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Scaling the adoption cliff

Adoption is much harder to achieve than it sounds and requires substantial commitment from your customer and a clear strategy from you.

Published on
October 10, 2019

What is adoption & why is it important?

As much as you think your product or service is a fantastic innovation, it only has value if people share your enthusiasm and act on it by adopting it (buying or downloading, onboarding, and importantly using). Lots of products fail to gain adoption despite all the hard work put into them, even if they are great ideas.

Adoption is much harder to achieve than it sounds and requires substantial commitment from your customer and a clear strategy from you.

Paradoxically, the more 'innovative' your offer, compared to what is currently available, the harder it can be for people to adopt, as it involves the greatest change in behaviour as most people struggle with change!

The adoption equation

The first adoption challenge is creating awareness of your product or service, and attracting interest by promising some value. Whether customers will actually adopt your offer or not is an equation.

What the variables are:


There are several types of value such as functional, emotional and social, but generally if you are solving a problem that your customer genuinely cares about, and is better than an alternate way of solving it, then you are offering some value.


In most cases, this is monetary cost of your product or service. Although, cost can also be measured in time, space or opportunity cost (having to forgo something else in order to adopt your product).


This is either the physical effort (steps to be completed) cognitive effort (making your customer think or make decisions) and the emotional effort associated with changing behaviour (adoption friction).


Whilst there can be genuine risks like data security or financial loss, customers may also perceive other kinds of risk like emotional risk (getting attached to something they may later need to give up) or social risk (the embarrassment of buying into something that is later associated with failure). Who wants to be the person who bought a Juicero?

You can see how even a free product may have limited perceived value, which is outweighed by the effort and risk of adopting it.

Critical mass and adoption cliffs

Certain business models rely on 'critical mass' at the core of their value proposition.

Marketplaces are a great example of critical mass. You need lots of items for buyers to browse and lots of buyers to encourage sellers to list their items. This can be a 'Catch 22' until your marketplace somehow gains momentum - an example of a steep adoption cliff, where there is no easy pathway from bottom to top.

A mobile game, on the other hand, can be adopted one player at a time. This model doesn't have a critical mass problem unless the game depends on interaction between random players in real time.

Social networks obviously grow utility with the size of network; however it is possible for them to grow in small cohorts who are already socially connected to each other.

On the flip side, once you achieve critical mass you will have a competitive advantage, as your new competitors will still be standing at the bottom of the cliff wondering how to get to the top.

Strategies for scaling the adoption cliff

1. Charter a helicopter

Incentivise adoption for critical customers. For example, offer free listings to sellers to get a marketplace off the ground and hope that buyers follow. Supercharge awareness with wide scale promotional campaigns - it's a numbers game. If resources permit, heavy investment in direct sales can potentially build a customer base rapidly.

2. Carve out steps

Divide the market into smaller cohorts and solve completely for each cohort before expanding to the next, for example:

  • Divide the market into segments (For example Facebook started with college students)
  • Start in a confined geographic area like a single city (Eg. Craigslist initially only serviced the San Francisco Bay Area)
  • Start with a subset of functions to fulfil a particular use case (Eg. Instagram launched with just photo uploads, comments and likes)
  • Service a niche market (Apple rebuilt the market for Macs by pitching them to creative people)

3. Choose a flatter path

Rethink your business model to allow progressive adoption. How could you design a product or service that can be adopted by one, or a few customers at a time?


Getting traction for your product or service is never going to be easy but if your adoption cliff is too steep to climb with your available resources, you are much more likely to fail.

In other words, unless you have boundless resources to build critical mass through brute force, look for ways to lower the gradient of your adoption cliff or climb it one step at a time.

Best of luck on your expedition!

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