Friday, September 21, 2007

Corn and Chasms

Theories of mass communication come and go, but one that has enjoyed some longterm success is the diffusion of innovation work made famous by Everett Rogers. You may not have heard of Rogers, but you have heard of Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm, which drew heavily on Rogers’ work and which remains hugely influential.

It all started with corn. Everett Rogers grew up on a farm in Iowa and studied at Ames, an agricultural school. He was drawn to research that investigated why some farmers had adopted hybridized corn, which had much better yields and was drought resistant compared to other varieties. His interest was personal: his father had resisted the innovation, and his farm had failed. In 1962, after studying other examples of adoption, Rogers wrote his famous book, The Adoption of Innovation. From this came all the terms we’re familiar with: innovators, early adopters, the late majority, and so on. He postulated that mass media fostered awareness, while interpersonal interactions were the primary way people made decisions. He went on to characterize innovators and early adopters, and his work was used to spur foreign aid missions, market new drugs, and eventually inspired countless business plans.

All this came to mind when I read a wonderful interview in the New York Times with the great Rick Rubin. He’s trying, in his fashion, to rescue Columbia Records, which like all major labels is watching lucrative CD sales transform into lucre-less downloads. And he’s figured out that teenage hip-hop fans behave a lot like Iowa corn farmers: they are influenced by word-of-mouth. And so, following Big Business logic, Columbia formed a “word-of-mouth” department:

The "word of mouth" department will function as a publicity-promotional arm of the company, spreading commissioned buzz through chat rooms across the planet and through old-fashioned human interaction.

An interesting question: can you apply a kind of covert propaganda to influence the Chasm Crossing process? And is this ethical, expressing paid-for opinion as freely voiced fanaticism?

But more importantly, does any of this blogophonics really work? A critique of diffusion theory is that it doesn’t really take a good marketing view – it doesn’t organize around attributes of the innovation and the organizations or people adopting them. In other words, anyone can be an early adopter if the product fits. Said another way, good tunes sell, period.

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