Neophiliacs and Neophobiacs

I know, I know – you never thought you’d be doing business with a neophobiac. But is their leader your most important client?

I lived in London for a year and wanted to visit a friend in Dorsett. Impressively (for me, as I am from the US), there were trains and buses that went directly from Victoria Station to her village of 5,000 people. I love trains so why did I want to drive instead? Why feel the start-to-finish terror of overthinking what side of the road to drive on and, more crucially, to turn onto? 

Because I needed to try Zipcar, the Internet-based car-sharing service. I hadn’t tried it in the US and now was my chance.

A few years later, I rode the Barcelona city bus out to a distant suburban subdivision and paced about for an hour, in a mildly cold evening rain, by a highway onramp, with a phone on about 3% battery life. This time to try another car-sharing service, Blablacar.

Despite a few complications, I enjoyed both experiences.  I missed the Blablacar connection – driver was late, phone died. But I still enjoyed using the service and imagining so many of others doing the same, thinking of all those new connections made and how it might change things. Thinking about the business model, and so on.

That’s neophile behavior. Neophiles, also known as early adopters or neophiliacs, are less motivated by the business logic of being first in line and more by an obsession for novelty and the psychic pain that routine and tradition causes. 

The term was coined by Christopher Wood((Christopher Wood also established that Beowolf and Jaws have the same plot in The Seven Basic Plots)), to describe the countercultural embrace of novelty in 1950s and 60s Britain.

Zipcar and Blablacar are high-profile tech startups but as Christopher Wood clarified, being a neophiliac has nothing to do with technology per se. Instead, it’s a personality trait. Foodies are neophiliacs. So are adopters of the new variety of Crossfit, low-carb diets, or mindfulness. Tim Ferris is the quintessential neophiliac.

Neophiliacs and your client base

There are likely neophiles among your audience, even if you think your audience is risk-averse. Because sometimes trying something new isn’t as risky as standing in the rain at a bus stop as your phone dies. Sometimes, the risk boils down to spending an hour looking at something new on your laptop, in your cozy office.

How many people in your target audience will you try something you offer just because it’s new? Probably about 1 out of 20((In his influential 1962 book, Diffusion of Innovation Theory, Everett Rogers proposed that 14% of the market for innovative products and services are “early adopters”)). So the question becomes, how do you identify them and what do you say to them to entice them to try your new product or service?

Identifying them is important so you can be sure to say something else to the 9 out of 10 who are non-neophiliacs. Because they are most of your customer base in the long term and they don’t care if what you have is new, they just want it or they don’t. In fact, many of them intentionally avoid what is new and are less likely to become your customers.

Derek Sivers talks about this difference in his Ted talk, How to start a movement – watch it if you haven’t already.

Are you back? The first guy, who did the crazy dance – he’s the innovator. That’s you.

The second guy, he’s the neophiliac. The next four or five who follow his lead are also neophiliacs, but that second guy is the leader of the neophiliacs. And the mob who joins in are the neophobiacs, the 90% who will pay 90% of your mortgage((Some non-neophiliacs aren’t phobic of change; they’re just novelty-indifferent)).

See the problem you have? Here’s a relevant fact: you can micro-target a Facebook ad campaign down to three people. But even then, don’t you still have up to three different personalities to talk to?

Neophiliacs are mentioned 21 times in Seth Godin’s This Is Marketing but he also talks about neophobiacs. He says:

“They are neophiliacs – addicted to the new. They get a thrill from discovery, they enjoy the tension of “This might not work” … the neophiliacs are very forgiving of missteps from those who seek to innovate with them, and incredibly unforgiving after the initial thrill of discovery wears off…

… sometimes, you’ll be trying to build products and services that last, that extend beyond the tiny group of neophiliacs and reach and delight the rest of the market… 

There’s almost nothing a marketer can do that shouldn’t be prefaced with that distinction.

How do you preface this distinction as you bring something new to your market – including a new product, a new service, or a website redesign: a new assertion of the value your business creates? I think you want to find not just that “2nd follower” who shows his fellow novelty-lovers the way, but also the leader of the neophobiacs.

Because if she adopts, loves it, and gives you a wonderful testimonial on your website, the other neophobiacs will be convinced.

She’ll say, “I was skeptical because I’d never tried working with this kind of service, but… now I’m happy”. The best testimonials start with doubt – and so do neophobiacs.

My best,