ANALYSIS - Long before the iPod, iPhone and iPad were a glint in the eye of Steve Job's Apple Corp, a group of researchers at Iowa State University published a series of landmark papers - on purchase patterns of hybrid seed corn amongst post-Depression Iowa farmers - that would help to explain why Apple Corp has become the most successful company in the United States, writes John Carragher for TheCropSite.
By monitoring the uptake of a new hybrid corn over 30 years, the Iowa researchers built an economic model they called the "technology adoption lifecycle", which described how new technologies like hybrid corn spread across and through farm communities.
The Iowa researchers' results suggested that the adoption lifecycle followed what mathematicians would immediately recognise as a classic normal distribution curve. That curve entered mainstream thinking with the 1962 publication of "The Diffusion of Innovations" by Everett Rogers and has stayed there ever since.
While Figure 1 neatly illustrates the progression (moving from left to right) of how new products are adopted, what was equally powerful (and prescient) about the Iowa studies were the descriptions of the different farmer "groups" that populate this adoption lifecycle, summarised in Table 1 below.
What's remarkable about Table 1 is that if we substitute the word "farms" for "properties", this table could describe - quite accurately - the likely profile of today's buyers of high-tech gadgets.
It is easy to see how this model applies to vastly different new technologies: from hybrid corn to hybrid motor vehicles, from the consumption patterns of antibiotics and the explosion in the use of (SMS) texting. And, of course, to most - but not all - of Apple's recent products - remember the Newton anybody?
Limitations of the Model
However, it's worth noting that unlike hybrid seed corn in Iowa that achieved almost wholesale adoption (though it took 30 years as things moved more slowly back then), not all new technologies move smoothly through the adoption lifecycle.
Indeed, the vast majority of new products "wither and die" at the very start of the lifecycle, as they fail to attract sufficient innovators and early adopters. Like most good conceptual models, the technology adoption lifecycle can help explain what has happened (after the fact), but is less able to accurately predict exactly why some ideas flourish and others do not.
Eighty years on, the insights gleaned from the buying patterns of farmers in Iowa continue to impact the sophisticated global marketplaces that we all inhabit today.
What started as an explanation of a crop farming community's approach to new technology is now commonly used to explain buying habits across countries and continents - a fact which must make Iowa State University rightly proud.
Gross, Neal C. (1942) The diffusion of a culture trait in two Iowa townships. M.S. Thesis, Iowa State College, Ames.
Ryan, Bryce, and Neal C. Gross (1943) "The diffusion of hybrid seed corn in two Iowa communities." Rural Sociology 8: 15-24. RS(E).
Ryan, Bryce, and Neal C. Gross (1950) Acceptance and diffusion of hybrid corn seed in two Iowa communities. Research Bulletin 372, Agricultural Experiment Station, Ames, Iowa.
Rogers, E.M. (1995). Diffusion of Innovations (4th ed.). New York: Free Press.
Geoffrey Moore (1998). Crossing the Chasm: Marketing and Selling Technology Products to Mainstream Customers.
John Carragher is a guest contributor to TheCropSite.
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