The Bass Diffusion Model and You (I’m talking to you writers) by Ben Wagner

In 1969, Purdue University marketing Professor Frank Bass published a paper entitled “A New Product Growth for Model Consumer Durables” (typo included) that defined a simple equation to describe the rate people adopt new products.  The underlying theory is that “innovative” early adopters influence imitators, who eventually entice the masses to buy in. 

The equation is pretty accurate. From dishwashers to VCRs, cellphones to social networks, almost anything we consume follows Bass’s essentially bell-shaped curve of innovation. Variables  effect the size of the market and rate of adoption – DVD adoption was faster than VCR adoption; mobile apps explode seemingly overnight and disappear just as fast. (I’m oversimplifying here, feel free to explore more at Prof Bass’s site). Generally all products and markets follow this lifespan: they are born,  stumble and grow, achieve their apex, then fade off into the sunset (see: Blockbuster, Borders, Dustin Diamond).

This is a cornerstone of marketing, and should be a cornerstone of your approach to modern storytelling.

The studios have taken this lesson to their reptilian hearts. Their love of sequels and “pre-existing IPs” is  motivated by a desire to jump the line, to start farther up the awareness mountain. It’s much easier to sell something people already understand (Transformers) than something new and foreign (Pacific Rim). 

Indie and genre movies operate on a smaller scale. Most likely the film’s life begins with no awareness (unless it’s based on a book, or someone’s life rights, or a documentary). Maybe a key casting gets some notice, but it’s not until the film plays at festivals that it connects with small, enthusiastic crowds. Festival goers are the innovators, the ones willing to take a chance on something new. Hopefully they inspire imitators to seek out the movie: those who can’t make it to Park City but read the reviews on The A.V. Club. With some strong buzz, maybe the film opens in a few theaters. Or when the mass audience is scanning through iTunes, they might see it ranked in the top ten new releases. To the “mass audience” they’ve stumbled upon something new, while the innovators have known about it for months or years. 

When you wake up in the middle of the night with the Most Compelling Original Idea Ever Conceived™ remember that you will be starting at the origin of Bass’s model – (0,0), the bottom. No one else knows of your masterstroke. No one else believes in it. You will have to convince people of your idea’s brilliance, a handful of them at a time, for years. 

You must teach people to want something they don’t know they want. 

If your idea is true and you are passionate, you will have one advantage. You will know the narrative heart of your idea, and you can expand your idea to connect with audiences well before your story reaches the screen. The universal elements of storytelling are not limited to one medium. Story is communicated through conversation, prose, performance, song, dance, painting, sculpture, architecture, theater, film, interactive arts, graffiti, fashion – everything we do as humans projects part of a story about ourselves and our experience (intentionally or not). 

It’s not cynical to bring a marketing tool into a diatribe on art and narrative. Bass’s Model codifies what should be evident: it takes a long time to convince most people to try something new. If that’s your goal, be prepared for a long journey. But more importantly help them enter your story early and often: send tweets, create a blog, make a comic book, do something that no one has ever experienced.


Ben Wagner is the director and one of the writers of the feature film DEAD WITHIN (available this September from Millennium Entertainment). See a few of the many ways Wagner is expanding the film’s story at and follow the film @TheDeadWithin

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