What Is the Diffusion of Innovations Theory?

The diffusion of innovations theory is a hypothesis outlining how new technological and other advancements spread throughout societies and cultures, from introduction to wider-adoption. The diffusion of innovations theory seeks to explain how and why new ideas and practices are adopted, with timelines potentially spread out over long periods.

The way in which innovations are communicated to different parts of society and the subjective opinions associated with the innovations are important factors in how quickly diffusion—or spreading—occurs. This is important to understand when developing market share, and this theory is frequently referred to in the marketing of new products.

Key Takeaways

  • The diffusion of innovations theory describes the pattern and speed at which new ideas, practices, or products spread through a population.
  • In marketing, this theory is often applied to help understand and promote the adoption of new products.
  • This application of the theory usually focuses on identifying and recruiting influential early adopters to help accelerate consumer acceptance.

Understanding the Diffusion of Innovations Theory

The theory was developed by E.M. Rogers, a communication theorist at the University of New Mexico, in 1962. Integrating previous sociological theories of behavioral change, it explains the passage of an idea through stages of adoption by different actors. The main people in the diffusion of innovations theory are:

  • Innovators: People who are open to risks and the first to try new ideas.
  • Early adopters: People who are interested in trying new technologies and establishing their utility in society.
  • Early majority: The early majority paves the way for use of an innovation within mainstream society and are part of the general population.
  • Late majority: The late majority is also part of the general population and refers to the set of people who follow the early majority into adopting an innovation as part of their daily life.
  • Laggards: As the name indicates, laggards lag the general population in adopting innovative products and new ideas. This is primarily because they are risk-averse and set in their ways of doing things. But the sweep of an innovation through mainstream society makes it impossible for them to conduct their daily life (and work) without it. As a result, they are forced to begin using it.

Factors that affect the rate of innovation diffusion include the mix of rural to urban population within a society, the society's level of education, and the extent of industrialization and development. Different societies are likely to have different adoption rates—the rate at which members of a society accept a new innovation.

Adoption rates for different types of innovation vary. For example, a society may have adopted the internet faster than it adopted the automobile due to cost, accessibility, and familiarity with technological change.

Examples of the Diffusion of Innovations Theory

While the diffusion of innovations theory was developed during the 20th century, most new technologies in human progress, whether it is the printing press during the 16th century or the internet in the 20th century, have followed a similar path to widespread adoption.

The diffusion of innovations theory is extensively used by marketers to promote adoption of their products. In such cases, marketers generally find an early set of adopters passionate about the product. These early adopters are responsible for evangelizing its utility to mainstream audiences.

A recent example of this method is Facebook. It started off as a product targeted at students and professionals in educational institutions. The students then spread use of the product to mainstream society and across borders.

The diffusion of innovations theory is also used to design public health programs. Again, a set of people are chosen as early adopters of a new technology or practice and spread awareness about it to others. However, such programs are not always successful due to cultural limitations.