Understanding the “90-9-1″ Rule and How to Optimize It

It is generally accepted that there are 3 categories of users within online communities: 

  1. The 1%—Extremely active users who contribute the vast majority of content, answers, and activity. 
  2. The 9%—All other casual or occasional contributors. 
  3. The 90%—The ‘lurkers’ who only consume content (or don’t log in at all) and never contribute directly. 

And while we’ve made the positive case for a fourth group called active lurkers, we’ve found this ratio to be broadly correct across internal and external, large and small communities. In this article we’re going to examine what these categories of users actually mean in terms of impact, as well as how to optimize the ratio for maximum participation, value generation, and growth. 

Who are the 1%? 

These power users are the lifeblood of any online community. They spend inordinate amounts of time contributing to the platform, solving problems, generating ideas, and going the extra mile. To community lurkers, their zealous energy makes no sense—why are they contributing so much time? It’s not like they’re getting paid!

It could be for a number of reasons: the thrill and status of being seen as an expert, to make friends, for rewards, to create a portfolio for future job prospects, or many others.  

But according to Mark Suster, an expert on the topic, these power users “Need to have the right tools, social status, rewards and stickiness to your product because they don’t want to abandon their creation. You live or die on the power users because they build the most compelling content and help promote your website (because it helps them).”

How to optimize the 1%

The best thing you can do is give them more of what they want. If that’s status, then create new badges or titles for top contributors; if it’s meeting peers with similar interests, introduce ways for superusers to connect. Try speaking with your superusers and asking them directly what you can do to help them! 

Who are the 9%? 

These casual contributors are nothing like the power users. They aren’t invested in your platform and they don’t care about gaining ‘status’. Casual users most likely have 1-2 vested interests within your community’s scope and will occasionally (but passionately) pipe up following a particular experience which they feel compelled to write about. 

While not as valuable as the power users on a 1:1 basis, they do outnumber them significantly. As your community scales up, their contributions rise exponentially and have a significant impact. 

How to optimize the 9%

Make the platform as easy to use as possible. Remember they don’t care about getting points or rewards or joining events—as long as they can log in, find relevant feeds and easily make their point, these users will be happy. Optimization here is very long-term: if you can just keep them around, it’s the scale of their contributions over time which will have the biggest impact. 

Who are the 90%?

The vast majority of your community’s members fall into this category. These guys don’t contribute or participate: they simply ingest the content; they take what they want and leave—and that’s absolutely fine! 

If your community is a great place to just turn up and consume content, then you’ll get a lot of traffic that way. As long as you have a healthy number of casual and power users, you shouldn’t put any pressure on the 90% to suddenly become contributors—they don’t want that. 

It’s also worth noting that even if you can’t see it, as many as 50% of them might even be contributing indirectly, known as ‘active lurkers’. 

How to optimize the 90%

Many communities try to convert lurkers into nine-percenters. If this is done in quite a passive, you-can-take-this-if-you-want kind of way, then it might catch a few and be worthwhile. But as soon as you create a barrier to consuming the content, those members are gone. 

The best thing you can do is make it known that ‘lurking’ and simply consuming content is absolutely okay in this community and encourage the behavior. Keep this group stable, and invest your energy in the 10% that actually wants to contribute. 

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Brought to you by PeepSo Team Eric Tracz
I'm a Digital Nomad currently living in Manila, The Philippines. Co-Founder and CEO of PeepSo.com. First time WordCamp Speaker at WordCamp Kuala Lumpur 2017, WordCamp Singapore 2019 and hoping to speak more soon. I started my journey with open source nearly a decade ago as a simple support guy. Joomla! was my first encounter with the world of Open Source. After that period of my life got phased out I fell in love with WordPress and never left. I have been both lucky and at the same time I worked my ass off to get to where I am right now. Free time, if I have any, is usually spent with my wife and / or travel around South-East Asia. Even when I'm supposed to be on a little vacation, not a day goes by when I don't check up on PeepSo. So far visited or lived in: Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Hungary, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, China, Japan, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Norway, Germany, Scotland, England and more... Whenever possible, I jump on my Ducati Monster and just ride.

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@peepso_user_41569(Morris Silvya)
I recall it was power users that led to the downfall of digg and one major factor that led to the mass migration of users from digg to reddit. I still recall one user called MrBabyMan. Digg never recovered from that. Of course, the other factor was not listening to its users about social media integration that users hated but Kevin (was that his name?) went ahead with the release of that version. We all know what happened after that.
@peepso_user_20080(Randy Murray)
Is or do you consider registration with a verified email/confirmation a barrier to the 90% ?
September 19, 2021 6:32 pm