Diffusion of Innovation Theory

Diffusion of innovation theory was developed in the early 1950s by Everett Rogers. It seeks to explain the spread of new ideas through individuals and members of a social system. This theory is still widely used now to spread innovations and ideas from the scientific world to the political sphere.

According to Rogers, the diffusion of innovation is the process by which an innovation is communicated through certain channels over time among the members of a social system. To understand that definition you must first understand some key terms. Innovation is used more generally here to mean an item, thought, or process that is new. Good examples of innovation would be automobiles, brain surgery, and a new kind of running shoe. It is important to realize that something can be an innovation in one place and have already been accepted in another. The other key term in the definition is diffusion. Diffusion is the process by which innovations spread from one locale or one social group to another. People do not just welcome into their homes every innovation that is put in front of them. Every person reacts differently in the ways that they hear about, understand, and finally accept or do not accept an innovation. Before we dive right into the process of diffusion of innovation it is important to take a look at where the research and theories began.

History of Diffusion of Innovation Theory

With this huge increase in interest on the subject diffusion research was being done globally. At this point researchers saw similarities in all of the studies being done in different fields and realized that it is one basic communication process. With all of this research going on it made logical sense for marketing agencies to begin their own studies involving adoption and diffusion of new products. These studies have continued on through the past few decades answering many questions about the diffusion of innovation process as well as coming up with new questions to be answered in the future.

Elements and Process of Diffusion of Innovation

There are four main elements to the diffusion of innovations: (1) the innovation, (2) its communication, (3) in a social system, (4) over a period of time.

  1. Innovation — For diffusion of an idea to occur, it must be evident what kind of idea is being presented, is it viable and who the target of the innovation is. The rate if diffusion of an innovation is determined by such factors as the relative advantage, compatibility, the trialability and its usefulness in solving the needs of the targeted populace.
  2. Communication — This is the process by which participants create and share information with the sole aim of creating an understanding with each other within the communication process. Any communication is passed through a communication channel which is the means of message transfer from one person to the other. In communicating innovations, mass media is the most effective in creating knowledge of the inventions. Interpersonal media are more effective in forming and changing attitudes towards an idea. This therefore leads to adoption thus diffusion of the idea and or product.
  3. Social System — The third main element in the diffusion of new ideas is the social system. This is a set of interrelated units that are engaged in joint problem-solving to accomplish a common goal. The members may be comprised of individuals, organizations and or even formal and informal groups. They are bound by practices, cultures, behaviors and beliefs which form a boundary within which diffusion occurs. The change agents within a social system will define the rate of diffusion within the social system.
  4. Time — The time component is involved in diffusion of an innovation in three ways. First, time is involved in the innovation-decision process. The innovation decision process is the mental process through which an individual or other decision making unit passes from first knowledge of an innovation to forming an attitude toward the innovation, to a decision to adopt or reject, to implementation of the new idea, and to confirmation of this decision. An individual seeks information at various stages in the innovation-decision process in order to decrease uncertainty about an innovation’s expected consequences. Secondly, time is involved in diffusion in the innovativeness of an individual or other unit of adoption. There is a relative difference in the rate at which different individuals adopt an innovation. This leads to the discussion of the five categories of adopters in a social system. The third way in which time is involved in diffusion is in rate of adoption. The rate of adoption is the relative speed with which an innovation is adopted by members of a social system. The rate of adoption is usually measured as the number of members of the system that adopt the innovation in a given time period.

The process of Rogers diffusion of innovation theory consists of five sequential stages:

  1. Knowledge occurs when an individual or other decision-making unit is exposed to an innovation’s existence and gains some understanding of how it functions.
  2. Persuasion occurs when an individual forms a favorable or unfavorable attitude toward the innovation based on perceived characteristics of the innovation, such as relative advantage and complexity.
  3. Decision occurs when an individual engages in activities that lead to a choice to adopt or reject the innovation.
  4. Implementation occurs when an individual puts the innovation into use.
  5. Confirmation occurs when an individual seeks reinforcement of an innovation decision already made, or reverses a previous decision to adopt or reject the innovation if exposed to conflicting messages about the innovation.

There are two major processes in diffusion of innovation model. Adoption process is one of them and diffusion being the next. The focus of the adoption process is the stages through which an individual consumer passes while arriving at a decision to continue or discontinue the new product.This is the best applied to the socio economic issues of information and communication technology in the social system.

Adopter Categories

The core concept of diffusion theory is the adopter categories. The adopter categories indicate where a consumer stands in relation to other consumers in terms of the time taken by the consumer in adopting a new product. Five categories are observed in the adopters.

Diffusion of Innovation Theory

  1. Innovators (Venturesome): Innovators have a keen interest in new ideas that differentiate them from other consumers. The innovators are known to have the ability to understand complex technical information. They are willing to take risks and to cope with uncertainty about innovations at the time of adoption 2.5 %.
  2. Early Adopters (Respect): Early adopters are more integrated into the local social system. They check with before adopting a new idea. This category contains a greater number of opinion leaders, they are the role models. They make up around 13.5 percent of the total consumer population.
  3. Early Majority (Deliberate): Deliberates adopt new ideas just prior to the average time, seldom hold leadership positions. They make up 34 percent of the total consumer population.
  4. Late Majority (Skeptical): Skeptical adopt new ideas just after average time. Adoption happens because of necessity and peer pressures. They make up another 34 percent of the total consumer population.
  5. Laggers (Traditional): Laggers are the last people to adopt an innovation. This category is around 16 percent of the consumer population.


When studying the diffusion of innovations it is important to understand that you are not just looking at the spread of an innovation through a society but rather the spread of different kinds of innovations through a society. As stated earlier, an innovation is an item, thought, or process that is new to a certain area but not necessarily to the world. There are three main types of innovations that are diffused in different ways.

  • Continuous Innovation: This type of innovation is a simple changing or improving of an already existing product where the adopter still uses the product in the same fashion as they had before. An example of a continuous innovation is now seen in the automobile industry as it continues to change and develop.
  • Dynamically Continuous Innovation: Here the innovation can either be a creation of a new product or a radical change to an existing one. Here the consumption patterns of people are altered some. An example of this type of innovation would be compact discs.
  • Discontinuous Innovation: This is a totally new product in the market. This is the big idea innovation. In this situation, because the product has never been seen before, there are total changes to consumers buying and using patterns.

After discussing the three types of innovations natural progression moves us straight to the next topic of the five different characteristics of innovations. Each characteristic effect the rate of adoption of a innovation differently. Like a lot of things in life, the innovation does not have to be better or easier to use than the product it is competing with but only be perceived to be better or easier to use by the consumer. This idea of perception is stronger than information is seen throughout the advertising world.

  • Relative Advantage: This characteristic expresses to what extent the new product is better than the one it is replacing. Of course the first thought would be greater profit potential. Although profit does fit into the equation, relative advantage can be judged on other factors like ease of use and storage as well .
  • Compatibility: No matter how superior or efficient an innovation is it will not be successful if it does not take into consideration local values and customs of the adopters. Compatibility is the level of which an innovation fits into the specific society. The smoother the innovation fits into the culture, the faster the rate of adoption. The diffusion of certain types of birth control pills in certain areas is unattainable due to religious beliefs and cultural values.
  • Complexity: This type of innovation is the extent of how difficult it is for an adopter to understand and use an innovation. It is very logical to think that the harder an innovation is to use, or at least perceived to use, the less likely that an adopter would be to consume it. A contemporary example would be the Internet. Although the Internet is easy to use, for someone who has never been on a computer it is extremely intimidating.
  • Divisibility: This refers to the ability of the consumer to give the innovation a test run before deciding whether to adopt it or not. Being able to try out a product before purchase helps increase the rate of adoption drastically.
  • Communicability: This characteristic is simply stated as the idea that when an innovations benefit does not directly or immediately solve or fix a consumers problem or need it will not diffuse through a society as quickly compared to an innovation that is more of solution to a problem. A fictional example that helps understand this principle would be a new drug on the market that you would take everyday to ward off headaches before they come. Although the drug may work, because the results do not fit into our first problem then solution ideal, it would take more time for it to be adopted.

It is important to note that these five characteristics are not the only ones that affect the rate of adoption. Also the adoption of an innovation is not always a positive occurrence. Over-adoption, where adopters act irrationally without all the information or without full comprehension of an innovation can actually be harmful to the diffusion process.

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