If They Don’t Want To, They Won’t

Fax machines were about as cool when they came out as they are today. Circa 1986 you might have heard, “So let me get this straight, I need to have one and so does the other person, who I’m quite sure doesn’t, and only then it’s useful? You have heard of mail, right?”

No price-cutting, no cost savings argument, no brilliant marketing was going to make faxing the thing to do. It took a shock to the whole system to adopt the technology. Sometimes this is the only way behaviors change. Here’s what happened and then we’ll look at what we can do with it.

In 1988, in the UK, the postal workers went on strike. It was the first strike in 17 years and businesses were stuck. How were they supposed to get documents across town or across the country or beyond without the mail? They couldn’t. The world stopped. It wasn’t just a bottleneck, it was a chokehold.

Fax machine adoption surged that year. Yes, snail mail would still go back to being preferred when available, but for sake of business continuity, a responsible establishment couldn’t not have a fax machine anymore.

The fax is only one example. Think about video meetings during the pandemic. The tech was there. The marketing and planning was there. WebEx had been around since 1995 and Zoom was a tech investor darling with a detailed business plan. They, and others, were growing at a relatively slow pace until the pandemic hit.

The right marketing didn’t drive mass adoption. The right pricing didn’t drive mass adoption. The pandemic and the sudden willingness to change behavior drove mass adoption.

Here’s the key point (which is clearly not “all you need to succeed is a major external incident”):

Willingness to change can be as (or more!) important than anything else. Don’t just focus on what is being pushed from the company side, look at what’s being behaviorally considered from the customer side too.

Adoption happens when the behavior is ready (and sometimes forced) to change. Focus your attention there – on the time before and the improvement in the time after, and think about behavior will change over time to incorporate whatever you are offering.

ps. hear about this insight and more with Rory Sutherland on the O Behave Podcast ep. 34 on Creative Consulting.