Disruptive Innovation is a term that is attributed to Clayton M. Christensen in 2003. Basically, it refers to what occurs when some type of significant innovation (new technology, business practice, etc.) is developed that dramatically affects an existing market or industry. Often a significantly disruptive innovation will eventually force an existing industry to either adapt or become obsolete. Some of the most obvious instances of disruptive innovation involve a new technology completely turning a pre-existing industry upside down. A couple of historical examples would be the invention of the printing press which disrupted the traditional 'industry' of hand copying books and the invention of the automobile which disrupted the established horse and buggy industry. More recently, we have the development of digital photography and the traditional film photography industry, digital music and the recording industry, wireless cell phones and the legacy phone companies. You get the idea.
The rise of the internet and digital media in general created massive disruption of numerous legacy markets and industries. In fact, affiliate marketing could easily be viewed as a disruptive innovation affecting the traditional advertising and marketing industry. The interesting thing about disruptive innovations is that the most successful ones (that eventually replace a pre-existing industry) then become targets for future disruption themselves. Put another way, yesterday's disruptive innovation is tomorrow's legacy industry that is destined to be disrupted by some other innovation.
Historically, major disruptive innovation seems to have taken place over longer periods of time. The automobile didn't replace the horse drawn carriage overnight (it took the additional development of mass production to really speed it along). But, much of the innovation we see happening today happens more quickly. In the purely digital realm, we see a company like Twitter rise seemingly overnight and change the landscape for the social media and search marketing industries.
The marketing industry has been in almost a constant state of disruption since the dawning of the internet. Since one of the foundations of the industry is based on how consumers communicate and access information, any new development that changes consumer behavior in these areas becomes a new challenge and opportunity for marketers.
As online marketers, we have leveraged new technology and helped to drive the massive disruption of traditional advertising. In fact, many online and affiliate marketers seem to thrive by closely following the latest disruptions. Far from the old-school advertising execs who initially resisted the online medium because it was new and different (and therefore a threat to the status quo), today's successful affiliate marketer is quick to take advantage of the latest developments. The rise of social media wasn't viewed as a threat to our current business model, but rather a new opportunity to grow and become even more profitable.
This strategy of looking for ways to leverage new technology and consumer communication trends has served the online marketing industry well in an environment where change happens incredibly quickly. The fact that we have basically grown up with constant change will likely serve us well in the years ahead as our industry continues to evolve to meet consumers wherever they go (mobile anyone?).
If there is any lesson for affiliate and online marketers from looking back at other examples of disruptive innovation, it is that if you get too comfortable with the way things are today and aren't ready to adjust your thinking and tactics to accommodate surprising changes, you risk being left in the dust. If you didn't adjust your search marketing programs the next time Google changes its algorithms or tweak your email initiatives to accommodate new filtering technology, you would end up as becoming as obsolete as a VCR. The better you are at actively identifying new disruptions as they emerge, the more successful you are likely to be in affiliate marketing.