Five Examples of Mainstream Innovation Adoption

Many great innovations, social movements and new technologies take decades to achieve mainstream or mass-market adoption, primarily because of a failure to emphasize and deliver the perception of low risk. And the underlying reason for the lack of innovation adoption is a vast majority of people don’t want the latest and greatest…of anything. The mainstream population primarily wants low risk, evolutionary progress and familiarity.

Here are five examples of innovations that have been adopted by the mainstream population because of they have a common set of risk-lowering attributes that allow people to feel safe:

  • The electric lightbulb
  • Vermont’s COVID vaccination program
  • Digital photography
  • Regional solar power
  • The personal computer

The Electric Lightbulb

Thomas Edison’s strategy of adapting his invention to systems people were familiar with, and minimizing disruption to people’s lives, led to accelerated acceptance and adoption of the electric lightbulb.

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.

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 also understood that the light bulb was merely a discrete device. And a system of electric power generation and transmission would be required to make it truly useful. Edison’s Pearl Street Station provided a complete electric lighting, generation and distribution system that ensured the safe, reliable delivery of electricity at competitive prices.

In order to ensure Safety in Numbers, Edison selected financial institutions in lower Manhattan to demonstrate electric lighting technology to the metro population living across the Hudson River in New Jersey. Because financial organizations were seen as a credible source of innovative new products, these “visual references” acted as an endorsement of electric power and light.

Edison's Low Risk Recipe

Edison innovation adoption

1. End User Harmony
  • Ubiquitous appearance and operation
  • Use of existing infrastructure for wiring
  • Familiar form factor yet more pleasant
2. Category Cooperation
  • Centralized electricity generation
  • Interconnected transmission grid
  • Underground conduit for safety
3. Safety in Numbers
  • Much safer and more reliable than gas
  • Visible references
  • Credible endorsements

Vermont's COVID Vaccination Program

The adoption of a healthcare innovation — such as a vaccine to prevent the spread of COVID — requires people to make medical decisions based on individual risk-benefit analysis. In this example of successful innovation adoption, you can see that the state of Vermont took specific steps to address the perceived risks associated with vaccine adoption through the creation of a program called “Keeping You Safe.”

Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine was quoted by the Associated Press as saying “the nation has witnessed what is probably the most successful population-wide mass vaccination campaign in the nation’s history.” And Vermont’s historic success is the result of designing a vaccination program that lowered the perception of risk for all residents.

Vermont’s vaccine program incorporated many of the risk-reduction methods that are important to a mainstream population: it was sponsored by an unbiased organization that is dedicated to clear communication (NPR), all vaccines were administered in familiar locations and settings, the alternative vaccines that were offered have the same underlying biological structure, and the use of town hall meetings and community-centered gatherings allowed citizens to discuss their concerns with people they relate to and trust.

Vermont's Low Risk Recipe

low risk innovation

1. End User Harmony
  • Familiar healthcare-focused locations
  • An emphasis on keeping people safe
2. Category Cooperation
  • More than one choice
  • Uniform vaccine “biology” (RNA)
  • NPR Sponsorship
3. Safety in Numbers
  • Town hall meetings
  • Community agenda only
  • Focus on the individual
  • Concerns and experience discussed

Digital Photography

Sony applied the Low Risk Recipe and took advantage of digital photography’s lack of standards.

Despite being more expensive, clunkier, and less capable (it didn’t produce the sharpest pictures) the Sony Mavica was the top-selling digital camera in the U.S. While competitors like Casio were all concentrating on picture resolution, Sony focused on avoiding features that force a customer to change and maintaining familiarity, allowing mainstream buyers to feel safe.

Manufacturers of digital cameras like Cannon, Fuji and Casio thought buyers would want advanced features like better resolution and more storage. But Sony took advantage of the industry’s lack of standards (which are a proven way to lower the perception of risk) and designed the Mavica to work with a standard storage device, the floppy disk. They also made the Mavica extremely easy to use. The result? Despite higher price and less functionality, the Sony Mavica was the market leader in its category with 41% market share.

Standards are more important than features

Sony's Low Risk Recipe

Sony innovation adoption

1. End User Harmony
  • Similar appearance and operation
  • Use of known storage standard
2. Category Cooperation
  • History as high-quality supplier
  • Large selection of floppy disks
  • Compatible with industry standard
3. Safety in Numbers
  • Use of proven, familiar technology
  • Recognized market leader

Regional Solar Power

The challenge with clean-energy market transformation is getting people who are primarily risk averse to adopt a new innovation. The mainstream population believes that most new technologies are unproven and risky. However in this example, a properly designed risk-reduction strategy overcame adopter hesitancy and accelerated the acceptance of solar power in Sacramento County, California.

Sacramento residents signed up in droves for the privilege of putting 4 kW grid-connected solar panels on their roofs, despite the cost of well over $10 per watt. (today the cost is about $2 per watt) The program, sponsored and administered by the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD), was sold out from the very beginning due to the perception of low risk, which attracted both early- and late-majority members of the mainstream.

SMUD’s PV Pioneer Program offered a complete solar solution, that was sold and installed by trusted suppliers, which made the buying experience familiar and low risk.

To accelerate mainstream market acceptance, the utility: standardized the system, subsidized local manufacturing of solar panels to ensure high quality, invested heavily in community outreach and education, integrated the rooftop solar systems with the existing electrical grid, and trained and certified local solar companies.

The impact of a utility or familiar vendor offering a low-risk product makes all the difference.  All of the requirements of a risk-averse, mainstream buyer were satisfied.

SMUD's Low Risk Recipe

SMUD innovation adoption

1. End User Harmony
  • One “standardized” configuration
  • Utility ownership available
  • Purchase through a familiar supplier
2. Category Cooperation
  • One size only (no technology orphans)
  • Energy efficiency audits
  • Utility sponsorship
  • Local manufacturing of solar panels
3. Safety in Numbers
  • Neighborhood programs
  • Community meetings
  • Roof inspections and safety audits
  • Utility and vendor support

Download the Low Risk Recipe White Paper

The Personal Computer

The IBM compatible PC along with its “clone” architecture launched a massive transformation, and the personal computer became a mainstream appliance. The availability of a standardized product along with the sponsorship of the most dominant name in computing allowed innovation adoption to soar.

There were dozens of PC manufacturers in the early 1980s (Tandy/Radio Shack, Sinclair, Osborne, Commodore, Altair, Exidy, NorthStar, Heathkit, Atari, Texas Insturments, BBC Micro, NEC, Sharp, and IBM). Several vendors decided to copy IBM’s PC design and the industry accidentally organized itself around the IBM-compatible standard. The companies that made and sold IBM clones were an overnight success.

The IBM-compatible PC included the form factor (ATX, AT), the basic input-output system (BIOS) and an ISA/EISA bus standard. When PC manufacturers adopted this standardized configuration and eliminated the risk of “vendor lock-in,” mainstream acceptance soared.

One of the risk-lowering mechanisms included the PC clone standard was implied compatibility with the world of computing, which was made possible by IBM’s participation and sponsorship.

IBM's Low Risk Recipe

SMUD innovation adoption

1. End User Harmony
  • Implied compatibility with IBM
  • Peripherals and software available
  • Retail computer stores allowed exploration
  • Familiar retail channels for consumers
2. Category Cooperation
  • Intel-Microsoft-EISA standards
  • Plethora of how-to books and manuals
  • IBM sponsorship
  • Clone architecture
3. Safety in Numbers
  • Unlimited user groups
  • Anti-virus software
  • Independent service providers
  • Peer-to-peer interaction