Identifying Leading Edge Users: Researching Early Adopters for New Product Marketing Success

In any field of endeavor, there are innovators—those who ride the leading edge—and consumerism is no exception. Whether the first to buy a 3D TV or the first to have that killer app, in every target market there is a small subset of people who just must have what is new and edgy. These people have “leading edgeness.” When designing an online survey, you may want to profile this part of your target market.

What is “Leading Edge?”

“Leading edge” is a way of describing early adopter consumers who are ahead of the majority in terms of what they buy. In contrast with the majority market which is generally more risk-averse, leading edge users are the early adopters.

There are a few reasons why you might be interested in identifying leading edge users in your next online survey:

  • Buzz: you might be interested in harnessing leading edge users as a way to create word of mouth (or “buzz”) for your new product.
  • Sales: You may be interested in leading edge users because your new product may, in fact, be best targeted at those folks.
  • Early Feedback: Early adopters are sometimes also the most likely customers to give feedback, good or bad, which you may be seeking to help refine a new offering.

If you want to know how to meet the needs and pique the interest of these leading edge consumers, you need to compare their survey answers to those of your more mainstream survey respondents. Then, you will have some guidance on how to get your product and marketing to resonate with these potential customers in particular.

How to Identify Leading Edge Customers

Here are three ways to identify how “leading edge” an online survey respondent is:

  1. What They Own: If we’re talking about the general consumer population, you might simply have a question that says, “Which of the following products do you have in your home? (Please check all that apply)”, and then list five to seven products that represent varying levels of leading edge-ness:
  • Digital video camera
  • iPad or other tablet computer
  • HDTV
  • 3D TV
  • DVR (TiVo, etc.)
  • None of the above

While this list needs to be adjusted for your specific area of interest, the idea is simple: pick a selection of products that represent varying levels of “edge” and use the results to gauge how on the edge your survey respondents are.

Early Adopters - 3D TV

  1. How They Act: Another way to identify people who are leading edge is to ask about their behaviors toward new products. “Compared to other people you know, how would you describe yourself?”
    1. I am generally the last to try a new technology product
    2. I am generally among the last to try a new technology product,
    3. I am generally in the middle when it comes to trying a new technology product.
    4. I am generally among the first to try a new technology product
    5. I am generally the first to try a new technology product

Depending on your business, you may change “technology product” to “home theater component”, “camera”, or so on.

  1. What They Know: You can get more precise in a particular product category to find out whether or not they tend to be a leading edge customer. If the subject is digital photography, you might ask “For your next digital camera, how important are the following features to you?” Now ask them to rate resolution and optical zoom specs, and continue on to newer features like Wi-Fi connectivity. Their answers reflect their inclination towards leading edge behaviors.

It’s a Continuum…

It is commonly accepted that there is a continuum, also called the adoption curve. This model defines innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards. With just a couple of questions, you can begin to identify the innovators in a survey population, and you can then look more closely at their responses. If my online survey focuses on feature requirements or marketing messages, I can now compare these two groups to see what’s going to appeal more to the leading edge folks as opposed to the majority, “Ah, message A resonates with the broader market but message C really resonates with the leading edge? Now that IS interesting…”

And a Moving Target

Of course, we have to remember that what is leading edge today may not be tomorrow. A few years ago, you could identify leading edge consumers by asking them what kind of Internet access they had. A dial-up modem would have indicated a laggard and high speed, an early adopter. Today, of course, many people have high speed Internet so it is no longer a proxy for finding more early adopter consumers. So be sure to stay current. Find those innovators in your target market, though, and they could help you identify the next big thing!

Image: LGEPR

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Kathryn Korostoff
Kathryn Korostoff taught market research best practices at Ask Your Target Market, and is the president of Research Rockstar, delivering market research training and support services. She can be reached at KKorostoff AT ResearchRockstar DOT com.
  • Anonymous

    This is a very interesting post! So by identifying the leading edge users, we can get a better idea from their feedback as to which products/services/etc. are going to be hit. We can also learn a lot by comparing the leading edge users to the majority, which can reveal what might take a longer time to catch on, or possibly be a total flop.

  • ryan dixon

    Are early adopters really a strong enough group to base market research off? It seems to be such a small percentage of the target market…

  • Sepehr Sarmast

    Thanks for this worthy guide. I’m wondering if early adopters are “early” in any product category or they just tend to be the leading edge in very specific products? For instance, if I offer a new luxury candy with a different taste, the app early adopters will come to me first?