Early Adopter Syndrome: The Psychology of your First Users

It’s hard to get those coveted early adopters, those first few die-hard users, those trail-blazing paying customers. But perhaps that’s because we’ve been targeting them incorrectly all along. Perhaps we need to take a deeper look into what makes an ‘early adopter’ tick. What makes them different from everyone else?

A while back, I held a pre-launch sale for my SaaS tool, Kobra.io. I got over 100 people to pre-order lifetime memberships. I decided that I would send them a simple survey to not only help me determine the future of Kobra; but also ask them why in the hell they paid $19 for a product that wasn’t released yet. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in my products; but I can’t see the reason for anyone else’s faith before building an established relationship of rapport.

“Hey, you haven’t even seen the new version of my tool yet, but throw me $19 for a lifetime membership.”

My goal was to get a grand total of $400 in 3 weeks, which is about 20 people. I was not expecting over 100 people to order.

Apparently these people think a little bit differently than the average user, or at least I couldn’t predict their overwhelming support with the psychological or logical part of my brain.

“I’ve barely used this guy’s product before, but let me give him $19 for something I haven’t seen yet.”*

So who are these 100 people? What is the ‘syndrome’ that ails them into thinking differently to the rest of the population?

I want to focus on just one of the three questions that I sent the buyers:

What prompted you to pre-order? I want to know what was going through your mind when you hit that “Buy” button. Be honest!

I received 41 responses to this question at the time of writing, so I have the input from around 40% of the people that bought. I was definitely taken aback by the responses. I guess that’s the beauty of psychology.

Here are the kinds of things I expected to hear in response to this question:

“I have a team of five people, so the Pro feature of having more than two people in video chat is something that my team needs.”

“I work for a private company, so I need the Pro feature for private URLs for security reasons.”

“I used the old version of Kobra, and getting a Lifetime membership seems great.”

People buy “Pro” memberships because they want “Pro” features, right? That seemed like a pretty self-explanatory thing to me. I thought people who had already tried the older version might be more likely to pay for the new version.

Here’s the kicker:

Not a Single Person Mentioned pro Features, and Not a Single Person Mentioned That They Were Already a User

Literally no one mentioned that they bought a Pro membership because they wanted the Pro features. When I pay for a product, it’s almost always because I need something that is only offered in paid memberships. For instance, I just bought MailChimp because I went over their free email subscriber limit of 2000. I just bought SurveyMonkey because I had some surveys that went over the allowed number of free questions.

Surprising to me, these people bought for completely different reasons, and I think they truly do have a different sense of value than the rest of us.

They have Early Adopter Syndrome.

I’m not saying that they have a disease or a psychological illness, but there is certainly something else going on here, and I felt like it needed a label.

If anything, labeling this as a syndrome will actually help you to remember that early adopters and ‘normal users’ value different things next time you are trying to get traction for your product.

The First Step to Getting Early Adopters Is Admitting That They Think Differently

So what is it that makes early adopters so different? I think being an early adopter is actually a certain kind of characteristic of a person*. It is something about them that makes them tick just a little bit differently than the rest of us.

While I can’t tell you why certain people are like this and others aren’t, what I can tell you is the actual characteristics that make up an early adopter, as well as how you can expect them to act, and what you can expect them to want.

Early Adopters Care More about Supporting than Paid Features

Like I said earlier, not a single person mentioned the Pro features that came with the Lifetime membership. That isn’t to say they don’t care about pro features, just that they aren’t the priority for the early adopter market.

One could argue that you aren’t going to get many supporters if your paid membership benefit reads: “There aren’t any actual benefits, you’ll just be supporting us! That’s cool, right?” Psychologically, that is going to lessen the amount of early adopters you get merely because they may not feel like they are getting anything real in return.

I believe that this holds true for accepting donations as well. You’ll be able to get more people to donate if you offer them something in return. It could be an actual feature, or maybe they get a special badge next to their name, like on Reddit.

So, instead of caring about the actual pro features that they will receive, early adopters care more about supporting your project. Perhaps this is because they too ‘used to be a little fish’ and want to see projects succeed, or perhaps it is because they are genuinely nice people.

I found that there are two different kinds of early adopters, differentiated by what they are actually supporting:

1. Some Early Adopters want to support the product

These early adopters like the idea of your product, and would like to make sure that its development is continued. They see a future for your product, and want to ensure that you keep working on it.

They care more about your commitment to the product and its future than their need for the paid features it currently provides. Take a step back and consider this for a minute — do you use a free service every day that you couldn’t see yourself living without? How would you feel if that service disappeared all of a sudden? You probably wouldn’t be too happy, but given that predicament, there are going to be two different kinds of reactions.

There are going to be the ones that react by figuring out how they can save the product, perhaps by donating or offering to continue to develop it for you. Alternatively, there will be those that simply move on, indifferently.

The difference between a ‘normal’ person and an early adopter is that they think about this problem before it actually arises. Instead of waiting for the life or death point, they’d like to show their support as early as possible so that a better product is built and its chance of longevity is improved.

The most important take-away from this is that you need to have the ability to allow someone to support you. If you don’t have a donate button, or Pro memberships, from the get-go, you may be leaving money on the table and putting yourself into a situation that you don’t have to be in. Early adopters understand that product developers need to stay afloat just long enough to reach land.

Here are a few quotes from my survey results, just so you can hear it straight from them (emphasis mine):

To support startup projects. I would spend cash on random stuff all the time so why not support a good project.

I wanted to support what looked like a great tool!

The idea that it combines a code interface, video and chat in one saves me from having to use multiple tools. I want to see it survive so I did what I can.

2. Some Early Adopters want to support you

So, we already know that many early adopters just want to see the tool succeed, but what I thought was extremely interesting is that many people that ordered did so because they wanted to support me.

This just goes to show you that developing out in the open and talking about your successes and failures is definitely beneficial to the launch of your product. People will become more attached, and feel like they are an actual influencer (which they are).

The most important thing I think you should take away from this kind of early adopter is that you should not hide behind your startup’s name. At this point in the game, you don’t want to appear like a big, already perfect team. Instead, highlight the fact that you are a team of 1, 2, or 3 and be open about it!

The personal way you handle your blogging or customer support is important to many people. In fact, even if you are open that you are a small team or working by yourself, the fact that you took the time to answer their question or honestly tell them why progress has been delayed makes a difference to them.

“Hey, the founder of X actually emailed me back!”

Some appreciate other people, not products or projects. Sure, you might really appreciate that toilet paper exists, but really what you appreciate is the guy that invented toilet paper. Here are some excerpts from the survey (again, the emphasis is mine):

I thought that little adventures become big opportunities. I like the way you work for the community and I thought “Hey! It is a good way to correspond Matt!”

You’re a cool dude, whatever you make is worth supporting.

I want to support you and your efforts. I saw your blog, your big exciting startup launch and your bitter disappointment at preview. There’s still some potential and I think you might have something, but need more of a chance.

I really don’t have a use for the product at the moment but Matt’s never-say-die attitude was worth throwing a few dollars toward his project.

I like the change of focus to being just an editor rather than a full ide. Collaborative editing of code is exactly what I want, I don’t need all the other stuff. And I liked the story you told in your blog posts so I decided to back it.

Early Adopters Are Gamblers Betting on Your Idea

Another interesting characteristic of early adopters that I discovered is that they are gamblers. I don’t mean that they are willing to pull a slot machine and lose 99% of the time, but they are willing to take a chance on your product if they like the idea.

A lottery ticket can cost $1, but you’ve got the chance to win millions. When I offered a Lifetime membership to Kobra, I said that it was worth $38, but I was offering it for $19. I personally thought this was a rather high number to ask people to spend when they hadn’t tried the product yet, but it turned out quite different.

Instead of turning people away, it seemed to have brought out the gambler in them. There also seemed to be two different types of gamblers.

There are those that wanted to gamble on the product, “$19, one time, for a lifetime membership? Seems like a cool product, I’ll take my chances and buy.” Maybe the product won’t be good, maybe I won’t like it, but for $19 I’ll take that chance. You can’t win if you don’t play. And $19 is pocket change for a chance at “winning” a lifetime membership of a successful product.

The other kind seemed to be gambling with their usage instead of the actual product. They didn’t think that they would use the product frequently, maybe once a week, but for $19 they were willing to put money down just in case.

The best take away from this is that if you are looking to get early adopters, offer them a deal or a sale price. Seeing a deal will trigger that buy impulse, that gambler’s habit. You can even take a look at this in the real world. How many times have you bought a product merely because it was on sale for a good price, and you thought that maybe you’d get at least some use out of it?

I’ve done that plenty of times. Here’s the one thing you have to remember: don’t make buying your product a gamble. These people have bet on your idea, but you have to make sure that you come through for them; make sure that you continue to make your product better by researching what your target market wants.

Here’s some more feedback from my survey:

“I’ve tried a few other solutions, and I’m willing to risk 20$ on Kobra – this is a major issue for me and I’d gladly give to a Kickstarter if they wanted.

“Actually I was not sure if I should buy it because my usage would be really low. I like supporting things I like and a lifetime at 50% never gonna be granted again so why not buy it and use whatever I want to.

“It is worth 19 bucks to see if it will be useful. At the worst I spent 19 bucks helping someone have faith in their product. At the best i save a bunch of money not paying monthly/yearly and I use it everyday.

“$19 for life? Even if I end up not using it, the price is worth the risk.

Early Adopters Want to Help Validate Your Idea

Another strange thing that I noticed was that since I’ve begun developing in public, a rather large amount of people have either commented or emailed me with ideas for my product.

More than a few times, someone would purchase a lifetime membership, and then email me one of their ideas. Now, at first this seemed strange to me. Someone was spending money and then giving me free advice? I don’t get it.

Then I realized something; these people are monetarily invested in the product, and they want to help it succeed. They want to help turn it into something that they need even more. In essence, they want to help validate your idea.

In fact, some of the ideas that people sent me were actually pretty awesome! They were things that I hadn’t thought of before, or simpler ways to bring back features that were in the old Kobra, easier ways to do X, better screenshots to put on my landing page, etc. I even had some people email me just to personally ask me how they could help, some even listed their skills.

It is a well known fact that people associate worth with monetary amounts. People tend to buy more expensive things, because they appear to have more value.

A story I once heard comes to mind about a woman who ran a jewelry shop. She had a large amount of jade that was priced right around market value, and she couldn’t sell any of it. At first she had a 50% off sale, and again, no one seemed to buy the jade jewelry. Then she had a rather clever employee working one morning, who saw the 50% sale and actually DOUBLED the price of the jewelry instead of halving it. All of the Jade sold that day.

Now, I’m not saying that you should double the cost of your product, but what I do want you to take away is that people feel more attached and are more likely to help if they have bought your product and are indeed an early adopter. They’ll help you by giving you new ideas, and they’ll be sure to tell their friends that they had a hand in making what it is today.

The biggest takeaway is that you should ask your early adopters for advice. Even if you don’t like many of their ideas, keep listening, I guarantee that you’ll get at least one great idea. On top of that, they will feel even more attached to your product because they’ve helped form it.

The reason this entire post exists is because I sent out a survey to my 100 buyers and over 40 of them responded with feedback, and plenty more of them emailed me back with ideas. People want their voices to be heard, especially early adopters.

Early Adopters Want to Help Spread the Word

If you’ve read the book Contagious by Jonah Berger, you know that one of the things that makes something go viral is the concept of “Social Currency.” And boy do early adopters love Social Currency. They thrive on it.

Social Currency is based on the fact that we all want to talk to people, and we all want to talk about interesting things that boost other peoples opinions of us. Since early adopters really want to support things at the ground level instead of “after they become popular” this makes them especially good at spreading the word.

During my pre-launch, I had several people that would tell me that they told their friends about it, or that they tweeted out the link, and sure enough a few minutes later I’d get another sale from their friend. Since they want your tool to succeed, or they want to support you, they are more likely to go out and spread the word about it for you.

A “normal” person may only bring up products that they use when asked, while an early adopter will tell people about products when they think that the other person will find value in it. According to Berger’s theory of “Social Currency,” if the other individual likes your product, not only will they possibly become a loyal user or an early adopter, but that individual will think higher of the original early adopter that told them about your product.

If that individual tells the early adopter, “Hey, I just checked out X product and you were right, it is really cool!” Then the early adopter might even be more likely to continue to spread the word as now there has been positive feedback.

Some people even specifically mentioned in the survey that they had been referred by other people that had bought or heard of the product (remember…the product still hasn’t even been officially launched yet, the people referring are true early adopters):

“Low price and recommendation from a friend.

My wife, also a remote worker, told me about it and I thought it would make collaborating with my teammates easier. And I like to save money, so a one time purchase was fantastic.”

How to Target Early Adopters

Since early adopters think differently to the rest of us, what are some things that you can do to specifically target them when developing your app?

Build In Public

This accomplishes two things. First, it allows people to form a stronger bond with your product as well as you personally. This will make them more likely to support you along your journey. Remember, you’re not on this journey alone, you are on this journey WITH your early adopters.

The second thing it accomplishes is the ability for early adopters to easily provide you with their thoughts, feelings and advice. If you’re building in a closed black box, that next feature might actually be the incorrect one to build. By talking about your next moves, you can validate them as you go by utilizing the feedback impulse in your early adopters.

Build an MVP, Not a “Finished” Product

Early Adopters want to build WITH you. They want to experience the development of a product and help it grow into something that they want.

If you focus on building a “finished” product first instead of testing your idea, you will lose out on all of the valuable insight you can gain from the actual Early Adopters that are utilizing your product. You want to build something that is actually used, right? Guarantee that people will use your product by building a Minimum Viable Product first so you can iterate through the ideas that your early adopters will help you validate.

Without early adopters and an MVP, you are going to be unsuccessful at testing your product hypothesis, plain and simple. If you build a full product, even small pivots or features that your early adopters want will be difficult to implement.

Do yourself a favor and build the smallest possible thing you can test, then focus on getting early adopters to take a look and tell you their thoughts.

Reward Your Early Adopters

I’ve already mentioned that sales are a good way to help reward your early adopters, and even validate your idea. However, there is an important thing that I wanted to mention.

You have to give your biggest rewards to your early adopters.

Offer your best possible deal to pre-orders or your first users, and then don’t offer a deal better than that in the future. The last thing you want to do is break the trust your early adopters. If they buy a week before launch for $19, don’t offer a sale the week of launch for $5. This will make them feel like they got punished for being an early adopter.

Give them trinkets too. It could be as simple as an “early adopter” badge or icon next to their name. They want people to know that they were helping build the product from the get go, and you have to treat them like that. Your early adopters are basically unpaid co-founders, treat them like it.

Ask for their Advice

Early adopters have opinions and are more likely to talk to you about your product than casual users. If MailChimp emailed me asking me to do a Skype call with them for 30 minutes to talk about their product, I honestly probably wouldn’t do it.

If I was supporting an early-stage SaaS app and they asked me, I most likely would because I hold a stake in their success. Use this to your advantage.

Your early adopters are worth their weight in gold. They are going to be the people spreading the word, helping affirm that your idea is a good one, even one worth paying for.

As you already know, I tend to use SurveyMonkey to send out my questions, but sending the occasional email asking people for their opinions on new features, or seeing if they’d like to talk for a few minutes is also a great idea.

Make It Easy to Share

Since early adopters want to help get the word out about your product, you should make sure that it is actually easy to share your product.

Online, there are several ways that you can make your product easier to share. It can be as simple as putting “Share” “Tweet” or “Like” buttons on your site, or as complicated as running a social sharing contest.

You can also use the concept of referrals to your advantage. Give each person a unique referral link that they can share with their friends, and possibly reward them for each person that signs up using their link.

You can also make it easy to spread the word offline as well. Many companies send out t-shirts or stickers to early adopters, which allows the topic to come up in person more frequently. I just put in an order for Kobra stickers that have our crazy fierce looking Kobra icon on them, I guarantee you that some people are going to see that sticker on the back of someones laptop and say, “Hey, what’s that for?”

There are several several tactics that you can use to make it easier to share your product, and I go over 8 different tips across 3 different strategies in my blog post 3 Launch Strategies to Double Your Pre-Signups. If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend that you check it out.

Wrapping It Up

Next time you’re thinking about releasing that ‘big perfect product,’ you’re about to add another feature, or you’re unsure of how to price your product, I want you to step back and think about ‘Early Adopter Syndrome.’

That perfect customer that you have in your head won’t actually exist until further down the line. Right now, in the beginning, you have to focus on getting those first few early adopters using your product. You have to interact with them, learn from them, and cater to the way they think.

Let me know if you found any other methods for getting early adopters on board. Or if you’re an early adopter yourself, what is it that makes you hit that “buy” button?

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  • alezozov

    I am your early adopter)) will share. Nice writing in psychological manner. Thanks for your blog.