Sunday, May 11, 2014

What Marketers Can Learn From the Gartner Hype Cycle

Academic researchers and business analysts have been studying the adoption of new technology for at least the past fifty years. One of the most well-respected models of technology adoption is the diffusion of innovations theory that was developed by Everett Rogers in the early 1960's. Rogers' model is the source of the now-familiar terms early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards.

In the mid-1990's, the analyst firm Gartner, Inc. developed another model to describe the adoption of new technologies. Gartner called their model the hype cycle, and it's become a popular way to depict the technology adoption life cycle. Gartner regularly publishes hype cycles for various categories of technologies, and I find them always interesting and occasionally provocative. The diagram below shows the components of the Gartner hype cycle.

As this diagram illustrates, there are five phases in the Gartner hype cycle.

  • Technology Trigger - when a new technology is launched
  • Peak of Inflated Expectations - when the expectations for a technology (driven by several forms of hype) far exceed what the technology can reasonable deliver
  • Trough of Disillusionment - when the unrealistic expectations aren't met, some users and supporters abandon the new technology entirely
  • Slope of Enlightenment - when the realistic benefits of the new technology begin to appear, and users begin to apply the technology to achieve those benefits
  • Plateau of Productivity - when the realistic benefits of the technology become widely apparent, and there is mainstream adoption in the market
The Gartner hype cycle is designed to provide one perspective of technology adoption, but I suggest that it also applies to other types of innovations, including new marketing strategies and techniques. That's because the hype cycle is really a description of how we as humans respond to new things that promise to change our status quo for the better.

It's easy to see the hype cycle at work in marketing. When a new marketing strategy or technique appears that seems to promise significant benefits, the marketing community often responds with great excitement. The "shiny new object" becomes the topic du jour for articles, blog posts, webinars, conference sessions, and even full-length books. As the hype machine kicks in, it becomes almost impossible not to overestimate the benefits that the new strategy or technique will provide. Almost as important, the hype inevitably overstates how easy it is to realize those benefits.

Enticed by the exaggerated benefits, we rush to acquire and/or implement the new strategy or technique only to find that it doesn't deliver the benefits we expected. After a while, we may even decide that our shiny new object is essentially worthless and abandon it entirely.

If we get past this point, we may begin to develop a more realistic set of expectations regarding the benefits that the strategy or technique can deliver and, just as important, a better understanding of what we must do in order to realize those benefits. Finally, as we become increasingly proficient with the strategy or technique, it becomes increasingly productive, and we begin to gain the (realistic) benefits we came to expect.

So, what can marketers learn from the Gartner hype cycle? First, be careful not to overestimate the benefits that a new marketing strategy or technique will provide. There are simply no silver bullets in the practice of marketing. As a human being, you probably won't be able to completely avoid inflated expectations, but make your best efforts to resist the hype.

Second, when a new strategy or technique fails to meet your initial expectations, don't be too quick to declare it a complete failure. Recognize that your initial expectations were probably exaggerated, and make an objective evaluation of what benefits you can reasonably expect the strategy or technique to provide. This is also when you need to develop a clear and accurate picture of what you will need to do to reap those benefits.

Some marketing strategies and techniques are nothing more than fads, and they should be dropped at the earliest opportunity. In most cases, however, the initial disappointment results from unrealistic expectations regarding both the significance of the benefits and the work you'll need to do to realize them.

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