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Big Ideas

The 5 Common Characteristics of Ideas That Spread

From "Iron Man" to "Citizen Kane" great creatives understand that relative advantage, compatibility, complexity, trialability, and observability are what get work noticed.

Your success as a creative depends not only on coming up with great ideas and making them happen, but also with getting those ideas adopted by your target audience. Whether it’s the buying public, an art dealer, or just your direct supervisor, getting your work off of your hard drive and into the world is perhaps the most important (and scariest) part of creative work.

So how can you improve the chances of getting your great idea adopted? Ask Everett Rodgers. In 1962, he published Diffusion of Innovation (where he coined the term “early adopter”) the end result of a large-scale research project on why innovations spread. Rogers, then a sociology professor at Ohio State University, gathered the results of over 500 hundred studies on why innovative ideas are adopted among people and organizations. The result was a set of five factors identified as essential influencers in our decision to adopt or reject new ideas: relative advantage, compatibility, complexity, trialability, and observability.

1. Relative Advantage is the degree to which an idea or product is perceived as better than the existing standard. Just how much of an improvement is it over the previous generation? The higher the Relative Advantage, the greater the chance of adoption. Many of the most renowned works of art are heralded for the way in which they dramatically moved their genre forward. Think of how Citizen Kane was able to push the boundaries of the screenplay and camera angles compared to the films of its time. Relative Advantage is what most people think of when they visualize something being “innovative.”

2. Compatibility. How easily can I use my past experience to understand how this new product functions or what this new work means? The higher the similarity with existing norms, the better the chances of adoption. Ideas and people that miss the Compatibility factor are often described as “ahead of their time.” For example, for all of their ground-breaking special effects, many blockbusters films from Star Wars to Iron Man 3 borrow plot elements from Joseph Campbell’s monomyth to make them compatible with the stories we already like. 

The higher the similarity with existing norms, the better the chances of adoption.

3. Complexity (or simplicity) is how easy it is for people to understand the new idea or use the new product. Is this idea a simple extension of logic? Is it an easy-to-use product? If the work or product is seen as highly complex or difficult to grasp, people will shy away from engaging with the product or adopting the idea. Artist Hugh MacCleod reduced the complexity of his work to drawings on business card sized canvas’ and saw his work spread even more rapidly. Or consider the case of Instagram, the app actually started as an unpopular Yelp-like service called Burbn with the photos as an added bonus. It was only after the complexity was reduced to a single-purpose that its popularity took off. 

4. Trialability. How effortless it is for the target audience to interact with the new concepts or experiment with the product? How easily can they try it out? The more potential users or patrons can test the product or view the work, the more likely individuals will adopt it. In the past decade or so, many recording artists and groups like Jonathan Coulton have taken trialability to new levels, giving their music away for free and adjusting their business model to leverage live concert tickets, giving artists like Coulton the ability to make a full-time living from music. Listeners try for free and demonstrate their support afterward. The more they can try it, the less uncertainty there is around committing to it.

5. Observability is the noticeable results of trying or consuming the idea. When new products are highly visible, it drives more people to share it and increases the likelihood of mass adoption. One of the reasons for Banksy’s success is the observability of his work. Many artists challenge social conventions in unique, seemingly playful ways, but Banksy’s work is highly public and easily shareable. It isn’t just stuck behind the glass in a single gallery or museum.

More Posts by David Burkus

Comments (30)
  • Judy Caroll

    Insightful, It is very heart warming that all of your hardship in building creative work is payed off. I guess this is worth to know by other marketers.

  • Ken Gardner

    Great article David. #4 Trialability really stood out to me. Nowadays people learn by experimenting. Knowing that should directly influence design.

  • sethgodin

    Not buying this list, David. I think you’ve listed the attributes of a well-designed product, of a service that might be liked or adored by its users. But for an idea to spread, the key thing, by far, is that talking about the idea will increase the social standing (in some way) of the person talking about it. A well-designed might product MIGHT fit that bill, but there are plenty of those that don’t spread. On the other hand, “What does the fox say?” meets only one of these criteria…

    • James Griggs

      @seth – So you would throw out the whole list or are you saying the list should add #6: Talk About It?

    • davidburkus

      Seth, I understand your point and Rogers’ research was focused on technological products, but I think these elements can generalize out a bit further. I think we can look at these 5 characteristics as attributes that mark an idea (or product, or service) worth talking about. It’s possible that sharing an idea devoid of these characteristics would help increase the social standing of the person who shares, but wouldn’t the presence of these characteristics inside the idea (or product, or service) better that person’s chances? Perhaps these five ideas are necessary but not sufficient; but certainly not unnecessary.

      • jamie billingham

        Roger’s included “ideas” as innovations in his work and wrote about it throughout his book. Many of the research examples he used were about the adoption of innovative ideas in the area of health. The idea that water could be unsafe and then the practice of boiling water before drinking it are both an innovative idea and practice. The idea that sex could be unsafe and the practice safe sex are innovative ideas still today, in many parts of the world. Adoption of those ideas and resultant healthier practices worked only when the criteria outlined in your post were met.

        Apple used this list of criteria when they launched the iPhone. It was a genuine innovation – was it a phone or a pocket sized computer, my gawd, it didn’t even have buttons! – There was a huge relative advantage. Apple especially rocked the complexity/simplicity criteria. They met the observability criteria by having well known people talk about it.

        Observability, and to an extent trialability doesn’t have to be first hand (although trialability in product in more about ability to return for refund or try before you buy). We humans have these things called mirror neurons that allow us to experience what other are doing and describing “as if” we were doing it ourselves.

        Anyway, great post and short primer on the adoption of innovation. Roger’s book and Moore’s Crossing the Chasm (expands on Roger’s work and is more appropriate for truly disruptive innovations) should be required reading for designers of all kinds.

  • JustAComment

    This is about creating mass appeal for an initial idea. You can take your art, shun commercialism and never grow, or you can adopt some of these strategies in an effort to become successful. Either way, open your mind, isn’t that what creative thinking is about? This kind of thinking is hilarious to me.

  • amazed

    So much BS in one single post.
    So many flawed assumptions and failed examples.
    I can’t believe Behance is promoting this.

    • Goon Diapers

      What in particular do you find to be BS? Not being combative—just curious.

    • Sasha

      Please elaborate! 🙂 Let’s open up the debate!

  • mike rana

    I think Coercion is another technique, the example is changing the shaver blades by the manufacturers every year, or having different configurations for electricity or communication system connectors in different countries and then coming out with Universal adapters …

    where should the consumers go ?

  • Daniel Thomssin

    bonjour ‘je trouve le sujet intéressent il y a une vingtaine d’années un et mes professeur a école de philomathique de bordeaux dons mes cours en publicité et peintre en lettre. se refaire au même idée .pour moi le plus important ces idées le départ et sa continuité qui mène au partage de nouvelles idées.
    Je vous souhaite une bonne journée a tous.


  • Simon Metzner

    Sounds a bit like what Dieter Rams stated in the 70ies as the “ten commandments of ‘good design’ “. The interesting Point: he did these statements to seperate ‘good design’ from the mass compatible (perhaps as an excuse of beeing not masscompatible at this time )

  • J.D. Meier

    I think #4. Triability is key.

    I actually think of it as “friction-free adoption.” To put it another way, friction is a top adoption killer.

    In today’s world of limited attentions spans and hyper-competition, it has to be “love at first try.”

    It’s table stakes, and yet I’m still amazed by how many things are hard to get started or hard to try out, or worse, hard to even figure out.

  • Joel Harding

    Is it just me, or do the first two points seem completely contradictory? Citizen Kane was a success because it was different than the established norms, Iron Man 3 because it was the same?

    Maybe the problem lies in trying to cite examples from the art and entertainment industry. They seem ill suited to this criteria.

    • Ásmány Zoltán

      Yes it is just you. Its not about only this, or only that. Also it’s not about being exactly the same.. It’s being something new, and innovative, but also leaving points to the audience where they can use their already existing knowledge of the familiar and relate to it.
      It’s like giving medicine to the dog: you put it in food coating in order to make it easier to the dog to swallow it.

      • davidburkus

        Joel and Asmany, thanks for the comments. My thoughts are in line with Asmany’s. Yes, great innovations and creative works deviate from norms…but they can’t deviate too much or else they aren’t easily adopted. I don’t think this 5 characteristics should be looked as a means to judge the worth of an idea or creative work, just it’s potential to spread.

    • Justin Harvey

      And besides, wasn’t Citizen Kane a flop when it was first released?

  • Jake Parent

    I’m a little more prone to use Chip & Dan Heath’s framework from “Made to Stick.” They say that in order for an idea to be sticky it has to be simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional, and/or a story.

  • 123db

    I like the article and it is mostly correct.
    Where I see a problem with the article is that most products fail, so to claim that just ticking 5 boxes would ensure success is far too simplistic.

    However, we all know that the whole point of this article is for eyeballs, and not to educate. On that basis, I have given the article too much attention already! 😉

  • Anwell Steve

    I simply love the line, “The higher the similarity with existing norms, the better the chances of adoption.” Well, in my own understanding, if you have the same interests, the more possibility that you will get to each other closely. Awesome post!

  • SmithBillSmith

    I have always said that Adoption = Immediate Reward / Behavioral Change.

  • Chris B

    The link to Hugh MacCleod points to instead of

    • Sean Blanda

      Fixed! Good catch.

  • William Yates

    One thing I’d add to this list is social capital. Does the idea improve the social capital of an individual? For instance, does sharing the idea make the individual appear more interesting? If an idea or product improves an individual’s social capital, it is more likely to be shared. I learned about the idea of social capital from Jonah Berger’s book, ‘Contagious’, a summary of which can be found here, for those interested in learning more about the characteristics of virality.

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