Basic Elements of the Diffusion Process of Innovation

Rogers (1962) defined diffusion as ‘the process in which an innovation is communicated through certain channels over time amongst the members of a social system’. He defined diffusion of innovation process as ‘the spread of a new idea from its source of invention or creation to its ultimate users or adopters’. According to him, diffusion of innovation comprises four main elements, namely innovation, communication channels, time, and social system.


The definition comprises four basic elements of the diffusion process:

1. Innovation:

The term ‘innovation’ refers to the newness of the good or service offering. Rogers has defined innovation as ‘an idea, practice, or object that is perceived as new by an individual or other unit of adoption’.

2. Channels of Communication:

Channels of communication refer to means that helps transmit information about an innovation from the marketers to the people in the social system as well as from one individual to another. They include both marketing communication and interpersonal communication through word of mouth (WOM). Marketing communication takes place between the marketer and the potential market, or the target segment(s).

It could be personal (e.g., between the salesperson and the consumer) or impersonal (via print or audio-visual media). Interpersonal communication takes place between the consumers or between the members of the target segment(s). It could be WOM communication between consumers or through an opinion leader. The quicker people come to know about innovation through the mass media, Internet, and WOM, both online and offline, the faster it would get diffused.

Mass media channels are regarded as cosmopolites while interpersonal channels in the form of WOM communication are more localite. Diffusion of innovation depends a great deal on communication between the marketer and the prospect, as well as communication amongst prospects or between prospects and consumers. With advancement in technology and the Internet, people are exposed to newer goods and services not only within their own country but also across the globe. Consumers are more aware and informed today, and diffusion of innovation is faster.

3. Social System:

The social system refers to the social setting in which the diffusion takes place. Diffusion always takes place within a social system, similar to what happened with the farmer community in case of the famous hybrid corn study. The social structure, prevalent values, and norms, as well as the opinion leaders, influence the acceptance or rejection of innovation and affect the speed with which the diffusion will take place.

For majority of the members of a social system (target market), the decision to adopt an innovation depends on other members of the social system. In a way, it reflects the target market(s) for which the good and service is designed, and within what segment(s) it would be diffused. For example, for a new herbal anti-wrinkle cream, the social system would be confined to ladies who are in their mid-40s and above.

Social influence is a significant factor that influences people’s decisions to accept or reject new ideas, products, and services. Within a social system, people may possess positive or negative feelings towards an innovation and may decide to entirely accept or reject it. The social structure can be assessed in terms of homophile and heterophile. The more homophilous people in a group are, the stronger will be the ties, the more will be the likelihood of transfer of ideas and information between them, and the stronger will be the influence.

Further, when social systems are modern and people are up to date, diffusion is much faster compared to a situation where social systems are traditional and conservative. Modern social systems are those where people are aware and educated, and are open to change. In addition, adoption of an innovation can happen anywhere on the social scale, and may manifest as a trickle- down effect, and trickle-up and trickle-across innovations.

Opinion leaders are important when it comes to diffusion of innovation. The importance of opinion leaders was proposed by Paul Lazarsfeld and his team in the 1940s and later by Katz and Lazarsfeld in the 1950s. They proposed the concept of opinion leaders and opinion followers and how the media influenced both the leaders and the followers. Rogers (1983) defines opinion leaders as ‘those from whom others seek advice and information’.

Rogers (1983) defines opinion leadership as the ‘degree to which an individual is able to influence other individuals’ attitudes or overt behaviour informally in a desired way with relative frequency’. Rogers proposed that diffusion of innovation would be much faster if opinion leaders accepted it, and shared information and advice about it.

With the advancement of technology, there has been a growth in electronic social networks. Today, reviews, chats, and blogs also play an important role in the diffusion of innovation. Marketers resort to E-WOM and encourage communication with and between current and prospective customers via social media, often motivating their customers to spread the word. The company’s online social network page is also used as a platform.

4. Time:

Time is an important factor in the diffusion of innovation, as it determines the pace of adoption and the resultant assimilation of the innovative offering. It specifies how long it would take for people to adopt a new good or service. Researchers have studied the impact of time in three ways, namely amount of purchase time, rate of adoption, and identification of adopter categories.

The amount of purchase time refers to the average time that a consumer takes to adopt a new good and service offering. This would include the total time between the consumers’ initial awareness and the final acceptance/ rejection of the new product or service. When the average purchase time is less, it can be assumed that the rate of diffusion will be faster.

The rate of adoption is a measure of how long it takes a new product or service offering to be adopted by the members of the target market. Rogers (2003) defines the rate of adoption as the relative speed with which an innovation is adopted by members of a social system’. The rate of adoption is ‘relative’ in the sense that people differ in the speed with which they adopt an innovation, and one adopter category is quicker than another.

The rate of adoption depends on the traits and characteristics of people, in terms of their receptivity to new things, as well as characteristics of the innovation itself, which draw people towards it or against it. Some product categories get adopted instantly while some take a longer period of time. In any case, initially, the rate of adoption of innovations is slow and gradual. With greater awareness about the good and service category, through marketing communication and interpersonal communication, the rate of adoption increases.

People differ with respect to their readiness to try and adopt new goods and service offerings. Based on the length of time required for a certain percentage of the people in the target market, the adopters are classified into adopter categories. Ryan and Gross (1943) were the first to propose the adopter categories, which were later elaborated upon by Everett Rogers.

People in a population while adopting an innovation are normally distributed over time, as a bell-shaped curve. The curve represents the frequency of consumers adopting a product over a period of time. Initially, innovations are slowly adopted, then they experience a period of rapid adoption, and thereafter they gradually level off. Further, the cumulative number of adopters in a population when plotted on a curve results in an S-shaped curve (i.e., adoptions across customer segments).

First, the S-shaped curve rises slowly as the adopters in a time period are few, and then it accelerates to the maximum as about half of the people in the social system have adopted the innovation, and then it continues to increase but at a slower rate, as the few remaining people finally adopt the new product or service. While both curves, i.e., the bell-shaped curve and the S-shaped curve, illustrate the adoption of an innovation over time, the bell-shaped curve illustrates the number of people adopting an innovation each year, whereas the S-shaped curve illustrates the adoption on a cumulative basis.


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