There was a time not so long ago when having home Internet service made you an oddball.

In 1996, when I moved into my first apartment, I installed America Online on my shiny, new, box-like Apple Macintosh computer. AOL, as it is now known, offered dial-up Internet access and email.

The current AOL logo. Source: AOL

At the time, email was something a few college students had on campus and businesses were just beginning to use. My computer at the magazine publisher I worked for at the time had a single email account for the entire office, and using it also required dialing in. That office did not even have Internet access, but I had seen the Web (which was mostly empty by modern standards) at college and knew I wanted to be there.

I was the classic early adopter, and my $14.99 (or so) a month was the price of admission. By luring me in, AOL, which is now owned by Verizon, did more than just gain a customer. Ultimately, it had me preaching the value of the service to my parents (my mom still has an @aol.com email) and even my dearly-departed grandmother, who learned how to read and send email but never quite mastered the "reply" function.

As an early adopter, I set up shop and waved the all-clear to my entire family. Without people like me, it is doubtful that AOL -- or any other emerging technology -- would catch on.

Early adopters can build an audience
Especially when it comes to technology products, it can be tempting to ignore the outliers. If your company or brand wants to reach a mass audience, it might be easy to dismiss the person willing to walk around wearing Google Glass before anyone else even knows what it is. Those people, however, are especially important -- if you cannot win over the person willing to take chances, what hope do you have of reaching the average consumer?

This may not be true if you are marketing a new orange soda or a brand of comfortable yet fashionable socks. In the tech world, though, it is paramount.

"All products need validation before they are built to ascertain the real problem they solve," wrote Subraya Mallya on Prudent Cloud. "They need early supporters/evangelists, after they are built, to prove their worth in the marketplace and to cross the proverbial chasm."

Early adopters take that first step -- they bring the word of mouth and positive experience that can drive interest in the product. Of course, that is also a double-edged sword. Anger early adopters or make a change they dislike, and they could sink you just as easily.

Avoid these traps
Morgan Gerard, a Vice president at Idea Couture, wrote a piece called Innovation & Early Adopters: Beyond the Bell Curve, where he sought to change perception of the term. He did not dispute their value in building word of mouth, but said exactly who they are changes based on the product:

Without a deep understanding of and appreciation for early adopters, they risk operating in a cultural void where assumptions can lead to product ideas that have no relationship to reality.

Those assumptions can be traps, particularly if chasing numbers on a bell curve leads to designing products that target only early adopters and, in the process, destabilizes brand identity or alienates core consumers.

His company listed a number of mistakes that companies make when targeting early adopters. These include:

Early adopters are opinion leaders: This is not always true. It's only true if the early and late majorities actually follow the lead of early adopters who feel compelled to talk about a new product.
Early adopter word-of-mouth is the goose that lays golden eggs: It can be. But six months later -- if they discover a flaw in your product, get bored with it, or see everyone else jumping en masse on to it -- early adopters often drop an innovation. The majority notices, and they, too, might abandon ship.
Early adopters are cool: Some are, some aren't. Confusing early adopters with "cool" and the fluid, contextual boundaries that define it -- or any other litmus test used to define a market research cohort -- is a strategic misstep. 

Companies want, maybe even need, early adopters, but there is a fine line between courting them and making a product that appeals only to them.

You need them
Even when you are talking about the aforementioned orange soda, somebody has to try it to tell the next person if it is better than Fanta or Orange Crush. Early opinion matters, but companies and product marketers need to be careful in how they court them.

Building a product just for early adopters can lead to an Ello-like flameout (remember the social media site that was all the rage for a minute?). Instead, companies need to build good products that appeal to people that will give them that first shot and also to a broader audience.

It is a challenge, but it is very hard to succeed without early adopters supporting you.

Daniel Kline owns shares of Apple. He used to be dankline@aol.com but not anymore. The Motley Fool recommends Apple, Google (A shares), Google (C shares), and Verizon Communications. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple, Google (A shares), and Google (C shares). Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.