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The Role of Early Adopters in the Diffusion of New Products: Differences between Platform and Nonplatform Innovations


  • Federico Frattini,

  • Mattia Bianchi,

  • Alfredo De Massis,

  • Uros Sikimic

Address correspondence to: Federico Frattini, Department of Management, Economics and Industrial Engineering, Politecnico di Milano, Piazza L. da Vinci 32, 20133 Milano, Italy. E-mail: Tel: +39 02 2399 2796.


This paper takes a contingency view to investigate how the role of early adopters (EAs) in the diffusion process changes between platform and nonplatform innovations, what launch decisions firms take to leverage the role of EAs, and how these decisions change between platform and nonplatform innovations. Relying on an exploratory multiple case study of eight industrial product innovations launched in Italy in the 2000s, the paper suggests that the EAs of these innovations play two distinct roles in the diffusion process. The first role, called dissemination, sees EAs triggering and bolstering the propagation of information regarding their opinion about the value for money, properties, advantages, and disadvantages of the new product after they have bought and applied it in their operations. The second role, labeled imitation, consists of EAs inadvertently communicating to later buyers the fact that they have bought the new product, which propels imitative behavior and thus subsequent adoption. A key finding of the paper, which supports a contingency view of innovation diffusion, is that the dissemination role played by EAs has an impact on the adoption of platform innovations, whereas the imitation one is the mechanism through which EAs stimulate subsequent adoption in the case of nonplatform new products. Furthermore, the paper's results point to a constructive view of the process of launching an innovation, whereby firms target at launch different segments of EAs, whose identity is shaped depending on the platform versus nonplatform nature of the innovation and thus on the role they are expected to play in the diffusion process. Concerning managerial implications, this study provides a first tentative understanding of the launch decisions that product and marketing managers may use to target the most appropriate segments of EAs, to leverage their roles and ultimately to favor diffusion. As regards platform innovations, targeting decisions should be driven by the goal to improve the chances that EAs will be willing to disseminate their experience and opinion regarding the new product. As regards instead nonplatform innovations, firms should target EAs whose specific characteristics increase the likelihood of an imitative reaction by later buyers that fear to suffer a competitive disadvantage if they do not conform to EAs' behavior.

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