Editor's Note: The following is a guest post from Hunter Jensen, founder and CEO of Barefoot Solutions.
Like many social media and app companies, Facebook established a dedicated audience before opening up to a broader market. After launching at Harvard University in 2004, the platform gradually expanded to all universities in the U.S. and Canada, quickly attracting a committed base of college-aged students.
More than 10 years later, baby boomers have enthusiastically embraced the social networking site and are 19% more likely to share content than any other age group. While they were slower on the uptake, these late adopters have become an important demographic for Facebook.
There's a lesson in this for all app developers. While many app companies strive to reach innovators and early adopters like millennials and Gen Z, it may also be necessary to target the harder-to-reach late-adopter market.
While there are challenges to targeting late adopters, there are benefits too. Here's how and why your app should target this key group.
If you're missing late adopters, you're missing out
When you think of late adopters — also called "laggards" or the "late majority" — you probably think of older users. Indeed, many late adopters skew older than early adopters, but this group also tends to include people who live in rural areas and who earn less than $55,000 a year.
Most marketers ignore late adopters, opting instead to impress tech-savvy folk. Late adopters, the thinking goes, are irrelevant to a product's success.
This is a mistake. Early adopters are great, but they aren't most customers, representing just 10-15% of the market. Late adopters, meanwhile, are a larger — and sometimes wealthier — demographic. Baby boomers possess 70% of all the United States' disposable income. Attracting this group is also essential to extending a product's lifecycle. If your product never quite catches on with late adopters, it will likely go into decline more quickly. Any company that neglects late adopters does so to their own detriment.
"Leapfrogging" from a late adopter to an early one
There's another interesting theory as to why companies should be targeting late adopters: They can become early adopters. Jacob Goldenberg, a professor at the Arison School of Business and Columbia Business School, has conducted research showing this "leapfrog effect."
Here's how it works: Bruce, content with the same TV he's had for 20 years, sticks with it despite the proliferation of high-definition flat-screen TVs on the market. It's not until his TV breaks down entirely that he decides to buy a new one, at which time he purchases a brand-new smart TV. He "leapfrogs" past a few generations of television sets, becoming among the very first consumers to buy this kind of smart device. Suddenly, he's transformed from a late adopter into an early one.
Goldenberg has done the math. By his calculations, profits from a new gadget that includes leapfroggers can be nearly 90% higher than those without, even if only 10% of the laggards opt to leapfrog. That means there are huge rewards to be reaped by companies who figure out how to convince even 1% of laggards to buy.
This effect can be amplified because of good old-fashioned word-of-mouth. Late adopters are highly influenced by their social networks, taking the plunge with a new technology only if it is strongly recommended by someone they trust. When Bruce becomes an evangelist for smart TVs, he will likely influence a handful of other late adopters who respect his opinion.
What's true for smart TVs is true for your app, too. A brand's product can benefit considerably from reaching late adopters and turning a few of them into early ones.
How to reach them
Many developers find it difficult to overcome the challenges of reaching late adopters. What attracted early ones isn't likely to work with those slower to catch on, and many developers rely too heavily on what they learn about early adopters as they develop and launch their apps. This is one reason why many startups find it difficult to create a second round of offerings; what worked once won't necessarily work twice, especially if a company wants to broaden its customer base.
To reach late adopters, you need to think like a late adopter.
This sounds simple, but it can be very difficult for designers and developers, who tend to be early adopters themselves. Many app developers create a product they believe to be simple and easy to use, and while it may be a snap for other early adopters, it's still too complicated for users who are not as comfortable with technology. Witness, for instance, the trouble even sophisticated tech users over the age of 25, like Slate's senior technology writer, have in figuring out how to use Snapchat.
Conduct usability studies with them.
Keep in mind that late adopters may be soft with their criticisms of a user interface, blaming their own lack of experience in using technology rather than placing the blame on the tech itself. Instead of relying on self-reported data, look at the more objective behavioral data to determine how to improve your app.
Strategies that reached early adopters may fail to reach late adopters.
When you have developed an app that meets the needs of late adopters, you need to consider how to market it to this audience. The marketing strategies that reach early adopters, such as social media and online ad campaigns, may fail to reach late adopters. On the other hand, some social media channels widely used by late adopters, such as Facebook and email, may be better ways to reach this market.
Given the importance of word-of-mouth for late adopters, testimonial-based advertising campaigns can be a powerful way to reach them. Late adopters often have stronger ties to traditional media, making television and print advertising another (albeit expensive) way of reaching them.
It can be a challenge for app developers to step outside of their early-adopter understanding of technology to develop apps that target those who aren't quite on the cutting edge. But with a little effort, a few usability studies and a marketing campaign designed to reach them, app developers can reap the benefits of targeting these high-value consumers.