Crossing The Chasm Framework: Guide to Avoid Mistakes
After speaking with several hundred business leaders, we've observed extreme variations when discussing Crossing The Chasm. This article shares the sources driving so much chasm-crossing confusion to help leaders avoid it.
Crossing The Chasm summary: why is it important for software and new technology products?
"Crossing the chasm" refers to transitioning from early adopters to the mainstream market. It is important for businesses because the chasm represents a critical barrier many innovations and new ideas fail to overcome. Successfully crossing the chasm gets innovations closer to becoming a sustainable business model.
The Marketing Chasm is a sales stagnation or adoption gap impacting discontinuous or disruptive high-tech products. It happens between one self-referencing group that likes new things - the visionary early adopters -, and another that hesitates to adopt new things - the mainstream.
This phenomenon was first observed and documented by Warren Schirtzinger, our Strategy Principal, and Lee James in 1989 as consultants at Regis McKenna. This has been verified in this article by The Diffusion Research Institute. This model inspired the name of the book Crossing The Chasm, published in 1991 by Geoffrey Moore.
"Crossing the Marketing Chasm" is crucial for products and innovations in tech because mainstream adoption ensures product growth sustainability. And when done well, even market dominance, a decisive long-term strategic advantage. Failing to Cross The Chasm can result in stagnation or even failure of the product or business. The job of business leaders to Cross The Chasm is to work on a smooth transition from an early market to the mainstream.
The key models of Crossing The Chasm framework
Actually, Crossing the Chasm framework is not one framework but a series of them that Regis McKenna's consultants used. Here's a quick summary of the key frameworks and takeaways:
The Technology Adoption Curve
The technology adoption life cycle is a model that describes the adoption and acceptance of new technologies by buyers over time. It consists of five stages or psychographic profiles that anticipate the motivations to buy of prospective customers as a market category matures:
- Innovators are the first to adopt new technology. They are fascinated by the latest technological possibilities and want to spread them and be the first to try them.
- Early Adopters, who tend to be opinion leaders in their community, want to adopt a technology or innovation to gain a competitive advantage for their businesses or stand out from other individuals or colleagues.
- Early Majority adopts the technology once it has been proven to work, has competition (the market category exists and is mainstream), and the product solves a specific problem for them.
- Late Majority are skeptical and adopt the technology only when it becomes necessary and is widespread.
- Laggards are the last group to adopt the technology. They switch when their current method of doing something is obsolete, unsupported, or breaks and can't be fixed.
Understanding where your target market segment falls within the technology adoption lifecycle curve informs what type of potential customers you can expect to sell to and guides your positioning, distribution, product, messaging, and marketing strategies to align with those psychographic profiles.
At Predictable Innovation Studio, we call it the innovation adoption curve because it is mainly used to drive market acceptance for high-tech innovations.
The whole product model
The "whole product" refers to the complete set of products and services needed to fulfill the mainstream customer's needs other than core product features. It includes not only the core product features but also intangible features, accessories, and support services that reduce the risk perception and disruption of buying and using a high-tech product.
Our team has refined the whole product model and evolved it into the Brand Differentiation Wheel™. The following screenshot summarizes the key elements that startups and business leaders in high-tech and software must pay attention to appeal to mainstream customers and reduce sales cycles by crafting a complete product:
The bowling pin strategy
Your product innovation and go-to-market resources are limited. If you spread them by targeting multiple audiences, you will run out of money or resources before you penetrate into the mainstream. Plus, a value proposition can't appeal to multiple early majority buyers, as they seek for very specific solutions to solve very specific problems.
To Cross The Chasm, an innovation must target a specific audience, or segment, and solve a specific problem. Once that niche market is conquered, it is time to jump into adjacent segments from a stronger market and financial position.
Crossing The Chasm Confusion: Why the Concept of a Gap in the Technology Adoption Lifecycle is so Widely Misunderstood
In my work with CEOs and their teams in high-tech, saas companies, I am constantly surprised by how many people misinterpret the concept of a chasm in the innovation adoption curve.
After speaking with several hundred business leaders, investors, and product/marketing professionals across multiple industries, I find extreme variations when I ask what is required to “cross the chasm.”
As a result, I became convinced that something had gone wrong. So, I decided to discover why there was so much chasm-crossing confusion.
I started by analyzing 250 of the most frequently visited websites that summarize Crossing the Chasm or talk about the chasm concept. This process allowed me to determine how accurately various writers, analysts, business experts, and thought leaders understand the concept of a gap in the technology adoption lifecycle and what causes it.
Using the tool Ubersuggest (by Neil Patel) I identified the 250 most popular websites/articles. Then, I read each one to evaluate the author's level of understanding and rate the article's accuracy.
As you will see below, the results are not good.
Sources of Mass Confusion
Before listing the six areas of greatest confusion, it is important to mention three things that have been working against the chasm concept for a long time.
Source of Confusion #1: Lack of support from Everett Rogers - father of Diffusion of Innovations
One of main reasons, I believe, the misunderstanding of Crossing The Chasm framework is so widespread is the various differences of opinion that have been expressed over the years regarding the validity of the model.
For example, Everett Rogers, the author of Diffusion of Innovations -- and the reference point for all discussions about how innovations are adopted -- clearly stated that, in his opinion, there is no chasm.
Rogers is quoted as saying "Past research shows no support for this claim of a chasm between certain adopter categories. On the contrary, innovativeness, if measured properly, is a continuous variable, and there are no sharp breaks or discontinuities between adjacent adopter categories (although there are important differences between them).”
When the original creator of the innovation-adoption curve (and the person who coined the term “early adopter”) says there is no such thing as a chasm, it creates a platform for confusion, uncertainty, doubt, and misunderstanding.
Source of Confusion #2: A picture is worth a thousand mistakes
Another source of ongoing confusion is the common use of a diagram -- initially created in 1993 and in widespread use since 2009 -- that implies early adopters are on BOTH sides of the chasm.
When it was originally defined, the chasm concept described a gap in the innovation-adoption curve that is located between early adopters and the mainstream early majority. Yet the diagram below communicates a different structure, and also inflates the size of the early majority.
A reverse image search reveals this erroneous representation of the innovation-adoption curve (with early adopters on both sides of the chasm) is found on at least 279 different websites, with initial use dating back to 1993.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, then this commonly-used diagram is causing confusion regarding the actual location of early adopters and the role that they play.
Source of Confusion #3: Let’s get disruptive
In 1997 Clayton Christensen published The Innovator's Dilemma, and the business world became obsessed with the concept of “disruption.”
Yet Christensen’s unique definition of a “disruptive innovation” created tremendous confusion…which ultimately fueled some of the misunderstandings I see when people speak about the chasm.
Christensen defined a “disruptive innovation” as a process by which a product or service takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market and then moves up the market, eventually displacing established competitors.
Christensen’s definition is in stark contrast to the definition of a “discontinuous innovation,” which is a new product, service, or platform that requires new experience, understanding and learning to be used properly and, in the process of market adoption, creates a chasm.
In the standard-definitions section of the Financial Times, it states that before Christensen’s book, discontinuous and disruptive meant exactly the same thing!!
But not anymore.
The problem with the term “disruptive innovation” is that it now has multiple meanings, and Christensen’s new definition is being applied incorrectly to this concept.
The Top Six Areas of Chasm-Related Confusion
Sadly, this research project reveals that 90% of the top-ranked, chasm-focused articles, blog posts, essays and book reviews on the Internet contain at least one of the errors or mistakes listed below. And most of these popular sites contain multiple errors.
I’ve also attempted to get everyone back to a basic level of understanding by explaining each mistake and correcting them.
1. Mischaracterizing an innovation (and assuming there's always a chasm)
Many articles incorrectly state, "every innovative product starts as a great idea that attracts innovators and early adopters." In reality, the starting point of an innovation is determined by the category of the new product, idea, method or concept.
And there is a big difference between a novel innovation (i.e. something no one has ever seen before) and a simple refinement. In fact, the majority of all new products are refinements, which implies they are already in the mainstream, and there is no chasm.
This issue was made even worse when the phrase “disruptive innovation” arrived on the scene in 1997. (see Source of Confusion #3 above).
2. Believing Crossing The Chasm framework only applies to startups
This concept offers decision-making guidelines for investors, engineers, enterprise executives, business managers and entrepreneurs throughout the high-tech community.
It isn’t just for startups. Established companies or “incumbents” can develop novel innovations too. These companies face a Chasm if their innovation or new product is discontinuous.
The question to ask is: does a new product or innovation require a new experience, new understanding or new learning to be able to be used properly? If the answer is “yes” then there is a chasm and it doesn’t matter who created it.
3. Thinking that applications and technologies are the same thing
The technology adoption curve (with or without a chasm) only applies to applications or use cases, and NOT to technologies.
This mistake is spread by many sources, not just websites and articles. You’ve probably seen a headline that says “XYZ research company reports that AI is considered mainstream technology in most companies.” This is a full-scale misinterpretation of the innovation-adoption lifecycle.
Mainstream adoption is only valid if tied to a specific category or application. For example, if most hospitals in a geographical area use remote patient monitoring (RPM) for diabetes patients, it does NOT mean that RPM has crossed the chasm. It means that only one application of RPM has crossed the chasm. Other applications of RPM must be evaluated individually.
Remember that Diffusion of Innovations and the original technology adoption lifecycle curve were based on a specific application: the “use of hybrid seed corn by farmers in Iowa.”
4. Assuming psychographics are static or people stay in one category
Perhaps the most persistent mistake is that authors describe psychographic profiles based on a single application. In reality, people do not stay in the same category of adoption.
Just ask my neighbor. He is a technology enthusiast of electric vehicles but a laggard when it comes to a biological innovation called the COVID vaccine (which he refuses to accept).
This misunderstanding might come from the trendy, over-hyped use of “personas” that has plagued the high-tech sector for years. But there is no such thing as a person who is an early adopter of all innovations. People self-select their adopter category for each new product or innovation they encounter.
Labeling a person or an organization as a known early adopter is a recipe for failure. Because it is always situation-specific.
5. Applying crossing the chasm framework to low-cost consumer products
Chasm theory was originally developed to address the needs of emerging high-tech companies. And more specifically, it was created for high-risk or high-cost technology-based products that require new learning or a behavior change.
Any mention of low-cost consumer items crossing the chasm indicates a misunderstanding of the model.
6. Assuming chasm theory applies equally well to all industries
Chasm principles are more difficult to apply in certain industries, such as renewable energy and cleantech. The psychographic sequence that is the foundation of the concept (innovator - early adopter - early majority - late majority - laggard) can be substantially skewed by government or utility programs designed to encourage or accelerate adoption by a large group of customers.
And in some cases, government subsidies or programs completely overwhelm the innovation-adoption process. A comprehensive, subsidized program can reduce the perception of risk to such a degree that mainstream customers adopt before they normally would in a purely commercial setting or market.
On top of the inherent difficulties of measuring localized, psychographic behavior, you must factor in the effect of public policy and incentives, which act to alter market dynamics completely.
What we have today is an epidemic of misunderstanding, driven mainly by the need to stand out in an ocean of social media content. The six areas identified above create the greatest amount of confusion.
Hearing so many “experts” misinterpret basic chasm concepts is disappointing. These errors propagate through thousands of unsuspecting executives, managers, founders, and entrepreneurs.
When business leaders and executives decide to use a model or framework for strategic guidance, the model must be crystal clear. Any ambiguity can lead to severe loss or delay of revenue. The lack of understanding identified in this research project may explain why B2B tech companies often take a decade or more to build a profitable revenue stream.
Hopefully, this article can help clean up these mistakes for the own sake of your innovation and product thinking. If you think it's been helpful, please share it with your colleagues so we can spread the voice.
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