Participation inequality – the 90-9-1 rule

I’m not exactly a huge fan of Jakob Nielsen – I’ve been known to describe him as a dinosaur stuck in the 1990s before. And I’ve been pissed off at times when he’s always trundled out by the BBC whenever they want a soundbite about ‘website usability’. There are other people who know something about the subject!

Despite that, even non-fans such as myself have to admit that he often has some very useful and interesting things to say. Here’s an article about how 90% of social network participants are lurkers. It’s an old article (dated October 2006), but you can still observe the same thing happening today. It’s the 90-9-1 rule. 90% of people lurk, 9% contribute sometimes, and 1% contribute the bulk of the content.

Read the article, I’m sure you’ll find it interesting.

You can still observe the same phenomenon today on forums (I’ve given up saying “fora” – no one else does). Have things changed since 2006? It seems as though they might have. Every man and his dog now has a Facebook account, and some people Tweet every time they fart, as though this would be interesting to their ‘followers’. So, participation figures really must have changed since the old days when the most usual way of online interaction was via discussion boards or forums. Where is the evidence for this hypothesis? I’m not finding it. Perhaps you can help me?

One thing to consider is that if 90% of the visitors to your website, blog or community are visiting regularly, soaking up the information they can get from it, and not contributing anything, then why are they doing that?

It could be because they want to learn. Hmm. I think that’s doubtful. Some newbies can be shy about posting (either on a forum or even by making a blog comment). But many newbies can be very needy with lots of questions, even some where the answers would be obvious if they just took the time to read a bit more of what’s already there.

Maybe it’s because they’re looking for ideas from your blog or forum to use elsewhere. Yep. I sometimes go and look at other places just to see what the buzz is and for ideas of things to write about.

Some are just information seekers. Nothing more. They have a question. They find the answer to it on your site (most likely found via a search engine). They get the info and leave. End of story.

There could be countless other reasons. They don’t see an opportunity to tout for business. They’re not sufficiently interested to post. They prefer to be passive. They don’t feel that they have much to say on the subject. Can you think of any more reasons why people lurk? I guess it’s pointless to ask lurkers on here to tell us why they lurk. LOL.

Perhaps more importantly, can anyone help with my research and point to any evidence which might suggest that the 90-9-1 rule is now old hat because of the huge interest in social media such as Facebook and Twitter?

And another thing to consider is that if 90% of your audience consists of lurkers, are you doing enough to persuade them to take some action and buy from you or are you leaving 90% of the potential sales on the table?


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