Most of us think of Thomas Edison as an inventor. But if you look closely, you’ll see Thomas Edison had an expert understanding of technology adoption and marketing strategy.
Edison made the first public demonstration of his incandescent light bulb on December 31, 1879. And in 1882 Edison dramatically accelerated the adoption of electric power and light to the early majority using specific techniques designed to humanize his new invention.
Edison’s strategy for accelerating the adoption of electric light was based on minimizing disruption to people’s lives. Since gas lamps were the dominant method of indoor lighting, Edison designed his electric lights to look and operate almost identically. His initial electric lights provided 13 watts of light, almost the same as the 12-watt gas lamps he wanted to replace. The new electric lamps looked almost exactly like those same gas lamps.
Recognizing that many commercial and residential landowners in New York had invested considerable capital in gas infrastructure to light their buildings, Edison chose to run his first electrical wires through existing gas lines, fitting directly into the system people already understood for the delivery of light.
Edison’s technology was new, but the form and function were decades old. In fact, Edison’s strategy of adapting his technology to systems people were familiar with, and minimizing disruption of the customer’s habits, led to accelerated acceptance and adoption.
Edison’s other ingenious marketing strategy was in selecting the location of his first customers — financial institutions in lower Manhattan. Seeing the windows of the financial district aglow by night demonstrated electric lighting technology to the metro population living across the Hudson River in New Jersey.
Because the financial community was seen as a credible source of innovative new products, Edison helped meet the reference requirements of the early majority, who then shared the idea with their local communities. This endorsement of electric power and light, as demonstrated by a credible (and influential) reference in a visible location, had tremendous influence on the rest of the country.
Technology organizations of all types can learn from Edison’s techniques. The more a supplier works to reduce disruption, lower perceived risk, and provide credible references, the faster adoption will occur.