Bursting the 90-9-1 “rule” of online community
If you’re not familiar with the 90-9-1 explanation of online community engagement/participation, it goes something like this:
- 90 percent of those who enter an online community are your silent majority; they observe, but don’t participate. They are frequently referred to as “lurkers.”
- 9 percent participate, but only intermittently.
- and the remaining 1 percent are “heavy contributors.”
This concept has been put forth by a number of social media pundits, most recently by Jakob Nielsen who gives us this handy 90-9-1 pyramid.
To be sure, it’s a convenient shorthand to predict what kind of interaction you can reasonably expect from your community, whether it be employees participating in a closed-off wiki, or the Facebook fan page presided over by the marketing department. The problem is the model is overly simplistic and doesn’t quite explain why all too often you get dead air, zilch, crickets when you post something that you think is brilliant and provocative and, at other times, there’s a much more vibrant response from the community when you post something you think is, well, brilliant and provocative.
Partly because of this discrepancy, the 90-9-1 “rule” is under fire. Some say that a lurker is actually a participant, and that simply lumping them into the silent majority doesn’t accurately reflect the true community dynamics. Others see 90-9-1 as too charitable. It’s closer to 99-.9-.1, they say.
Truth is 90-9-1 serves a purpose if you regard it as not a rule, but as a guidepost, a theory, a myth-busting theory at that. Secondly, whether it’s 1 percent or some fraction of 1 percent, the important concept to take away is that it’s a relatively small percentage of a community that will reliably contribute to community dialogue. This is a crucial initial assumption to make when trying to nurture a community so as to manage everyone’s expectations. Lastly, don’t underestimate the quiet 90-99 percent. They are still part of the community and they still demand timely, informative and relevant detail. You owe them this much as a steward of this community. In fact, they are the ones to concentrate on if you are to build a truly vibrant community. All too often they are forgotten. And that’s the point when the community dynamic most often falls apart.