The field of lead user research has seen a great deal of attention from academics and practitioners alike. However, we still lack a full understanding of the nature of users with high potential for innovation. In this paper, we employ a social network perspective on lead users. Increasing the realism of our research in three empirical studies with different empirical settings and methods, we provide robust evidence that lead users have a distinctive social network position: They exhibit an unusually high level of betweenness centrality, meaning that they are positioned as bridges between different social groups. This finding has two major implications for lead user theory. First, it consolidates seminal conceptual work on lead users and their embeddedness in social networks. And second, the findings extend and validate prior work on the social network perspective of lead users by combining theoretical insights from cognitive psychology, research on creativity, and network theory. As the social network positions of individuals can be mapped quickly and at low cost with modern Web mining tools, our findings may point to a new and readily applicable approach for the efficient and effective identification of lead users in real-life projects, an aspect that is usually emphasized as the most crucial activity in lead user projects.
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