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Methodologies & Frameworks
Digital Adoption: Models, Examples, Challenges & Tips

This article offers some key digital adoption model distinctions and practical tips and also illustrates how business simulation can be used to significantly improve the effectiveness of digital adoption programmes.

Whether it be colleagues, consumers or citizens,  being able to effectively employ digital technologies to encourage communities to adopt that which you are promoting is one of the most critical success factors underpinning internal and external behavior change programmes.

Digital Adoption Is A Critical Business/Organizational Activity

“Adoption” by users or consumers turns out to be at the core of many, otherwise seemingly unrelated,  business endeavors such as:

  • Newmarket entry
  • New product launch
  • New venture or start-up business
  • Business strategy scenarios
  • Customer service programmes
  • Major internal change programmes
  • Marketing programmes
  • Process/practice improvement programmes
  • Public health Campaigns

Adoption And Adoption Models

So what do we mean by “adoption”?

My definition of Adoption is “taking on-board and making habitual use of products or practices which may be new or may replace previous products or practices.”

A key concept to help us lead adoption is the “Adoption Model“ which tries to make explicit the intermediate stages an adopter can go through from initially becoming aware right up to the point of becoming a habitual user.

 Adoption Models tend to have the following characteristics:
  • They act as Pipelines or Funnels or Ladders from the lower levels of adoption to the higher levels
  • The objective is usually to move UP the Ladder but it is also possible to move DOWN and/or to jump off the ladder altogether (Natural Decay, Dissatisfaction and Rejection). A good example of a planned reverse adoption model is giving up smoking or reducing alcohol consumption.
  • Numbers normally reduce as you move up the ladder and this reduction is according to “Conversion Ratios” from each lower level to the next higher level
  • Each level on the ladder may have specific properties such as the volume of products purchased or chocolate consumed at that level.

Common Adoption Models

Scenario 1: The Customer Loyalty Ladder

For example:
  • Loyal Customers
  • Regular Customers
  • Occasional Customers
  • New Customers
  • Target Customers

Loyal Customers typically have larger average consumption, satisfaction, and loyalty than Regular Customers who in turn are higher than Occasional Customers, etc. Target Customers might also be split into Non-Category (not using the product) or Category (using a competitor’s product).

Scenario 2: The Sales Pipeline

For example:
  • Customers
  • Prospects
  • Suspects
  • Conversations
  • Opportunities

This model can be extended with, for example, Prospects being either new prospects, recycled Prospects or Customers coming up for renewal in a subscription revenue model.

Scenario 3: The Change Adoption Model

For example:
  • Change Champions
  • Change Adopters
  • Change Experimenters
  • Change Aware
  • Change Unaware
  • Change Rejectors

The Challenge Of Digital Adoption At Scale

For adoption to make a real impact it usually needs to go beyond consumer trials and focus groups and extend into the larger communities which these pilot groups represent.

In moving from small group pilot to large-scale adoption we will encounter many new challenges such as:
  • Engaging with people many of whom we barely know at best
  • The impracticality of face-to-face and one-one interactions
  • The reliance on virtual and one-many interactions
  • The positive and negative aspects of using social media (external and in-company)
  • The importance of key influencers in these communities in helping or hindering the adoption
To be successful in large-scale community adoption we also need to understand some important points:
  • The difference between a community and a crowd
  • The role of super-connectors in mass adoption
  • Key types of activity you need in your adoption campaign
  • The risks of email and social media in mass adoption
  • Best practices in individual and mass persuasion
  • Tips for successfully managing large-scale community adoption

Key Types Of Activity You Need In Your Digital Adoption Campaign

From my experience, to effectively engage a community you need to consider at least 4 different types of activity:
  • Preparedness Activity
  • Community Influencer Activity
  • Risk Mitigation Activity
  • User Adoption Activity

These four types of activity are not mutually exclusive. For example, a specific preparedness activity might also mitigate against an important adoption risk.

Preparedness Activity

This kind of activity is normally conducted before a campaign commences and its purpose is to lay important foundations that will make future engagement activities more effective. Typical examples include setting up steering groups or customer representative panels and developing appropriate written and multimedia assets to support the engagement.

Think of Preparedness Activity as the “Railway Tracks” of your Community Adoption Campaign.

Community Influencer Activity

Most communities have key individuals who are very influential (see our previous discussion on what defines a community and super-connectors). They can use this influence for or against your community adoption campaign. They can also choose to ignore your campaign which will also make it more difficult for you. The first stage is to identify these people within the community. It may be that some of them are very visible and obvious and by engaging with them carefully you may also build up a profile of the characteristics and meeting places of the other ones.

Normally the next stage is to try and get these influencers into an early co-invention conversation about the adoption to seek their support. You want to see if they are positive and will help you. Alternatively, if they are luke-warm, neutral, or opposing you need to listen to their advice and find a way to re-engage them later.

Think of Community Influencer Activity as the “Train Drivers” of your Community Adoption Campaign.

Risk Mitigation Activity

Strictly speaking, risk mitigation activities are special cases of preparedness or community influencer activities. However, they are so important and so frequently missing from community adoption campaigns that I prefer to treat them as distinct.

When you are planning your campaign, you need to include a risk analysis of what might go wrong. There are two risk perspectives – risks within your control and risks that are outside of your control. Failing to engage certain high-profile influencers would be an example of risk within your control. Finding yourself in competition with a similar or competing rollout within the same community might be an example of risk outside of your control.

Both these risks are entirely foreseeable and specific avoidance and mitigation activities can be planned to a) reduce the risk of them happening and/or b) to allow you to respond effectively and quickly if they do occur.

There are other types of risks such as your company being acquired or the government falling which might be much more difficult to foresee. In this case whilst it may not be possible to identify specific mitigations in advance you can still structure your adoption project in a way that might make them less impactful. For example, by building in contingency time or budget or resources which you do not plan to use if things go well.

A vital risk mitigation activity is to build the necessary early warning systems to alert you early if a risk starts materializing. Such systems are typically reporting mechanisms built around the leading indicators of success you will have identified as part of your plan for measuring the success of the project through a Balanced Scorecard approach.

Think of Risk Mitigation Activity as the “Signalling System” of your Community Adoption Campaign.

User Adoption Activity

This final type of activity may represent the bulk of your efforts and time in a community adoption programme. These are the activities that directly move individuals in the community from one level of adoption to the next.

A useful tool in developing adoption activities is the AIDCA model which is similar to the adoption model described earlier in this guide but more suited to community engagement and summarised in the table below working from the bottom up:

ACTIONGaining commitment to the action you want the people to take
CONVICTIONProviding convincing evidence of your idea
DESIREConnecting your idea with a person’s personal needs and wants
INTERESTGaining a person’s interest in your idea based on relevance
ATTENTIONGrabbing a person’s attention to your idea

To be able to monitor your success you will also need an “Adoption Model” plus some mechanism for identifying when individuals move upwards (or backward) based on some observable behaviors which you can then build reporting systems around. We introduced adoption models in the previous chapter but they merit a further look here.

For example, the SPREAD Simulation (described in the next section) uses a 5-point Adoption Model shown overleaf. In addition, at any level (1-4) below “Sustaining” on the model a potential user can REJECT (returning to level 0) the innovation/change altogether thus becoming closed to any further engagement on the topic.

A crucial element of user adoption activity is to create systems that allow you to track, not just the adoption but, the costs and, where possible, the benefits of any adoption campaign. The costs are usually easy to track as they are driven by the activities. The benefits are usually related to the adoption levels and can be harder to track and may also extend well beyond the life of the adoption campaign.

SUSTAINING (5)Embracing the adoption on an on-going basis and prepared to champion the adoption to others
USING (4)Embracing the adoption on a trial basis but not yet a sustaining habit or practice
COMMITTED (3)Committed to the adoption in principle but not yet embracing it
AWARE (2)Aware of the proposed adoption but have not yet formed a solid opinion on its worth
UNAWARE (1)Not aware of the proposed adoption

The Use Of Simulation In Adoption Planning

Simulation tools, such as SPREAD, allow you to manage different scenarios and risks as you roll out your innovation in a safe virtual environment. You can also “what-if“ different stimuli and sequences of adoption.

Simulation can be very useful in helping a team envision, plan, and execute an adoption programme and become better equipped to deal with the unexpected when it arises during the actual rollout.

Adoption Simulation Insights

There are typically some very important learnings gained when participants use Adoption Model Simulations including the following:

  1. Direct adoption needs to address all levels of the adoption model, not just the top and bottom levels. Pipeline Health measures (discussed in the next section) can warn you if you are neglecting key parts of your adoption model – an oversight which may not be obvious in the short-term.
  2. Not all adopters are equal. Adoption by Opinion Leaders can create positive Word of Mouth (WoM) which encourages other users to adopt.
  3. It is not just direct adoption activities that contribute to user adoption. There are two other very important types of activity – Preparation (fitness) and Risk mitigation (insurance). Many adoption failures involve either doing too little or too much of these two activities!

Adoption Model Metrics

There are 3 key Adoption Model Metrics:

  • Spread  (aka Penetration)
  • Satisfaction
  • Pipeline

“Spread” (aka Penetration) is a single number that measures the degree of adoption. It is the weighted average of the number of adopters across all the levels of the model. In the example, in a highly unlikely scenario of all 200 users reaching “Partnering” (Level 5) then the Spread would be 5.00. Conversely, if all 200 users remain “Unaware” then the Spread would be 1.00.

“Satisfaction” can be measured in a number of different ways – here we show the Net Promoter Score (NPS) which is defined as %Promoters – %Detractors. In this example, we have defined NPS is a generous way as Promoters = (Partnering + Piloting + Engaged) and Detractors = Rejected. However, this value is still only 8% whereas organizations with top customer satisfaction tend to operate at the 70%-80% bracket which shows that there is definitely a potential satisfaction problem in this dataset.

“Pipeline” is a measure of the health of each stage in the adoption model and uses conversion rates and targets to compare the values at each level with the ideal values at the particular stage of the exercise (in this case 75% complete). It shows clearly that there is a problem in the rate at which users are being made aware of the new product/practice to be adopted. The pipeline is a very important metric as adoption managers can become fixated on just some levels of the Adoption Model and by the time the problem is spotted it is too late.

Example Adoption Simulation

SPREAD is a computer-based business simulation that provides a ‘what-if’ planning capability for any adoption project such as rolling out a new practice or innovation to a defined community using one-many interventions.

Specifically, the simulation allows leaders and managers, to explore the effectiveness and sequencing of different types of one-many interventions to attempt to move a whole community from ‘unaware’ to ‘fully adopted’. In technical terms, SPREAD is an Innovation Diffusion Model.

SPREAD can be customized for the organization, innovation, and target community, and therefore can be used as a management tool to ‘test and tune’ the planning of mass adoption. For example, SPREAD has been used in healthcare to model the adoption of new healthcare practices (‘the innovation’) within defined practitioner groups (‘the target community’).

SPREAD can be played as a team game to educate players about the planned adoption and to develop wider ownership for the program across the leadership team.

Typical SPREAD uses include New Product Launch within external customer communities or New Strategy / Process / Behaviour Roll-out within internal organizational communities.

After a group has played SPREAD to prepare for an upcoming major adoption they should understand much more clearly what is really involved. Therefore, they should be better equipped to envisage it, plan it, identify the key risks, and manage more effectively when the unexpected happens because they have already simulated it!

SPREAD can be configured with any set of tasks required for a rollout and all team decisions are saved and can be “action-replayed” afterward to deepen the learning.  SPREAD results are shown graphically using high impact charts showing user adoption, the budget spends, user benefits, and other key roll-out measures.

Below is a screenshot from a typical SPREAD session. On the left, we have a list of possible initiatives and their status. The 4 gauges show graphically the progress on Readiness, Leader Engagement, Milestones, and Community Adoption.

Photo of digital adoption

The charts and the table to the right show how user adoption is moving through the different stages from Unaware right through to Sustaining.

You can find out more about SPREAD at

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By Ben Aston

I’m Ben Aston, a digital project manager and founder of I've been in the industry for more than 15 years working in the UK at London’s top digital agencies including Dare, Wunderman, Lowe and DDB. I’ve delivered everything from film to CMS', games to advertising and eCRM to eCommerce sites. I’ve been fortunate enough to work across a wide range of great clients; automotive brands including Land Rover, Volkswagen and Honda; Utility brands including BT, British Gas and Exxon, FMCG brands such as Unilever, and consumer electronics brands including Sony.

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