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Early Adopters Are Great, But They Aren't Most Customers

By Small Business Entrepreneur.com

Every technical entrepreneur is an early adopter of technology, so naturally they build things with people like themselves in mind. Unfortunately, for most solution markets, early adopters represent only 10 to 15 percent of potential customers, so it’s easy to be misled on the real requirements of mainstream customers. Psychologists call this the confirmation bias. I call it failing by early adopters.

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The good news is that early adopters are never reluctant to sign up as beta customers and will provide you early feedback on product quality. The bad news is that they are not a good test of basic usability and ease of operation, which are always a key to the much larger market of regular customers. Consider the long market-acceptance struggle of digital wallets and home automation.

Listening too much to early adopters often leads to an expensive death spiral, since these users will request more and more features, more precise control of the technology, and more interoperability, all of which increase the complexity of the product, and decrease the usability for the average customer. The result is a bigger and bigger chasm to cross to your real market.

Related: How to Attract (and Keep) Your First 100 Customers

Many in the business world have heard of the old bestseller by Geoffrey A. Moore, Crossing the Chasm, but most entrepreneurs don’t realize how much it relates to them. In fact, it’s all about understanding the differences between early adopters and mainstream customers, and managing your own marketing and development efforts to cross this deadly chasm.

Here are the critical points that you must understand for optimal product management and marketing to maximize results from early adopters, as well as maximize your opportunity from the later mainstream adopters as well:

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1. Collect feedback across the total range of customers.

Early adopters may be easy to sign up and the most vocal, but your technology-assessment panel must include customers from the early majority, late majority and even technology laggards. These last three groups usually comprise up to 85 percent of your real market.

2. Usability features are as important as function.

Features you designed for non-technical users, including wizards for setup, dashboards for overview operation and simple buttons for complex processes will get little or no feedback from early adopters. They will request and be more vocal about technically tricky and elegant features.

Related: 3 Memorable Ways to Launch a Product to Wow Customers

3. Eliminate interface complexity and clutter.

Early adopters are not intimidated by dense user interfaces, with more options to control the technology, and the flexibility to do almost anything. Regular users like to see more white space and are more impressed with the Amazon-patented one-click buy button to complete a purchase.

4. Balance your focus on engineering elegance.

Many technical entrepreneurs continue to “tune” the system, and add new parameters for users to worry about, simply because they can. At some point, this becomes compulsive engineering, and the tradeoffs in time to market, cost and user friendliness move the product out of the intended market.

5. Early adopters are cool, so you need them to kick start word of mouth.

You certainly can’t afford to ignore or antagonize early adopters. They are your early opinion leaders, so they are required to build the image that the rest will follow. The challenge is to attract them with an innovative solution built on great technology while still keeping it usable, timely and cost effective for the rest of us.

Early adopters are a critical but small market segment that must be treated with respect. They can be your best evangelists or your biggest critics at that critical point when you are crossing the chasm to the larger mainstream customer segment.

But don’t ever be become complacent due to excitement and passion from your early adopters. You still need the same reaction from other market segments, and an appropriate marketing strategy for scaling the business into other segments. Ten percent of even a large opportunity can still leave you in the valley of death, rather than the pinnacle of success.

Related: How to Get an Enormous User Base Without Spending a Dime on Marketing

This article originally appeared at Entrepreneur. Copyright 2014.