Base Your 2018 Marketing on Human Nature

Woman looking skeptically at camera

The “Diffusion Theory of Innovation” may be dismissed as vintage, or confined to rural America, but it’s proven true in every new product or service.

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We live in a culture where everything is urgent and single solutions promise life-changing results. Maybe we cope with a complex world by oversimplifying it.

When this mindset creeps into our communications, though, we can expect too much and do too little. Except in rare cases of good fortune (think the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge), or enormous budgets (think presidential campaigns), a message nearly always requires time and reinforcement from multiple sources to sink in and motivate action.

We’ve known this ever since sociologist Everett Rogers studied farmers in the 1960s. It took several years for them to adopt new hybrid seeds, even with scientific results and wide news coverage. Change required more than hearing about data. While the “Diffusion Theory of Innovation” may be dismissed as vintage, or confined to rural America, it’s proven true in every new product or service since then, from online college degrees to smart phones. It will certainly apply to self-driving cars. In fact, Rogers said consumers go through six stages to embrace an innovation:

  1. Knowledge – We learn a new solution exists.
  2. Persuasion – We grow favorable to the idea.
  3. Evaluation – We do research, from formal fact-finding to asking friends.
  4. Decision – We commit to trying it out.
  5. Implement – We buy or participate.
  6. Re-evaluation – We’re satisfied or regretful. We stay, quit, or find an alternative.

With all the media channels today, it’s tempting to assume we can compress or skip steps. In a rush to support sales goals, we promise a blitz in one or two quick (or inexpensive) channels—and find ourselves defending or rationalizing a disappointment months later.

What happens in that over-promise? Not the choice of media, most likely, but the bigger strategy. Good marketing plans are customer journey maps that spell out how we’ll nudge people from one stage to the next on their way to adoption. It’s quite possible that different tactics, messages, and experiences need to happen at each step. News, trade shows, ads, email, social sharing, low-risk trials—all are potential candidates in the mix. Time and multiple channels are nearly always more effective than a single-tactic offensive. (Come to think of it, presidential campaigns do require more than TV ad nauseum to persuade voters.)

As you plan your 2018 marketing strategy, it’s not old-fashioned or bookish to plan around Diffusion Theory. It doesn’t mean you get a pass for slow results; you still need to measure and accelerate the process wherever possible. But it does mean that you craft your program around social science—and empathy with human nature.

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