A Re-Examination of Communication Channel Usage By Adopter Categories

Linda L. Price, University of Pittsburgh
Lawrence F. Feick, University of Pittsburgh
Daniel C. Smith, University of Pittsburgh
ABSTRACT - Because early adopters are pivotal in securing widespread acceptance of new products, they have been the subject of much research. Of particular interest in understanding the diffusion of innovations is the question of how early adopters find out about new products, and whether and how they communicate this information with others. Systematic research on the use of mass media channels compared to interpersonal channels by different adopter categories is notably absent in consumer research. This paper reports the results of research undertaken to examine communication channel usage by different adopter categories for consumer nondurable products. Results of a nation-wide study of 1531 households indicate that earlier adopters find mass media sources relatively more important than later adopters. However, earlier adopters rate both mass media and interpersonal sources as more important than later adopters. Earlier adopters also are more likely to transmit information than later adopters. These results are discussed in light of the media intensiveness of consumer goods markets.
[ to cite ]:
Linda L. Price, Lawrence F. Feick, and Daniel C. Smith (1986) ,"A Re-Examination of Communication Channel Usage By Adopter Categories", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 13, eds. Richard J. Lutz, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 409-413.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 13, 1986      Pages 409-413

A RE-EXAMINATION OF COMMUNICATION CHANNEL USAGE BY ADOPTER CATEGORIES

Linda L. Price, University of Pittsburgh

Lawrence F. Feick, University of Pittsburgh

Daniel C. Smith, University of Pittsburgh

ABSTRACT -

Because early adopters are pivotal in securing widespread acceptance of new products, they have been the subject of much research. Of particular interest in understanding the diffusion of innovations is the question of how early adopters find out about new products, and whether and how they communicate this information with others. Systematic research on the use of mass media channels compared to interpersonal channels by different adopter categories is notably absent in consumer research. This paper reports the results of research undertaken to examine communication channel usage by different adopter categories for consumer nondurable products. Results of a nation-wide study of 1531 households indicate that earlier adopters find mass media sources relatively more important than later adopters. However, earlier adopters rate both mass media and interpersonal sources as more important than later adopters. Earlier adopters also are more likely to transmit information than later adopters. These results are discussed in light of the media intensiveness of consumer goods markets.

INTRODUCTION

The diffusion of innovations is a communication process in which interpersonal transmission of information is of primary importance in facilitating awareness and trial of new products. Early purchasers have been the subject of much research partially because they are recognized as being pivotal in securing widespread acceptance of new products through their communicated experiences. The answers to two questions are of particular interest in understanding the diffusion of innovations: 1) how do earlier adopters find out about new products? 2) how do they communicate this information to later adopters? It is important to recognize that the questions address both the intake and transmission of information.

In answering the question pertaining to the intake of information by adopter categories, the literature suggests that earlier adopters rely on mass media more than interpersonal channels in making the adoption decision (Rogers 1983, Robertson and Gatignon 1985). A number of diffusion models are predicted on the assumption that the earliest adopters purchase products independently of the communicated experience of others (Bass 1969, Midgley 1977, Midgley and Dowling 1978, Horsky and Simon 1983). Rogers (1983) summarizes the relative reliance on mass media over interpersonal sources by adopter categories with the following generalization: '\!ass media channels are relatively more important than interpersonal channels for earlier adopters than for later adopters," (p. 201). This same notion is proposed by Robertson and Gatignon (1985) (see proposition 26, page 851). Despite widespread acceptance of this generalization, there is little systematic research comparing adopter categories on use of mass media relative to interpersonal channels. While some research in marketing has shown that earlier adopters have greater exposure to mass media than later adopters (Summers 1971), the research has not explored the relative use of mass media and interpersonal sources in product purchase decisions.

In answering the question about the nature of information transmission by the various adopter groups, research indicates that earlier adopters communicate their experiences with products to others and are central to the acceptance of innovations by later adopters (Arndt 1967; Engel, Kegerreis, and Blackwell 1969; Midgley and Dowling 1978; Sheth 1971). In fact. a number of writers have noted that interpersonal information transmission by earlier adopters is necessary for the cumulative diffusion curve to attain its familiar S shape (Midgley 1977, Mahajan and Mueller 1979).

In summary, accepted thinking regarding the information acquisition and transmission of adopter groups suggests that earlier adopters make their purchase decisions more-or-less independently of input from others. These individuals then serve as models for an imitation effect which occurs actively through word-of-mouth and/or passively in the case of highly visible innovations. This model suggests a one-way flow of communication from earlier adopters to later adopters. There is a substantial amount of intuitive appeal to this view. It seems reasonable to assume that at the earliest stages of introduction, the first adopters of a product must find out about its existence through mass media (or other seller-sponsored sources) since there is typically little opportunity for interpersonal information exchange until there is an awareness of the product's existence.

For a number of reasons, this model of the diffusion process deserves reexamination despite its intuitive logic. First, the model seems to be inconsistent with a number of studies which have found the diffusion of information to be more of an exchange process than a unidirectional flow (Arndt 1954, Whyte 1967). Second, research evidence in support of the model is limited. Of only ten studies that addressed the question, Rogers (1983) notes that eight studies supported the tendency of earlier adopters to rely more heavily on mass media sources than later adopters. All of the studies cited by Rogers, however, involved new agricultural technologies. Thus, the model is based primarily on research involving major, discontinuous innovations. These types of products and their associated information media are dissimilar to those found in consumer product markets. In consumer product markets, continuous innovations dominate discontinuous ones and appear to be a more relevant focus for inquiry by consumer researchers. Finally, the acquisition and transmission of information by earlier adopters has rarely been studied simultaneously in consumer settings. Past research, therefore, offers little insight into whether innovators who report a higher reliance on mass media information sources are also inclined to transmit information to other buyers.

The purpose of this research was to examine differences in earlier and later adopters both on the relative use of mass media sources of new product information, and also on the transmission of new product information. This study is unique in that it: (a) explores both the intake and transmission of information, (b) measures the relative reliance on mass media versus interpersonal sources, and (c) explores these phenomena in the context of the adoption of new products in frequently purchased product categories which are typified by continuous innovation rather than major discontinuous innovations.

METHOD

Data Collection Procedure

Data used to examine the sources and transmission of information by adopter categories were obtained from telephone interviews. The final data collection instrument was preceded by pilot testing designed to refine the measures. In total, 425 students were used in the pilot testing phase. The questionnaire on which the results presented in this study are based,was administered by telephone interviews conducted during the middle two weeks of August 1984. Sample selection was done by random digit dialing of the 48 contiguous states. The researchers assigned sex, alternating male and female, to the telephone numbers. Interviewers then screened for either male or female head of household. In homes in which that person was not available, call backs were scheduled; in homes in which the person of the assigned sex did not exist, the interview spoke with the sole household head. Initial calls were made between the hours of 3:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. local time with call backs scheduled for any time convenient for the respondents. A minimum of three call backs per telephone number were mate in an attempt to contact the preassigned household head.

A total of 1531 interviews were completed. The response rate (completed interviews as a percentage of eligible interviewees; where eligible interviewees are defined as the sum of completed interviews, refusals, and terminates) was 47 percent. The demographics of the respondents, with the exception of sex, closely approximated those of the 1980 census and recent updates. The sex distribution of the sample (64 percent female and 36 percent male) was significantly different from that of the population of household heads (57 percent female and 43 percent male).

Development of Measures

Definition of Adopter Category Membership. Traditionally, innovativeness has been viewed as a behavioral variable and defined as the actual adoption of a product. As a result of this definition, most studies have examined innovativeness by focusing on individuals who have adopted a new product at a single point in time (Assael 1983, Kotler and Zaltman 1976). This approach to studying innovativeness is plagued with at least three limitations. First, examining only the time of adoption does not consider differences in the time which elapses between exposure to the innovation and actual adoption (Kotler and Zaltman 1976). Second, such a measure is incapable of making the distinction between the product-specific and the general innovator (Midgley and Dowling 1978). Finally, as Midgley and Dowling (1978) suggest and Carlson and Grossbart (1984) empirically support, actual adoption is mediated by a host of situation specific variables.

As a consequence of these limitations and in an attempt to improve the generalizability of the findings, we used a single item self-designation method for identifying membership in the adopter groups. Half of the respondents were asked: "In general, when new food and common household products first appear on the market which of the following best describes when you are likely to buy the item? Would you say that you are among the first to buy it, you buy before most the majority of people, you buy at about the same time as most people, you buy after most people, or you buy much later than most people?" The other half of the sample was asked the same question except that the produce class considered was "non-prescription drugs and health and beauty products". These product categories represent a substantial portion of consumer nondurables which were the focus of this study. The time-of-adoption measure used in this study aggregates across the two halves because initial analyses indicated that there were ?.0 differences between the two groups on the variables of interest in this research. Each of the five responses to the question was designed to correspond to one of the five adopter categories defined by Rogers (1962) -- innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards respectively. Our measure of time of adoption seemed to have reasonable convergent validity as it was correlated with a number of other measures that also appear to tap the construct of innovativeness. For example, the correlation between our measure of innovativeness described above and an item stated "I usually try a new product shortly after I learn that it is on the market" was to be .39, and .28 with an item stated "I am the kind of person who would try any new once."

Information Transmission. We defined information transmission to be an individual's tendency to share new product and other information with friends or acquaintances. Five items required respondents to indicate, on a seven-point scale, the extent to which they agreed or disagreed with statements pertaining to their information transmission tendencies. These items were:

1. I like helping people by providing them with information about many kinds of products.

2. My friends think of me as a good source of information when it comes to new products or sales.

3. I like introducing new brands and products to my friends.

4. People ask me for information about new products,and places to shop for sales.

5. If someone asked me where to get the best buy on several types of products, I could tell him or her where to shop.

The correlation between these five items was high, ranging from 43 to 55.

Reliance on Mass Media Relative to Interpersonal Information Sources. Reliance on mass media was measured by taking the average level of importance ascribed to four media (television, radio, magazines, and newspapers) in obtaining new product information.

Reliance on interpersonal sources was measured by a single item which required respondents to indicate the importance of friends and relatives in obtaining a new product information. Seven-point very important,/not very important scales were used to measure both mass media and interpersonal source importance. For both sources of information, the items were framed in product-specific terms. For example, "When considering new food or common household products, how important to you are the following sources of information?"

RESULTS

Definition of Adopter Categories

As illustrated in Table 1, the definition of adopter categories based on the self-report measure of innovativeness employed in this study closely mirrors the distribution proposed by Rogers (1962) and provides face validity for the measure.

TABLE 1

DEFINITION OF ADOPTER CATEGORIES

Information Channel Usage Across Adopter Groups

The results on the importance of mass media and interpersonal sources of information are presented in Table 1. A one-way analysis of variance indicated that adopter groups differed in their the use of both mass (F=29.1, p <.001) and interpersonal information (F=8.7, p '.001) sources. The importance of both types of information declined with later adoption. The results, however, provided only partial support for previous research suggesting greater importance of mass media sources among earlier adopters. Mass media sources had the greatest relative importance among earlier adopters. For example, the ratio of the mean on mass media to the mean on interpersonal sources for innovators was .97, while this ratio for the late majority was .85. However, mass media sources were consistently regarded as less important than interpersonal sources across adopter groups. While innovatorS and early adopters ascribed the greatest and second greatest importance, respectively, to mass media sources of information, they also were the adopter groups reporting the greatest importance of interpersonal sources. Among all of the adopter groups except for innovators and early adopters, the mean importance of interpersonal sources was significantly greater than mass media sources. In the innovator and early adopter groups the mean differences between mass and interpersonal sources were not significant.

The percentage changes in means by adopter categories included in Table 2 indicate that the decline in mass media sources importance is more precipitous than the decline of interpersonal source importance across the adopter categories. In addition, the table indicates a dramatic decline in the importance of both types of sources for the laggard group compared to the late majority.

Information Transmission

To examine the extent to which the adopter groups differed on disseminating product related information, the five items measuring information transmission were compared across groups. As reported in Table 3, one-way analysis of variance indicated significant differences among the groups on all four items. The tendency to actively disseminate information is highest for earlier adopters and declines sharply for later adopters.

TABLE 2

VARIATION IN INFORMATION SOURCE USAGE ACROSS ADOPTER CATEGORIES

A Closer Look at Acquisition and Transmission by Earlier Adopters

Because of the critical role played by earlier adopters in transmitting new product information, and because only partial support for previous research was obtained, we decided to do further analysis of the data. Of particular concern was the possibility that in aggregating we had obscured a group of earlier adopters who are mass media specialists. As a consequence, the sample was divided according to their relative usage of mass media sources. Individuals with a positive difference between mass and interpersonal source importance were classified as mass media intensive and those with a negative difference were classified as interpersonal source intensive. In addition, we divided the sample into earlier adopters (innovators and early adopters) and later adopters (early and late majority and laggards). We then examined the differences among the groups on information source importance and information transmission.

TABLE 3

MEANS AND STANDARD DEVIATION ON INFORMATION TRANSMISSION ITEMS BY ADOPTER GROUPS

Table 4 presents the results of these analyses. The F statistics indicated significant differences among the groups for the information source importance items. This result was expected since these questions formed the basis for defining the groups. The F statistics for the information transmission items also indicated significant differences among the groups, Post hoc comparisons (Scheffe procedure at := .05) of the information transmission items across the groups indicated that the mass media and interpersonal source specialists (i.e., the differences between groups 1 and 2 and between 3 and 4 in Table 6) are not significantly different among either the earlier or later adopters. However, mass media specialists in the earlier adopter group (group 1) differed significantly from their later adopter counterparts (group 3) on four of the five information transmission items. Similarly, interpersonal source specialists in the earlier adopter group (group 2) significantly differed from their later adopter counterparts (group 4) on all of the five information transmission items. Thus, the difference in information transmission among the groups appears to arise from the effect of the time of adoption, not relative use of mass media within the groups. However, there is a consistent, but nonsignificant, tendency for the interpersonal source intensive consumers to be slightly higher on transmission than the mass media intensive consumers. This tendency occurred in both earlier and later adopters.

In summary, the results indicated that the importance of both mass media and interpersonal sources of information was greatest among earlier adopters and declined steadily across later adopter categories. Mass media sources were relatively more important for earlier than later adopters. However, in all adopter groups, the importance of interpersonal sources was greater than mass media sources of information. While the tendency to transmit information was greatest for earlier adopters, there was no relationship between the tendency to transmit information and sources of information used to learn about new products.

TABLE 4

COMPARISON OF MEANS OF INFORMATION SOURCE IMPORTANCE AND TENDENCY TO TRANSMIT PRODUCT RELATED INFORMATION FOR MASS MEDIA INTENSIVE AND INTERPERSONAL SOURCE INTENSIVE CONSUMERS

DISCUSSION

Our results provide only limited support for previous research on the importance of information sources by adopter categories. Consistent with Rogers' (1983) generalization, later adopters seem more attuned to interpersonal than mass media information sources, and mass media information sources are relatively more important for earlier than later adopters. However, the results on earlier adopters seem to differ from those that might be expected by previous research. Earlier adopters find mass media sources more important than do later adopters, but they also find interpersonal sources to be more important than later adopters. Earlier adopters seem to collect information from a variety of sources and appear to be generally information hungry.

The results indicating a more rapid decrease in importance of mass media than interpersonal sources from earlier to later adopters seem consistent with literature which suggests that the importance of an imitation effect increases as adoption of an innovation becomes more widespread (Bass 1969, Midgley 1978). In addition, the substantially lower importance of both mass media and interpersonal sources among laggards seems consistent with Rogers (1983) who indicates that laggards tend to be social isolates.

It is important to consider why our findings on the importance ascribed to interpersonal sources by earlier adopters seem to differ from those expected from Rogers' generalization. At least in part, our results may have occurred because the information environment for consumer goods seems to be substantially different from that of the agricultural industry on which Rogers' generalization was based. The consumer information environment is considerably more media intensive than that of agriculture and, as a result, large numbers of consumers can be aware of the existence of a new product even though they may have never tried it. Because of the relatively high level of general awareness, earlier adopters are able to use interpersonal sources to learn about new products. This is consistent with the empirical work indicating that the product life cycle is shortening, partly because of increased availability of information (Olshavsky 1980). It is also consistent with the existence of information sensitive consumers who are either product class specialists or market generalists, but need not be users of a particular product about which they have information (Feick and Price 1985, Price and Feick 1984).

The results that indicated a relatively high reliance on interpersonal sources across all adopter categories suggest that the primary function of interpersonal sources may not be risk reduction. Since there is little risk associated with the purchase of the consumer nondurables considered in our study, we would expect to find (if risk reduction were of primary importance) less use of interpersonal sources. The consistent importance of interpersonal sources across adopter groups, but particularly the importance of these sources among earlier adopters, suggests risk reduction may not be the most important motivation for the use of these sources. They may, in fact, simply perform an information function.

While the findings presented in this study are based on consumer nondurables, they may generalize to durable goods as well since the information environment for consumer durables is very similar to that of nondurables. Because the fraction of individuals who are aware of the product but who have not purchased it would be expected to be greater for durables (given the higher cost, risk etc.), there should exist an interpersonal network of knowledgeable nonadopters available to earlier adopters.

Several caveats regarding the findings should also be recognized. First, due to the relatively large sample sizes for each of the adopter groups, certain differences between use of mass media and interpersonal sources were found to be statistically significant but may not be regarded as substantively important. Second, the reliance on mass media relative to interpersonal sources was not directly measured. A more direct measure (e.g., having the respondent allocate a certain number of points to each source of information) may have lead to somewhat different results. Finally, the measure used to assess reliance on each information source was framed in product-specific terms whereas the measure of information transmission was stated in more general language. It is conceivable that people may generally like to disseminate new product information to there friends for every product category except drugs and household items (i.e., the categories considered in this study).

We undertook this study to test some widely held-beliefs about diffusion. As is the case with much of the received doctrine on the diffusion of innovations, the generalization tested here was derived from studies not undertaken in consumer product markets. Our results only partially supported the generalization we tested. It is interesting to speculate about how many of the commonly held propositions in the diffusion literature are not completely generalizable to the consumer setting. The exploration of these propositions in consumer settings may provide a very fruitful avenue for future research.

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