Finding and Engaging Early Adopters


“Early adopters” are the crème de la crème of customers, the
“know-no-fears” types, as we call them here at StartupNation. These
people crave goods and services that push the envelope, whether it’s
some new tech device, the latest shoe style or a trip to a vacation
destination that’s still unknown to the outside world at large. And
they want to be the first to get them.

If you manage to
land these influential customers and please them, you can kick your
startup’s marketing and sales efforts into overdrive. That’s because
early adopters tend to be very opinionated and outspoken, willing to
spread positive word-of-mouth far and wide if they’re pleased and
impressed – or, just as easily, to damn what they don’t like to anyone
who will listen.

Here are some ways to engage and enthrall early adopters.

Go after the right kind of early adopters

early adopters come in grades, at least as far as your business is
concerned. You don’t just want people who eagerly glom on to the latest
fashion statement or cell-phone feature – you’re after customers who
seek out innovation and then effectively influence other people to want
the same things they do.

Linkedin, for example, is a
networking website for professionals and creative people that’s fueled
by the interest and attention of early adopters – but not just any
early adopters. The Palo Alto, Calif., company tries to be sure it
entices particular kinds of know-no-fear customers whose presence will
attract others, including venture capitalists, purchasing managers, and
executive and managerial recruiters.

“We have made the
site ‘introduction-only’ access to venture capitalists – they pick
their own gatekeepers,” says Konstantin Guericke, co-founder of
Linkedin. “People can find you by using our network, but they only get
access to you through the same screening processes that venture
capitalists use in ‘real’ life.”

Latch onto customers who accept a free trial

definitely want experimentally minded customers to give your product or
service a try. So create easy ways for them to do it – then quickly
home in on those who take you up on it.

“It’s a good
indicator of a future good customer,” says Bob Compton, founder and CEO
of, a Memphis-based startup that provides a
“permission-based” voice-mail messaging system, mainly to business
customers. “It’s a telltale sign that they’re interested in and willing
to take action immediately – they don’t have to study the proposition
much before they adopt it.”

Land organizations that have an early-adopter mentality

the business-to-business arena, you may be frustrated by identifying
early adopters within companies who enthusiastically embrace your
products and services, only to see them engulfed by a corporate
bureaucracy that doesn’t see things their way.

some entrepreneurs suggest, focus on companies that have integrated an
early-adopter mentality across the board. Michael Aiken, for one,
decided that meant targeting BMW – rather than, say GM – as a sponsor
for an innovative live tour of pop and jazz musicians he was putting
together in mid-2006. BMW already had proven itself as a marketing
innovator with its online short films, while GM’s marketing was
struggling across the board.

“BMW is always looking for
the next great idea, whereas a company like GM is really entrenched,”
says Aiken, founder and managing director of New York City-based Spring
LLC. “You can go into a GM and there will always be a couple of people
who get it, but moving GM as an organization is impossible.”

Provide early adopters with a “backstage pass”

prospects not only are thrilled by the fact that they discover a cool
business before other people, but that their attention and opinions
about the company are highly valued. One way to create that feeling for
these customers is to make them members of some sort of insiders’ club
that tells them – and everyone else – how important they are to your

That’s what Vyatta Inc. did as
founders tried to create interest in its networking products. These
were based on an “open-source” model similar to what Linux did with
operating software, with which public users help shape the product on
an ongoing basis.

The San Mateo, Calif., company created
what it called the Vyatta Secret Society as a way for hackers, users
and developers in Silicon Valley to get together over a beer and
discuss Vyatta’s technology and its progress. Then Vyatta created a
mailing list for the Secret Society to keep it going and growing as an
interest generator for its products.

“This effectively
puts a face on the company that isn’t just a slick, polished marketing
phase and presents some vulnerability that is appealing to early
adopters,” says Dave Roberts, Vyatta’s vice president of strategy and
marketing. “When the company is later successful, they want to be able
to point back and say, ‘I knew these guys when they were just two
people in a garage.’”

Give early adopters a financial incentive

gaining the attention and loyalty of early adopters truly is important
to giving your startup some altitude, consider luring them with cold,
hard cash: It’s still the universal language and speaks to potential
customers no matter what level of sophistication and enthusiasm they

SmileBox Inc. began offering $150 a month to what
it calls “go-to moms” who are early adopters of the latest scrapbooking
products and services, and have influence on their friends and
acquaintances. These people “self-select” online and then the Redmond,
Wash., “memory-making” innovator pays them the fee in exchange for
generating a short monthly report about how they’ve spread the word
about SmileBox to other moms at school, school sports events and in the

“We went this route rather than compensate
early adopters in a multi-level marketing arrangement that would only
sound bad to their friends,” says founder and CEO Andrew Wright. “With
our approach, it’s not a huge amount of money, but it does help you
create some dedicated little evangelists out there for the brand.”

Our Bottom Line

wants know-no-fears, early adopters to champion their products and
services. If you work for their attention and loyalty, you will be

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