There are a dizzying number of cool new services, applications, and gadgets available to citizens of the world today. New stuff is coming out all the time and it can be hard for us Internet experts to keep up, let alone average human beings. For example, my dad — no Internet slouch — had no idea what Hulu was. How is he expected to care about the difference between Twitter or identi.ca?
I take a generally pessimistic view of new sites, assuming that I’ll either not like them, or they won’t stick around long enough for me to appreciate them. I have a few friends who are compulsive signer-uppers, gladly agreeing to the Terms of Service for any new site that comes along. One of these guys does it specifically so he can claim his preferred username, lest some other Internet a-hole tarnish his good handle. Another friend signs up for stuff with the expectation that he’ll actually use the service being offered. Sometimes he does, sometimes he doesn’t.
The folks who sign up early — the aptly named early adopters — often enjoy a number of benefits to using new sites and services. Capacity isn’t usually an issue, so the services work well. There’s a sense of satisfaction as you enjoy something no one else is currently enjoying. You get to look smart and in-the-know as you talk about it to all your Luddite friends. There’s the obvious novelty factors. And sometimes, the sites and services are genuinely useful!
One thing I’ve noticed about early adopters is that they seem complacent with the knowledge that all their time and effort may soon be obviated as the sites to which they sign up disappear. These folks will sign up for a site and really start using it. Take, for example , Grand Central, Google’s unified phone solution. I know several folks who absolutely rely on Grand Central. They jumped in whole hog, and live and die by Grand Central. Of course, Google could terminate Grand Central tomorrow if they wanted to, literally stranding many of the early adopters that really rely on the service. I’d wager that a great many of these early adopters would be frustrated with the disappearance of the service, but would in short order find alternatives to reproduce the lost functionality.
The late adopters, and the laggards, seem to place a higher value on the longevity of their effort, and are less likely to sign up for some new site or service (assuming they hear about it at all) without some assurance that their effort won’t be wasted on a fly-by-night operation. Some folks like to wait to see which of several competing solutions will emerge as the dominant choice. How many folks waited to buy Flickr accounts as they kept an eye on Zooomr, and whatever other photo sharing sites cropped up to compete? Other late adopters sign up only when some critical mass of their peers sign up for something. How useful would Facebook or Twitter really be if you were the only person you knew using it?
I wonder, though, how many early adopters actually stick with something? Are the early adopters compulsive about using new sites and services? Is it some how beneath them to use something that is suddenly mainstream? Another interesting thing to consider is how many early adopters are willing to pay for services that were free before they got big? Take for example Jott, the voice-to-text messaging system that recently started charging $4 a month for what had previously been free. I know a guy who used the free Jott a lot, but decided he’s not using $4 a month worth. Just like that, he’s stopped using the service, and is investigating a number of alternatives.
So the question I have for you, dear readers, is this: how can sites, services, and products remain relevant to the broad spectrum of users? Is it worth it to try to keep early adopters as a deluge of late adopters and laggards start using your solution? Can you adequately reward early adopters, or is early adoption reward enough? Is it worthwhile to actively seek out early adopters, or is that more trouble than its worth since they’re such a fickle and unreliable bunch?