Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


Diffusion and the Five Characteristics of Innovation Adoption

Posted on | October 23, 2012 | No Comments

I recently supervised a Master of Science thesis at New York University that dealt with the adoption of social media technologies in the B2B sector.[1] I recommended the student start with the theories of Everett Rogers, whose work on the “diffusion of innovations” has been increasingly applied to the marketing of technological innovations, including digital media.

In particular, Rogers was concerned that for individuals to adopt an innovation, they must make a conscious decision that overcomes their uncertainty about the product or process. He wrote that the innovation was not in itself enough to convert people. They may need to be convinced through a communication process that provides some evidence of future value that ensures them that the innovation fits their value system and that it does so without severely disrupting their established habits and practices.

I’ve followed Rogers since my undergraduate internship at the East-West Center’s Communication Institute in Hawaii. He spent a lot of time there with Wilbur Schramm and other founders of the Communication Studies area.[2] Later, Amy Shuen’s (2008) Web 2.0 reminded me of the relevance of Rogers’ identification of five characteristics of an innovation and how they may influence whether someone adopts a product or service:

  • relative advantage;
  • compatibility;
  • complexity;
  • trialability;
  • and; observability.

Relative advantage is an observation of the advantages and benefits of adopting a specific innovation. An innovation is by definition an improvement over something already existing, so Rogers points out that the potential adopter must first calculate its relative strengths. What is the advantage of the iPad over a MacBook? What improvements does it hold? What other benefits in terms of mobility, ease-of-use, additional software packages, etc. does the innovation present? If someone finds an advantage in this new technology, the individual will be more likely to adopt it.

Another issue is compatibility. How well does the innovation fit into a person’s needs, usage patterns and/or current value system? Adoption may have more to do with potential adopter than the characteristics of the innovation. An innovation that is more compatible with a person’s lifestyle and cognitive characteristics is more likely to be assimilated into an individual’s life.

A third characteristic is complexity and refers to the level of difficulty that the potential adopters encounter with the innovation. It is likely that the more complex or the more difficult an innovation is to understand, the less likely it will be adopted, and its diffusion will occur more slowly.

Trialability is another characteristic that determines the rate of diffusion. Being able to test an innovation or try it out will facilitate the rate of adoption. If it can be experimented with or taken out for a ‘test drive,” it is more likely to be utilized.

Observability completes our list of important characteristics identified by Rogers. An innovation will likely spread through the target population faster if the benefits are visible. “The Demo” by Douglas C. Engelbart was a 90-minute live demonstration of the interface technologies that highly influenced the trajectory of computer design that ultimately came out in the Apple Macintosh, including the first use of a mouse. The easier it is to see the advantages of an innovation, the faster it will diffuse throughout society.

Rogers was influenced by an experience during his childhood when his father did not utilize a new drought-resistant hybrid grain while their neighbor did. When a drought hit, his father’s crops withered and died while the neighbor’s crops persevered.

Rogers’ scholarly work originated in the study of rural sociology and focused on how innovations were adopted in areas such as agriculture and public health. He initiated an approach to the diffusion of innovation that utilized a scientific and meaningful way that emphasized the communicative and psychological aspects of adoption. He defined diffusion as the communication process by which innovations are accepted by individuals and their benefits spread to others.


[1] Mariandrea Rodriguez graduated this summer after completing her thesis on LATE ADOPTERS OF SOCIAL MEDIA: BUSINESS-TO-BUSINESS COMPANIES IN THE FOOD AND BEVERAGE INDUSTRY.
[2]The East West Center had a multiplier or diffusion effect on Roger’ ideas. It helped spread the topic by bringing in scholars from around the world to research and discuss this area. Although the Communications Institute was replaced by the Institute of Culture and Communications and later disbanded, relevant research such as that on the communication of climate change information continues at the East-West Center.

Citation APA (7th Edition)

Pennings, A.J. (2012, Oct 23). Diffusion and the Five Characteristics of Innovation Adoption.



AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is a Professor at the Department of Technology and Society, State University of New York, Korea teaching broadband policy and ICT for sustainable development. From 2002-2012 he was on the faculty of New York University where he taught digital economics and information systems management. He also taught in the Digital Media Mgt at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas, where he lives when not in South Korea.


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    Professor at State University of New York (SUNY) Korea since 2016. Moved to Austin, Texas in August 2012 to join the Digital Media Management program at St. Edwards University. Spent the previous decade on the faculty at New York University teaching and researching information systems, digital economics, and strategic communications.

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