Personas of the Early Adopters: The Pebble, Swimmer, Surfer, Boater, or Fleet

This post is a focus on the very front end of the adoption curve, long before the masses come, there’s many different groups inside of the “early adopter” persona. There’s been many extensive studies on the adoption curve and the different personas that emerge, but I’m just going to share what I see, as I’m close or in the epicenter. (I’m in Silcon Valley, and many of my friends are pebbles, or the CEOs that create these products demo in our office)

I see a pattern, and have grouped them into stages and patterns. For the purpose of this observation, I see a trigger area which I’m calling the ‘epicenter’, the point of an activity. There are many epicenters, in fact one or more for every product, and multiple companies having products. Individuals can often be many of the personas for each different product.

[Within the bleeding edge are different personas of adopters who all centralize around the epicenter: The Pebble, Swimmer, Surfer, Boater, or with the Fleet]

The Five Personas of the Early Adopter

The Pebble: One away from Epicenter:
First hand demo, for many truly first adopters, they will get a first hand demo from the originators of the product. They are hunted by marketing, inventors and PR professionals to be the key infuencers that will trigger the avalanche. In Robert’s case, his video show gets him access to just about every inventor and CEO. For example, Stewart from Flickr showed the product to him before many saw it.
These are the pebbles that gets dropped in the still lake.

Swimmers: Two away from Epicenter
Many folks are two degrees away, they watch a group of influencers and once a small critical mass has started (folks from group 1), they jump on. These are the hallway demos, or informal conversations using MicroMedia.

Surfer: Three away from Epicenter
Folks in existing connected networks that wait for several people in their peer group to move first, they are waiting for group gestures. We’re now looking at new social networking tools like Facebook. The interesting feature is that we can watch adoption of tools of folks on our network without directly interacting with them. The Facebook ‘news’ page has become a gesture model. By watching this flow of adoption we can see where the masses start to adopt tools, talk about them, and integrate them into their lives.

Boater: Four away from Epicenter
These folks wait for confirmation signals from the larger bubble to trigger them, they may not have time to experiment with tools, and will look for signals from blogs or industry news. This is not mainstream sources by any means, these are posts from blogs, podcasts, or email invites from friends. For many of the early adopters the signals from this group are often useful confirmation of what’s already happened.

With the Fleet: Five or more away from Epicenter
This is outside the bleeding edge. These group of folks adopt once the mainstream press as we know it, the NYT, Business Week, or when someone at their workplace or peers convince or show them. By the time they get to the tool, a community and network has already formed by the early adopters.

Many tools are not kept
Half of the shiny tools that the “One away” adopter get dropped by the way side, why? They find something better, or when they see folks from group three or four, they now consider it ‘uncool’ and feel compelled to move on.

Usage of tools for communication
There are different tools for different needs. It’s clear to me that email is one of the slowest, blogging is becoming more sluggish as new tools and MicroMedia start to take hold. Networks among the early adopters have already formed and solidified (like Facebook’s friends, Twitter, or Pownce) and the inner circle can quickly break and share news. It’s also worth reading Jeremy’s self-analysis as an early adopter Pebble or Swimmer. Also read Forrester’s research findings on Technographics to learn how mainstream adoption can be characterized.

My adoption style
I’m a bit more conservative (within the inner bubble within the bubble) of my tool adoption, only a few tools have I adopted and not kept up, I’m carefully watching the folks in group one, and often pull the trigger as a member of group two or three. I interviewed Chris Yeh, CEO of Ustream about a completely different topic, and he showed me Ustream a few days before Web 2.0 Expo (see meme). Now, I get many emails of beta products, way more than I have time to review, so I often go down this ladder. In many ways, I was very late to blogging (Boater) but I really grabbed it and focused a lot of energy into it, this domain you’re reading is just over a year old but has moved quickly.

Ustream: Pebble
Blogging: Boater
Twitter: Swimmer
Podcasting: Surfer
Video Blogging: With the Fleet
Facebook: Boater
Pownce: Swimmer then quit
SecondLife: Boater then quit

I watch these early adopters, watch how they break tools, and then I adopt. I mainly want to understand these tools so my clients won’t have to break them, but rather use them right. This means I don’t move in as fast as others, and come in and want to use these tools right. After telling Robert this he replied that he’s moving to “get away from people like you”, in his mind, being two or three from the epicenter is a late adopter, go figure. So what’s on my radar? I’ve been asked to be in group one for several products (some I’ve tried, and some not) and am even getting emailed or asked about yesterday’s topic on a bloggers union, which I’ll be sure to be in group four or more.

What Persona are you? The Pebble, Swimmer, Surfer, Boater, or with the Fleet?

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  • Great stuff! So from your experience, who do you think PR people should be trying to talk to in the first place?

    The Pebbles sound tempting, of course, but as you say: They don’t like sticking around, they just discard most of their stuff when it stops giving them the edge over their co-Pebbles and the other folks. (Not very focused on sustainability, are they, the Pebbles?)

    So wouldn’t smart PR folks try to go for Swimmers or even Surfers directly? It’s steps 3 to 5 that are most interesting to companies if they want to do business. (Steps 1 and 2 if they want respect within the community, and valuable feedback.)

    Just wondering…?

  • Peter

    It depends on the strategy of the product. Pebbles like to cause the ripples and break news.

    But farther down the wave, those folks will more likely stick around and build community.

  • Pebbles, as early adopters, are also the group that contributes significantly to the services/apps they adopt. They give feedback, submit bug reports, ask for new features, etc. These influencers know what the needs are in the marketplace that will make the Swimmers (like me), etc. come on board. So, while they may not stick around, their contributions can shape the product for the marketplace.

  • Good point Jane, they can often be Beta testers and have a great degree of ‘ownership’ of the product.

  • Swimming as fast as I can here trying to keep the pebbles out of my trunks.

  • Oh Jim, I would be getting those Pebbles (Rubel’s, Scobles, Winer’s,) out of my pants too!

  • It depends on the specific technology, but I’m usually a boater or a surfer. With somethings, I’m a swimmer, though–Pownce, for example (although, I’m really fed up with Pownce, and don’t quite see the point of it).

  • I’d say I’m occasionally a Pebble, with the NY based tech, and the folks I know from the Bay area that send me very early invites.
    Often I’m a swimmer, invited early to test or try things out by the pebble people.

    I’m often willing to try stuff, but rarely will I spend time to adopt mission critical stuff that’s really flaky or really alpha. Not to pick on them, but, OmniFocus is too early for me to put time into, for the most part, because my tasks are my work and my income. I can’t trust that to alpha code.

  • When I adopt something I really try to spend some time with it – I’ve made my Pownce my homepage so I have to interact with it, even just to read posts (but Twitter is completely integrated into my lifeflow). @Howard – try OF, it’s the most stable Alpha I’ve ever tried and lives up to the hype. Just schedule backups.

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  • I try to operate on all five levels, depending on the particular tech, but try to be a pebble on many of the networking and security ones. The trick is not to be swept away by a tidal wave of misery when those pebbles sink to the ocean bottom.

    Great insights, J.

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  • Erin Collopy

    Loved your early adoptor metaphors in this posting. I generally fall in to the swimmer or surfer category.

    And although very early to just about every social networking site (I sometimes joke I joined mySpace so early, Tom is the only one who proceeds me in people’s “friends” lists), I lagged to jump on the Facebook bandwagon –primarily becuase I just couldn’t imagine having another social networking site to manage. I’ve played on them all: mySpace, LinkedIn, Friendster, Yelp, Yahoo360,, Twitter (just barely) and now Facebook. There are pros and cons to each one, but so far, Facebook seems to have blended the professional networking one can do on LinkedIn with an ability to still put forth some personality (like mySpace) and lots of paths to interactivity. And I’m hooked.

  • Erin

    Thanks, I’ll be coming to you for SoNet comparison analysis, you certainly know what’s happening!

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  • Great breakdown. Thing is we also need to look at crossing the chasm. Your analysis misses the point of relevance. What makes early adopters want to use a tool and what makes regular people want to check it out are very different. Most of the web 2.0 tools being released never position themselves to solve problems outside its initial niche.

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