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Is the 90-9-1 Rule for Online Community Engagement Dead? [Data]

Posted by Paul Schneider on Thu, Aug 11, 2011 @ 10:43 AM

There is a rule that has floated around in the social media world for quite some time called the Rule of Participation Inequality or the 90-9-1 Rule. This rule states:

User participation in an online community more or less follows the following 90-9-1 ratios:

  • 90% of users are Lurkers (i.e., read or observe, but don't contribute).
  • 9% of users are Commenters. They edit or rate content but don’t create content of their own.
  • 1% of users create content and are Creators.

This rule gives both hope and discouragement to organizations that are creating online communities. It gives hope to companies and associations who launched an online community and are not seeing any business-level benefits since they believe that 1% engagement is acceptable. It also discourages organizations from exploring how an online member community or customer community can impact their business if they believe that only 1% of their audience will fully engage. If you are creating an online community for people to participate in, and 90-9-1 statistics dictate that a high percentage of people will not participate, where is the benefit?

Having heard this rule for years and seeing what I suspected were higher levels of participation in our customers’ online communities, I began to ask myself if the rule is really true. So, I set out on a quest to see if that 90-9-1 Rule holds water.

Testing the 90-9-1 Rule for Online Community Participation

Is the 90-9-1 Rule Still Valid?

Why Did I Conduct This Research?

If the rule did not hold up, many companies and associations may be damaging their business and marketing strategies by basing decisions and benchmarking results using a general rule created in 2006 . So that the readers of this blog have a point of reference for when this rule for online communities was created, keep in mind that Facebook ended 2006 with only 12 million users (Facebook now has over 650 million users).

Study of Online Community Customers

I compiled statistical data from a random sample of our customers so that I could crunch real numbers to determine if the Rule of Participation Inequality was true for private online communities. To begin, I had to assign actions to measure at each level. So here are the actions I assigned:

  • Lurkers: Have logged in and viewed information.
  • Commenters: Have commented on or edited a blog, wiki or file or have answered a forum post that was already initially asked.
  • Creators: Have initiated a blog, file, wiki or forum post.

The thing about the rule is that it infers that all users are doing something since the 90-9-1 all add up to 100%. The problem is that many organizations have profiles of users that are deactivated, past members, or guests. Also, not all members of an online community have access to the same tools, content, and functionality. So, to make a fair correlation, I ran two sets of numbers - one set accounting for all profiles in the system and one set with only the participating users making up the 100%. These numbers are below:

Analysis of the 90-9-1 Rule for Online Community Participation

Findings of the Online Community Research

My belief is that the second chart is a more accurate comparison to the 90-9-1 rule since all users have to be doing some activity to account for the 100% of the sample. So based on the data in that chart, there are a few interesting things we can learn:

  • All but one online community had more Commenters than the 9% the rule suggests. So, people seem to be more open to editing and commenting on existing information.
  • All sites were higher in Creators than the 1% the rule maintains. One as high as 17%! With more and more people getting comfortable with social networking sites, perhaps people are more comfortable in expressing their opinions.
  • The averages for each area are far higher than the rule suggests. (Well, other than Lurkers, but that is a good thing!)

So, maybe we don’t need to be so dire about how many people engage in your online community. Based on this data I would suggest a new rule (with a little rounding):

The 70-20-10 Rule of Community Participation

Has a nice ring to it doesn’t it!

Online Engagement Takeaway

How would it impact your business or membership organization to increase your online engagement among customers or members who create content in your community by 1000% and more than double the number of people who engage in discussions and comment on content? For most organizations this would mean higher customer retention, better customer satisfaction, and more passionate brand advocates in the market. The data above tell us that you don’t need to settle for generalized guidelines. Look for strategies and technologies that are proven to break long-held rules and benefit your organization.

Free Online Community Resources: Learn How to Create a Private Online Community for Customers or Members

Tags: Association Management, Member Engagement, Social Business, Online Community, Customer Engagement, Social Strategy

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