Hype Cycles + Diffusion Theory of Innovation

The diffusion theory of innovation and hype cycles are two ways to look at how ideas spread. What if you combined them?

The hype cycle

Maybe you’ve seen Gartner’s “Hype Cycle” graphic before. The theory says that someone makes something new (an innovation) and everyone starts talking about it. The hype builds up and becomes a bubble. The hype bubble pops, and everyone is cynical about the innovation. Then, slowly, some of those innovations turn out to be useful everyday things

Image of Gartner's Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies, showing the initial innovation hype bubble, the burst, and finally more stable productive use.

Major props to whoever named the stages. The “trough of disillusionment” > “slope of enlightenment” > “plateau of productivity” progression is fantastic. Although, on a more philosophical level, I have beef with the ultimate goal after enlightenment being productivity.

Diffusion theory of innovation

Closely related to the concepts of hype cycles are theories of how innovation spreads. Everett Rogers is credited with creating the diffusion theory of innovation in the early 60s. It explains how an idea (or innovation) diffuses, or spreads. To do so, diffusion theory divides consumers into 5 categories: Innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards.

The bell curve distribution of the diffusion theory of innovation

Both the hype cycle and the diffusion of innovation are theories, not natural laws. But they provide an interesting lens to look at innovation through. And in the interest of providing more paradigms, let’s try to combine the two.

The diffusion of hype

We’ll call it the diffusion of hype model. Have a better name? Let me know. I’m not married to it. The basic idea here is that by layering the diffusion of innovation’s adopter categories on top of the hype cycle, we can start to think about who has a product and is talking about it.

And, it might help determine when one could expect to make the transition from “the trough of disillusionment” to the “slope of enlightenment” by looking at the people that make up a user base. Here’s a rough take on what it might look like.

A graphic describing the diffusion of hype

It’s nothing particularly scientific. A few things to highlight, though:

  • The peak level of hype happens just as an innovation has diffused from an innovator to an early adopter. Theory is, this is the point where an innovation reaches the critical mass that allows early adopters to justify investing.
  • The early adopters and innovators are the only consumers willing to wade through the trough of disillusionment.
  • For a laggard to invest time or money into an innovation, it must be proven viable or productive.

Is there something here? Is it an idea worth proving out? Let me know what you think.