How to Attract More Early Adopters and Jumpstart Mass-Market Adoption of Renewable Energy

One of the more troubling pieces of my research over the last 20 years is the persistent finding that early adopters of renewable energy don’t really like each other. When I interview people who have adopted solar power, they tell me (politely) they don’t “respect” other people who have also adopted solar.

The reason this concerns me is a large percentage of market-development activity in solar relies on referrals, references and testimonials. And it’s a big problem for solar companies if your referral activities are only marginally effective due to the (apparent) dislike between early adopters.

I’ve been mostly ignoring this piece of my research until recently when I discovered a research study that confirms what I have been seeing.

Andrés Duany is the founder of the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU).  In his presentation at CNU in Seattle last July, Mr. Duany describes the characteristics of early adopters of residential solar. His description of solar early adopters begins at the 49-second mark: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=upZSbksrJXE

Mr. Duany’s method of segmenting the early market for solar is different than mine. Whereas I use two adopter segments in the early market, innovators and early adopters, he uses four segments: ethical-types, business-types, cool greens, and survivalists.

Mr. Duany’s presentation at CNU25 is very informative and the most relevant fact he presents is at the four-minute mark where he concludes that early adopters of solar “don’t even like each other.”

This is an important discovery because solar is still very much in an early market, which in dominated by innovators and early adopters.

In order for renewable energy to achieve mass-market appeal, it must be refined and improved by a sequence of users, starting with innovators and early adopters. This dynamic, called Diffusion of Innovation, is critical to the success of any renewable energy product or technology. Without the adaptation and improvement that’s demanded by early users, mainstream customers (over 80% of the market) will not adopt your clean-energy solution.

The earliest adopters of renewable energy are visionaries. They understand the economic and environmental promise of solar and its potential to transform society. While they still seek a return on their investment, they are also optimists — they believe clean energy will work as expected and move us toward a more sustainable way of living. They overlook the rough edges and potential challenges of being among the first and jump into solar and renewable-energy markets early.

Later adopters, on the other hand, will demand more development, support, standards, and near perfection. Therefore, it’s important to fuel mass-market adoption by finding people who love energy independence; people who can help improve solar products and technologies over time.

When offering solar to an early market, early adopters can be your biggest supporters, friends and allies provided you remember one thing: visionaries are not looking for gradual improvement, they are looking for a fundamental breakthrough. Early adopters are people who have the insight to match a clean energy solution to a strategic opportunity, combined with the temperament to translate that insight into a high-visibility project.

This market-adoption process is typically expressed in terms of a standard bell curve, which means statistically, a random sample of any given market or population must contain: 2.5% innovators, 13.5% early adopters, 33.4% early majority, 33.4% late majority, and 16.0% laggards. And even if an industry is conservative by nature, there will always be a sequence of adoption by different types of buyers.

The adoption process continues until market penetration levels off at full market potential. The end result is a form of market transformation that leads to lasting change such that the market does not regress to lower levels of utilization at some later time. At this point in time the residential solar industry is still below 10% adoption and it will enter the mainstream when approximately 16% of all houses in a given area are solar powered. So there are still plenty of early adopters to find and sell to.

The question that must be answered based on this research is: if early adopters of renewable energy don’t like each other, how can a solar provider attract early adopters without the use of references and referrals?

The answer to this question lies in their defining characteristic mentioned before. All early adopters have the desire to find a fundamental breakthrough. Studies of the social and psychological attributes of early adopters show this is a common characteristic. So an organization that offers clean technology or renewable energy can attract early adopters by emphasizing the potential for a quantum leap in results. This means emphasizing the use of positioning messages that include references to either an order-of-magnitude improvement or increase in strategic advantage.

The best way to illustrate this concept — attracting early adopters without using referrals — is by providing an actual example. The following video describes a solar-powered, net zero building using positioning messages such as strategic advantage, visibility and leadership, all three of which are concepts that attract early adopters:

https://youtu.be/NjC7YlXf8cM

The more an organization understands the factors that motivate a customer, the easier it will be to encourage a wider audience to adopt solar power.

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Warren Schirtzinger has made the understanding of market dynamics surrounding disruptive innovations the core of his life’s work. He is widely recognized for his expertise in solar market development and CleanTech product management. Since 1991, Warren has consulted with leading organizations in the solar industry, and also in high technology.

Warren pioneered development of the Marketing Chasm framework that addresses the challenges companies face when transitioning from early adopting to mainstream customers.

Highly regarded as a dynamic public speaker, Warren is the founder and CEO of High Tech Strategies, Inc. where he serves as an advisor to solar companies, utilities and energy education organizations, and draws upon best practices derived from his extensive work.

Earlier in his career, Warren was a principal at Regis McKenna, Inc., a leading high tech marketing strategy and communications company, and for the decade prior, an engineering and marketing executive in Silicon Valley.

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Warren Schirtzinger has made the understanding of market dynamics surrounding disruptive innovations the core of his life’s work. He is widely recognized for his expertise in solar market development and CleanTech product management. Since 1991, Warren has consulted with leading organizations in the solar industry, and also in high technology. Warren pioneered development of the Marketing Chasm framework that addresses the challenges companies face when transitioning from early adopting to mainstream customers. Highly regarded as a dynamic public speaker, Warren is the founder and CEO of High Tech Strategies, Inc. where he serves as an advisor to solar companies, utilities and energy education organizations, and draws upon best practices derived from his extensive work. Earlier in his career, Warren was a principal at Regis McKenna, Inc., a leading high tech marketing strategy and communications company, and for the decade prior, an engineering and marketing executive in Silicon Valley.

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