One of the important, underlying concepts you need to apply to your marketing strategy is the product adoption cycle. This is the bell curve that represents how consumer groups become aware of and purchase a product. It moves from early adopters to the majority and ends with laggards realizing they need your product:
It also, as you can see, involves crossing the chasm, which is the divide between a niche group of early adopters and acceptance of the much larger majority. Though technically metaphorical, the chasm is very much a real obstacle in this process. It’s vital to plan for how you’ll deal with it in your marketing strategy. However, many entrepreneurial efforts completely fail to recognize the challenge they’re facing here. Let’s break it down.
In Love with Early Adopters
You have a product idea – and you’re excited. You’ve recognized a need that’s going unfulfilled for a particular group. Your product will jump in and fill that need. You have a strong starting point.
You start selling. The innovators and early adopters love your product. You’re gonna be a rock star!
But this is a dangerous moment in the product adoption cycle, a moment Seth Godin calls the curse of the low-hanging fruit.
The problem is that these are the easy sales. This is a subgroup you targeted who knew they had the problem you solve. They’re eager to get in line and spend their money on your product.
But the chasm looms because you’re going to exhaust this group. This is also the blind spot. Many new businesses are excited when they get off to a decent start with sales from early adopters. But when that group settles and you need to expand your audience to continue to grow, your cost per customer is likely to go way up.
The question you face is can you sustain your business with your niche group, or do you need to cross the chasm and introduce your product to a broader audience?
Let’s consider two approaches.
Serve the Early Adopters
The first approach to dealing with the chasm is to not to cross it. You plan to profit from a niche audience of early adopters with no intention of targeting majority adoption.
There are certain businesses that lend themselves to this. For example, say you make salt-free snacks for people on low-sodium diets. They alone are your market. You don’t intend to try to turn your products into popular Super Bowl snacks for the masses.
In this case, you have a consumable product that drives repeat purchasing. You can develop brand loyalty with your limited customer-base. If that base is big enough, you may have a sustainable competitive advantage that supports long-term profitability for your business.
If you don’t offer a consumable product, you may have to be prepared to pivot when the popularity of your offer fades and/or when the buying cycle fizzles out with your limited audience. If you want to stay in business, you’ll need to make something else for them.
Can You Build the Bridge?
The second approach is to plan to cross the chasm. It should be part of your marketing strategy from the start and tactics that target this goal should be part of your marketing plan.
To build the bridge across the chasm and get to the point of early majority adoption, you must develop a much more aggressive branding campaign. You want to create a situation where the popularity of your product itself becomes a major component of your marketing. You need broad, multichannel marketing campaigns that reach new audiences and nurture their interests until they become customers.
Keep in mind that it’s called the chasm for a reason. You have to create value that energizes your early adopters to become advocates for your brand. Your buzz has to multiply exponentially.
You’ll also probably need far more capital than you realized. Many startups with lofty branding goals think they’ll be able to compete with $200-400k in capital, when the reality is they’ll need 50x that amount. That means if you want to cross the chasm, it’s likely you’ll need to deal with VC investors to make it happen.
The main takeaway here is that you must understand your goals as you plan to grow your business.
The common problem we see with startups is that people get excited about selling to new adopters, then think that they’ll move along the product adoption cycle as a matter of course. In the excitement of winning over those early adopters, they fail to see the looming chasm.
This becomes a big problem when the business needs to expand its customer base to be sustainable. One of the reasons so many startups fail – even after promising starts – is they don’t have a plan for how they’ll grow once their core audience runs thin. This requires that you build a brand that has a level of cultural awareness, becoming recognizable and recommended.
Seth Godin puts it nicely:
The best way to move beyond the low-hanging fruit is to discipline yourself to not run to the next tree. Get a ladder instead.
In fact, for many small startups that may be bootstrapping their rollout where the biggest investors are Kickstarter backers, the point here is they shouldn’t plan on trying to bridge the chasm at all. Instead, they have to plan on how they can remain viable serving a smaller, niche audience.
This is a much more practical approach, but it also means a leaner, smaller business that will never generate the same type of revenue as one that makes majority adoption. It also may require that you have a consumable product that requires repeat purchases from your loyal base.
If you are in the business of serving a niche of early adopters, acknowledge it from the beginning and create your business strategy accordingly. If you want to cross the chasm, acknowledge that and plan your bridge building.
If your timing is right and serendipity works in your favor, you might get lucky and fly the chasm with your own momentum. It’s okay to hold out for that dream, but don’t make it fundamental to your business survival.