgnoranceXXXXX
2 Aware of other's needXX   
3 Aware own needX    
4 Inform and evaluateX    
5 AdoptionX    
6 Postpurchas behaviorX    

Completing the Matrix using Key Informants

Completing an Innovativeness-Stages Matrix might appear to be an overwhelming task, and, in fact, a thorough Matrix would require extensive market research. But a rough, and usually quite adequate, Matrix can be completed without a large research effort. The secret is finding good Key Informants.

To construct a matrix, begin by selecting an industrial sector and a specific innovation (or class of innovations - such as aqueous cleaning technologies), since different innovations may diffuse differently. Then find a few Key Informants. Key Informants know the market and can help estimate the extent to which an innovation has diffused through a population. Begin with managers of the businesses you are interested in. Extension programs often already have contacts in a few of these businesses. These managers usually have an extensive network of contacts with other businesses in the industry. They can be full of useful information about how new technologies are diffusing.

However, some of the best Key Informants are high profile trusted suppliers to the industrial sector you have targeted. These suppliers make their living by understanding their market and can be excellent informants. In our work on small, metal product fabricators we found the best Key Informant to be a regional sales representative with a major Midwest metal supplier. Many small business managers we interviewed had named this supplier as the most trusted, high quality supplier in the business. The sales representative knew many of the shop owners. He knew what technologies they were using and their interest in new innovations.

Most industrial sectors have similar suppliers. Initial interviews with the business managers will usually reveal these potential sources of Key Informants. For example, we found that most auto repair shops named a single tool supplier as their most trusted source of information on tools and new repair technologies. Among metal fabricators, nearly all mentioned the same waste management/recycling company that they trusted with their waste problems. All such companies can make good Key Informants

Key Informants may not understand the language of the Innovativeness-Stages Matrix. It is best to translate the Matrix into common industry language. For example, assume that High Volume/Low Pressure (HVLP) paint guns were being promoted to autobody repair shops to improve efficiency and reduce waste. A good tool supplier, even if they don't sell paint guns, can often provide a good estimate of the percentage of shops that have adopted the technology, and how many other shops are talking about it.

Through this kind of questioning, Key Informants can usually give you the information you need to understand the diffusion of an innovation through a population, and construct a rough Innovativeness-Stages Matrix. Using the matrix you can now begin to construct more effective marketing messages targeting specific segments of your market.

Developing Targeted Messages from the Innovativeness-Stages Matrix.

Once the Innovativeness-Stages Matrix is completed, you can use it to help build a more effective marketing approach. First, determine the "marketing fronts" - segments of the market where your marketing resources are going to be most effective. Returning to Table 3, where an innovation has been relatively well diffused though a population, there are two primary "fronts": moving "Early Majority" businesses to Adoption, and moving "Late Majority" businesses to become "Aware of Their Own Need."

Next, you can use your understanding of the typical needs of individuals at different "Stages" and of different "Innovativeness" to craft a marketing message which addresses those needs. Tables 1 and 2 summarize some of these needs, but we recommend Rogers' seminal text on diffusion of innovations (Rogers, 1995) as well as any number of good marketing texts for more detail.

As an example, consider the case of the poorly diffused innovation in Table 4. Marketing along two "fronts" is probably warranted. The first "front" must move "Early Adopters" to recognize their own need for the innovation. Ideally, marketing communications should help "Early Adopters" see their businesses as similar to "others" who need the innovation, or provide simple tools to help "Early Adopters" document their own needs. "Early Adopters" are motivated by opportunity for competitive advantage, so communications to this group should stress the need to stay ahead. "Early adopters" can often be reached through trade shows or other events presenting the latest in industry innovation.

The second "front" in Table 4 broadly covers basic awareness for the "Early Majority", "Late Majority", and "Laggards". Most businesses in these groups are unaware of the innovation or the need for the innovation. One-to-many communication channels, such as trade media and professional meetings, can be useful. Communications should use real cases and industry "hot buttons", such as cost, efficiency, or quality. The purpose is to create general awareness and an openness to considering one's own need for the innovation. Technical details of an innovation would likely be of little value on this "front".


Promoting innovations is an act of marketing. Carefully conceived marketing plans can greatly enhance success. The understanding that different market segments have different product and information needs is a basic concept in commercial marketing. "Innovativeness" and "Stage in the adoption process" are two useful ways of segmenting a market. The Innovativeness- Stages Matrix, combined with an understanding of the different needs of the market segments, provides a powerful tool for focusing our marketing efforts without extensive marketing research or resources.


Rogers, E.M. (1995). Diffusion of Innovations. New York: Free Press.

Bierma, T.J. and Waterstraat, F.L. (1995a) Marketing pollution prevention. Pollution Prevention Review, 5(2), 63-72.

Bierma, T.J. and Waterstraat, F.L. (1995b). Promoting P2 among small metal products fabricators. Pollution Prevention Review, 5(4), 27-40.

Kotler, P. and Armstrong, G. (1991). Principles of Marketing, 5th Edition, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Weinstein, N. (1988). The Precaution Adoption Process. Health Psychology, 7(4), 355-386.