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Home » Engagement, News, Social Analytics, Social Media News

Bursting the 90-9-1 “rule” of online community

Submitted by on March 12, 2010 – 12:25 pm8 Comments

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.

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8 Comments »

  • I mostly agree, but would go far further than this: (http://www.feverbee.com/2009/08/9091.html).

    The 90-9-1 ‘rule’ is entirely irrelevant for online communities and is an observation gleaned from audiences and platforms like Wikipedia.

  • Hi Bernhard, great piece
    Thanks for linking and commenting on my contribution to this “debate” about the “rule”.
    To clarify my thinking.. a Lurker is a participant at some level as they have
    (1) chosen to read.. if done regularly not a one off
    (2) they have the choice to actively participate and contribute – but they exercise their right not to.. to lurk.

    It all depends what you want to use this “rule” for.. in my piece I use it to help manage peoples expectations that not everyone that enrols will be proactive.. but the fact that they read is a low level of interaction – one way. many seem to think that will communities the adage “build it and they will come” stands – the 90-9-1 is a great metaphor for describing the reality they may expect

  • Mike Rowland says:

    Thanks for linking to our blog post on this subject Bernhard.

    We try to help our clients understand that there is no magic number or ratio, instead the focus needs to be set on the value the community will provide. By using a gimic like this ratio, you set false expectations. If your ratio is too low, you focus on driving it higher to be in line. If your ratio is above it, you pat yourself on the back. But the key is the focus on the value the members are providing and that you are providing them. Audience, culture, content quality, platform, registration requirements, etc. all come into play when discussing activity levels within a community. Because the variables are so wide, there cannot be a true industry benchmark.

    That’s why we instead have our clients focus upon three large buckets for determining success:

    1. Traffic – Answers “Are we attracting the correct audience and enough of them?”
    2. Behavior – Answers “Once the audience member finds us, what are they doing and is it beneficial to the community?”
    3. Value – Answers “Does the activity within the community provide an economic value back to us? What value is provided back to the member? Is there a balance or are we out of synch?”

    Because to us, it’s the value not the ratio that is important.

    We’ll be discussing this a bit more in the context of B2B Social Media at InternetWorld in London April 27th at 1:00 pm in the Social Media Theatre. Please stop by and say hello!

    Regards,
    Mike

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