First-adopters are a coveted bunch. Many, if not most, internet startups hope to reach the first-adopters that will use their services and evangelise about them before anyone else will.

But what about the “late-adopters” who don’t jump head first into every new internet phenomenon and who prefer to stick with the products and services they’ve come to know and trust?

In a recent article entitled “Tech’s Late Adopters Prefer the Tried and True,” The New York Times addressed this very issue.

Reporter Miguel Helft observed:

The technology industry thrives on its ability to sell new products to consumers at an ever-increasing pace, and it has turned many upgrades into painless, one-click operations. But millions of users of nearly every type of Internet service and technology, from Netscape and AOL dial-up to old e-mail systems, still prefer to ignore the pitches and sit still — or at least move ahead at their own pace.”

While late-adopters are often ignored (or disparaged) by internet companies that are themselves often run by tech-savvy first-adopters, Silicon Valley “tech forecaster” (is that a real job?) Paul Saffo notes:

“Laggards have a bad rap, but they are crucial in pacing the nature of change. Innovation requires the push of early adopters and the pull of laypeople asking whether something really works. If this was a world in which only early adopters got to choose, we’d all be using CB radios and quadraphonic stereo.”

This is a very valuable point that every internet company should take into consideration. While first-adopters may be important to new internet services, late-adopters may be even more important.

Why? There are three primary reasons:

  • First-adopters often try any new services that cross their paths. They don’t necessarily demand that these services offer anything new or better and are more likely than their late-adopter counterparts to be satisfied with something that just seems innovative and cool. This, of course, does not necessarily establish that a service is solving a real problem and therefore, success with first-adopters does not always guarantee wider success.
  • First-adopters are inherently a transient, fickle bunch. It’s often difficult to explain why a particular service becomes popular with them and it’s often difficult to explain why they leave a particular service for something different. Internet companies cannot rely on the first-adopters who jumpstart their businesses to stick by them over the long-term. Late-adopters, on the other hand, can provide the foundation for reliable long-term customers when they’re satisfied.
  • Although, as the New York Times points out, some late-adopters refuse to adopt new services because of loyalty, fear and inertia, late-adopters do, as a whole, provide a good test for internet companies. If a new service is shunned by late-adopters, it may hint that it simply doesn’t offer a strong enough value proposition. That in turn should lead a company to question whether its service is fixing something that isn’t broken.

The New York Times article also highlights the fact that internet companies ignore late-adopters at their own peril when upgrading existing services.

It recounts how AOL’s relaunch of as a “social news” website caused Netscape to lose approximately half its users in the US before it realised that those users had preferred the old, “mainstream news” website that was previously operated as.

The discussion of late-adopters is well-timed because I feel that far too many internet startups are asking “How do we get the first-adopters?” instead of the really important questions:

  • Are we solving a real problem that causes pain?
  • Are we offering a solution to this problem that is simple and effective?
  • Are we, in the process, providing enough value that one or more of our stakeholders is going to want to pay money for?

When surveying the landscape of hot internet startups, I simply don’t see a whole lot who can answer “yes” to all three questions. That’s problematic.

When it comes to existing services, I think far too many internet companies are quick to “upgrade” with new functionality without really asking themselves what tangible value this new functionality really offers.

In other words, new functionality is being added for the sake of adding new functionality, not for the sake of adding value. That too is problematic.

Of course, it would be naive to ask internet companies to remain stagnant.

Innovation does require change but unfortunately, as I’ve argued before, the term “innovation” has largely been bastardised today, especially by the Web 2.0 crowd.

Smart internet companies will consider late-adopters as much as they consider first-adopters and even when they decide to “upgrade” (I know – planned obsolescence keeps the economy moving), they’ll allow late-adopters to continue using the existing solutions they’re already satisfied with.

That’s a winning combination first-adopters and late-adopters can both adopt.