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There are over 500 million users on Facebook, 190 million on Twitter and  about 50 million on YouTube. But how many of these people actively engage on these Social Networking sites? While some of them may “Like”, “Tweet” and comment every 2 minutes, others are quite quiet. This social engagement phenomenon is commonly referred to as the 90-9-1 rule.

According to researcher Jakob Nielsen, this rule stems from a theory called “Participation Inequity” which occurs when the majority of people participate very little, and a small percentage of people make up the majority of conversation or content. The 90-9-1 rule of Social Networking can be explained in the following way:

  • 90% of participants are “Lurkers” – meaning that they watch and listen…but don’t contribute. Try this: browse through the people you follow on Twitter and I guarantee that you will see a name that is unfamiliar to you. Why? Because that person rarely (or never) Tweets. He or she is a Lurker, and you’re left asking yourself “Why did I start following this person in the first place?” Or that friend who never responds to any Facebook Wall Post or message that you send them.  As frustrating as it may be to be connected to lurkers, don’t worry about it, and don’t waste your time trying to convert them. It is a seemingly impossible task.
  • 9% of participants are “Casual Contributors” – meaning that they participate from time to time. Their participation occurs when they are passionate about a particular topic. If it is meaningful enough to them, they will participate. A Casual Contributor will share a terrible experience they had at a restaurant, or congratulate a friend on the birth of their first child. They will often add to content, by commenting or liking – maybe a Retweet – but they rarely create and share anything original.
  • 1% of the participants are “Heavy Contributors” – meaning that they are responsible for the vast majority of the original content created and shared on Social Networks. They are always coming up on your news feed, posting links to great videos, checking in on Foursquare everywhere they go and Tweeting the latest news. While this can sometimes be annoying, they are the driving force behind Social Networking. They are the ones beginning the conversation.

The Drawbacks

The major problem with the the 90-9-1 rule is obvious – you are not getting a true representation of the entire social community. 90% of the content being shared, conversation being had, and opinions being expressed is only from 1% of the population. However, while the heavy contributors are creating the majority of the content, the casual contributors and lurkers do have the option of expressing their opinion – a comment, a like, a Rewteet – whatever it is, their voice is still allowed to be heard. No one is forcing them to be silent – it is a choice.

The Solution

Before you get frustrated with the inequity of this “rule” it is important to note that the 90-9-1 rule are not hard numbers – they can fluctuate. Some networks may have a 99-1-0.1 rule while others may have a more balanced 80-16-4 distribution. Here are a few ways that Social Networks have attempted to balance out user participation.

  1. Make it easy to contribute
    Nobody likes things to be complicated – especially lurkers. If you want them to contribute, you need to make it as easy as possible for them to do so. Interactions on Facebook have greatly increased since the introduction of the “Like” button. And now, you can “Like” others’ comments. Facebook has made it easier for your Lurkers, and Casual Contributors to participate. Clicking “Like” and seeing that thumbs up appear is simple, and satisfying.
  2. Subconscious Participation
    The best example of this is the iTunes Music Store. I love finding music on the iTunes Music Store, but I have never once commented on, or rated an album. I am an iTunes Music Store Lurker. Let’s say for example if I go to The Arcade Fire’s page on the iTunes Music Store, iTunes suggests a series of other bands and albums that I may like based on my past purchases, and what other listeners of The Arcade Fire have purchased. I usually end up with a list comprised of bands I already love and bands I’ve never heard of. And chances are, I end up loving those bands I’ve never heard of. I can’t tell you how many times I have found a new artist on iTunes using this feature. It has turned myself, and all of the other iTunes lurkers out there into users that participate – that help others find music that they may like.
  3. Rewards/Incentives
    This kind of system has been executed by Foursquare and LinkedIn. When I first joined Foursquare, I wasn’t too interested. But the point system kept me in it, and got me somewhat hooked. When I checked into a new place, I got 1 point for it being my first stop of the day and an addition 5 points for it being my first time at that location. And then I found out I could become mayor if I went there and check-in more than anyone else. These incentives kept me checking in to everywhere I went, and I ultimately shed by lurker status on Foursquare. Similarly, LinkedIn tries to get its users to participate more by showing them the completeness of their profile. There’s something about that blue bar on the right not being 100% complete that that bothers me – and encourages me to give another job description, or recommendation, etc.

So for those of you that are bothered that 90% of your community is made up of Lurkers, remember – it’s not the amount of engagement you get, or the number of people engaging with you – its the quality of those engagements, and the quality of your connections. It is much more useful for you and your brand to be connected with someone important – and industry leader, guru or specialist –  who has insightful, thought provoking, useful things to say, rather than to 25 nobody’s who Tweet about their 7 am bowl of Cheerios. Social Networking is all about quality, not quantity. Take the 90-9-1 rule for what it is, and get the most out of your engagements.