Marketing cycling: Are we trying to reach the people who might actually listen to our message?
Recent campaigns to encourage people to cycle more have generally focussed on everyday cycling: pictures of people like you and me riding bikes in normal, everyday clothes. The thinking behind these sorts of campaigns is to be as inclusive as possible, not putting people off the idea of cycling because they don’t fit in with the image portrayed but, while this may seem like a good idea, is it possible that we are jumping ahead of ourselves?
Why might this be wrong?
In his 1962 book, Diffusion of Innovations, Everett Rogers proposed a theory about how new ideas spread over time, reaching different stages of the population at different times. The idea of cycling as an everyday mode of transport is not a new idea but it is an idea that hasn’t yet spread very far throughout our population. Despite increases in the number of cyclists in London following initiatives to get more people cycling, mode share in the capital is only 2%.
Rogers’ theory is that new ideas or innovations spread through parts of the population in sequence and that, in order to reach the mass market, we first need to get our idea adopted by the small proportion of the population who try things before everyone else.
The way that ideas spread can be plotted on a chart that takes the shape of a bell curve, with the people who try things first on the left, representing a small proportion of the population; the mass market in the centre; and the laggards, or people who it will always be a struggle to convert, on the right of the curve. What is important to note here is that the spread of a new idea is sequential: the mass market won’t adopt a new idea until someone else has tried it first. We’re all at different stages of this curve at different times and for different things. Just because someone you know was the first to adopt one new idea, doesn’t necessarily mean they will do this for all new ideas.
The first group that adopts any new idea is the 2.5% of the population that Rogers calls the innovators. These are the people that just ‘get it’. They just have that gut feeling that this is a great idea and it fits in with their values and their lives. But more than that, these are the people that want to be first. It would be a mistake, though, to think that the innovators are all one type of cyclist, because they’re not. The innovators cycle because they ‘get it’ but ‘getting it’ can be very different for different people. The innovators might be the people that spend thousands on a road bike and buy all the top-of-the-range accessories to go with it. They cycle to work through wind and rain and arrive in the office wearing lycra. They do this because it fits with a value that they hold, such as competitiveness. The innovators also might be the people who ride recycled bikes adorned with flowers: the ‘hippies’, the vegans, the greens. These people cycle because they believe in looking after the environment. Or the innovators might ride a BMX; maybe they’re the land-locked surfers who wear baggy trousers and baseball caps and use street furniture as props. Maybe these people cycle because it is an act of rebellion.
These innovators may all be different but the one thing they have in common is that they cycle because it fits with their values and how they see themselves. Cycling says something about who they are as a person and they cycle because they want the world to know that about them.
The next 13.5% of the population are the early adopters. These people are a little more discerning in their choices but are still ahead of the rest and any new idea cannot jump straight from the innovators to the mass market without passing through the early adopters. The early adopters are taking a risk by buying into an idea before the mass market; they’re open to some of the problems and issues that others later on won’t experience, and so the early adopters are sometimes critical, and offer honest feedback. This group, though, and the innovators before them, will start to spread the idea to the wider population.
The mass market, which is comprised of the early majority and the late majority, need to be told how great something is by someone else; they need to see some of their friends and family adopting the idea, cycling to work and enjoying it; and they need to feel that they’re missing out if they don’t do it. The good news is that, once enough early adopters have signed up to the idea, a critical mass, or tipping point, is reached and the mass market easily follow suit. Getting to the critical mass is the tricky bit to do, and this should be the focus of campaigns to increase the spread of an idea.
The laggards, the group to the furthest right, are the last group to adopt new ideas. These are people who feel a real resistance to change. They are our hard to reach audience. No matter how good an idea is, for some people it will never quite feel right.
So what should we be doing?
What Rogers’ theory shows us is that campaigns that try to appeal immediately to the mass market simply won’t work. Cycling levels in the UK show us that we’ve barely moved into the early adopters. Until cycling has been taken up by more of the innovators and the early adopters, we will never get mass-market appeal.
And when we’re designing campaigns we need to remember that the innovators and early adopters won’t be seduced by pictures of people like you and me on bikes, they’ll be seduced by pictures of people like them on their bikes. If we want our marketing campaigns to appeal to the innovators and early adopters we should start designing campaigns that appeal to them, not to the mass market.
Maybe our cycling marketing campaigns shouldn’t have pictures of people like you and me on them after all.