Did Market Research Predict the Rise of EReaders?

October 14, 2011

Consumer and brand behaviour

Like them or not, ereaders are quickly taking off. Which raises the question, did market research predict the rise of ereaders? It is an interesting question when we consider that ereaders are a disruptive innovation. In fact, forms of ebooks have been around for a long time without ever taking off in terms of consumer behaviour.

Pew Research survey results show that ownership of ereaders in the United States rose from 2% in April 2009 to 12% in May of 2011. Harris Interactive has the current U.S. ownership at 15% in September. Though 15% ownership is still low, a number of factors suggests that the pace of adoption will continue to rise. These include, relatively low cost, and a widespread appeal that reaches beyond the normal, youth and male oriented early adopter set.

The only real barriers to adoption are (1) that lower income and education groups have so far been slower to embrace the ereader; and (2) the size of the book-reading population is not 100%.

There is no question that ereaders are disruptive. So far, I have not found a public poll from before 2009 that shows the figures, but we would expect many people (probably a majority) would express low interest in ebooks by expressing traditional opinions about wanting to have the book to share, to be able to feel the pages, and about not being tied to technology.

These anti-change views about a new way of doing things is not new and all new technologies face this resistance (a variation of an existing product, e.g. a new flavour or a new feature does not raise this problem). In market research terms, this results in low expected take-up of the technology that confound organizations who believe they have good ideas and lead to a risky proposition when introducing the product.

One approach is to focus on the early adopter population — people who have values and behaviours that make them open to new things. Early adopters, if they view the product highly can be advocates, but their openness to trying new things means that their willingness to try is only the first step (and even they may resist truly revolutionary changes).

Consider the recent post by Mitch Joel, who walks the reader through his own conversion to ebooks. The post really shows how digital changes the game — perhaps in a way that you might not have predicted if you were imagining ebooks ten years ago.

The real key for a disruptive product is that it must functionally do for the consumer what he or she cannnot really imagine when they are thinking of the product in the abstract. It is why so many of us use digital music (as opposed to better analogue music), carry cell phones, and now read books online.

And market research must be read carefully with such disruptive technologies. Focus, for example, on what people like/dislike about the old not about how they react to the idea.

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About Richard Jenkins

Market research professional and small business owner

View all posts by Richard Jenkins

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