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90-9-1 Rule of Thumb:
Fact or Fiction?
May 19, 2017
What is the 90-9-1 rule of thumb?
• In a typical community, 10% or fewer of the members will tend to
post, ask questions, present, etc.
• The rule of thumb is:
o 90% will not post or speak up at all
o 9% of the members will participate at all
o 1% will regularly be active in discussions and presentations
There is a desire to overcome this rule
• I received this query: “Do you have any numbers for ideal
engagement for internal social networks? Something like this:”
• I replied: From my experience, the percentages shown above are
not realistic, and the 90-9-1 rule of thumb might actually be
• More than 130,000 members
• January 2016
o Average Inactive (members who do not post): 96.61%
o Average Active (members who post > 2 times in a month):
o Average Mildly Active (members who post one or two times):
o Average of members who post anything at all: 2.97%
• February 2016
o Average Inactive (members who do not post): 96.99%
o Average Active (members who post > 2 times in a month):
o Average Mildly Active (members who post one or two times):
o Average of members who post anything at all: 3.01%
Notes to ESN Data
• Two months of data show that the percentages are stable
• It may be closer to the 90-9-1 if the 97 is really split between those
paying attention and join-only members
• If a typical group is 50% join-only (join but then completely ignore
it) and we remove those join-only members, the percentages
become something like 94-5-1
• SIKM Leaders Community
• More than 650 members
• Yahoo! Group threaded discussions
• Jan 2015-April 2016
• Average the percent active and percent very active
• Active 2.1%
• Very active 1.77%
• Which is more like 96-2-2
• My LinkedIn articles
• More than 6,300 followers
• Number of views, likes, and comments for each post
1. 308, 52, 5
2. 589, 72, 11
3. 557, 60, 7
4. 635, 68, 14
5. 416, 27, 4
6. 476, 45, 9
7. 847, 70, 5
8. 805, 119, 19
9. 384, 33, 2
10.475, 69, 3
Notes to LinkedIn Data
• The ratios form a pattern of
o 5-10% of followers who read a post
o .5-1% of followers who like a post
o .05-.1% of followers who comment
• This is a familiar power law distribution, in this case
o 90% don't read
o 10% read
o 1% like
o .1% comment
• It’s useful to add a fourth number representing the people who
join communities, but don’t pay any attention to what is going on
• This makes a distinction in the inactive members between
learners and join-only members
• Learners pay attention to the community’s discussions, shared
content, and events
• Join-only members may have good intentions, but they end up
being essentially the same as non-members, because they
receive no benefits from being members
• There is nothing wrong with the 90% not posting, as long as they
read, listen, pay attention, etc.
• But if they don't, then they are not getting value from the group,
and the organization misses out on their personal development
and/or their contributions to the other members
Is the 90-9-1 Rule for Online Community
Engagement Dead? by Paul Schneider
• “So, maybe we don’t need to be so dire about how many people
engage in your online community.
• I would suggest a new rule (with a little rounding):
• The 70-20-10 Rule of Community Participation”
Three Community Myths Busted
by Ted McEnroe of the Community Roundtable
• “Myth: The 90–9–1 rule – just one percent of members of a community are
truly engaged, while 90 percent lurk.
• Reality: More like 55–25–20.
• Communities are complex organisms, and really, no one “rule” will define
engagement percentages for every community.
• But consistently over the past three years, our research has found that
engagement levels in communities are consistently higher than the old
• That’s not to say there aren’t big, external (usually) communities that aren’t
• And whether you count inactive but registered members, how you set up the
community permissions and other items can have an effect on your numbers.
• But when you normalize for members who log into a community during a
given month – you’re more likely to find that a sizable minority are posting,
commenting, creating, liking, sharing and collaborating.”
2013 State of Community Management
by the Community Roundtable
Demystifying the myth of the 90-9-1 rule
• “The biggest finding of our research was quantifying just how
much active community management correlates with high levels
• Most community management professionals are familiar with the
90-9-1 rule of online engagement and some communities do
track very well to that engagement pyramid.
• But many question this rule because it can be unreliable or an
• What we found in our survey was striking - an average
engagement profile of 55-30-15 – wildly different than the
common rule of thumb.
• More surprising, the average of the most engaged communities
reported more creators than lurkers - at 17-57-26.
• For best-in-class communities there are more content creators
than there are lurkers”
Guesstimating the accuracy of the 90/9/1 rule
• “I think it's clear that the reality could well be more like
the 98/1.9/0.1 rule
• Instead of what the accepted reality has been so far.”
The 90-9-1 Rule for Participation Inequality in
Social Media and Online Communities
by Jakob Nielsen
• “How to Overcome Participation Inequality
• You can't.
• The first step to dealing with participation inequality is to
recognize that it will always be with us.
• It's existed in every online community and multi-user service that
has ever been studied.
• Your only real choice here is in how you shape the inequality
• Are you going to have the 'usual' 90-9-1 distribution, or the more
radical 99-1-0.1 distribution common in some social websites?
• Can you achieve a more equitable distribution of, say, 80-16-4?
• That is, only 80% lurkers, with 16% contributing some and 4%
contributing the most.”
Describing the distribution of engagement in
an Internet support group by post frequency: A
comparison of the 90-9-1 Principle and Zipf's
Law by Bradley Carron-Arthur,
John Cunningham, and Kathleen Griffiths
• “The current analysis broadly replicated the findings of van Mierlo
• The top 1% of members contribute the vast majority of posts
• The next 9% a minority
• And the last 90% very few
• Thus, the 90-9-1 principle appears to provide a reliable means of
broadly categorising participant contributions
• Zipf's law: the frequency of posts made by a member is inversely
proportional to their rank in frequency
• This is a widely observed phenomenon spanning areas such as
linguistics, populations, income and internet traffic
Does 90-9-1 even matter? Mark Diller says yes
• “1-9-90 matters.
• Communications departments are often Yammer advocates within
the organization, and those departments have established
methods of communication: intranet, email, face-to-face, etc.
• When you add Yammer to the mix, the first question you start
fielding is how effective this new social network is in raising
awareness of a given topic.
• If all you're doing is reporting the ‘1’ and the ‘9,’ it looks like
Yammer pretty much sucks by comparison with the other vehicles.
• The ‘90’ is vague, hypothetical, and largely unverifiable, but it's an
important element of estimating the overall reach of your
Does 90-9-1 even matter? Steve Nguyen says no
• “Does 90/9/1 really matter?
• Is the goal really to convert the 90s to the 1s?
• Sure, the benefit comes when there are more contributors.
• But contributing about what?
• I think that's the more important aspect to focus on.
• If we can get our communities focused on contributing relevant
content, those numbers kind of work themselves out.
• As an example, I have no idea what the 90/9/1 ratio is for our
Microsoft network or the Office 365 community.
• But I'm confident enough in the existing contributors and
contributions that I can find the information I need when I need it.
• So from that standpoint, does 90/9/1 matter?
• Not really.
• As a participant in the network, I trust the people in it.”
The downside to increasing active participation
• What would happen if 90% of community members posted
• In a small group, that might be okay
• But in a large community, the volume and frequency of posts
would likely become a problem
• More frequent posts from more people can result in more noise,
and can cause members to stop paying attention
• So those who lament that only 10% of a community are active
should consider the possible negative consequences of a
• If people will just pay attention, read, and learn, that is valuable
• Based on my experience, that will be the most we can expect
from most members
Recent Twitter thread
• Stan Garfield: What makes a great community?
• Peter Staal: Just curious, how did you come up with the number of 100 members at least?
• SG: See Does Size Matter in Communities? and 90-9-1 Rule of Thumb: Fact or Fiction?
• PS: And if you have 97 percent lurkers, how can one derive value if the group size is only
• SG: Lurkers are not a negative - they are a basic fact of all communities. If they pay
attention and learn, there is great value to be derived.
• PS: Your data suggests that is it more or less wasted time to try to convert lurkers to
creators. Since 97 percent is a given. Correct?
• SG: Power curve distribution: order of magnitude difference between members, active
members & very active members. Don't try to convert lurkers.
• PS: So the focus should be more on growth, rather than engagement tactics?
• SG: Both. Community leaders should SHAPE: Schedule calls/meetings, Host them,
Answer questions, Post useful info, & Expand membership/content
• PS: But what impact does SHAPE have on the 2-2-98 rule? Will it increase contributions?
• SG: The rule of thumb is 90-9-1. SHAPE will draw out contributions from the 10% who are
active, and deliver benefits to the other 90%.
• PS: What do you think about Working Out Loud (WOL) to increase participation? Is it
possible to rise above the 10%?
• SG: I agree with John Stepper on WOL, but also with Jakob Nielsen: “How to Overcome
Participation Inequality: You can't." See 8 reasons for working out loud and narrating your
Do you have an asking problem?
• Tony Melendez: I would add to "compelling topic" the significance of promoting
the "question". Incentivize posting questions, reward inquisitive users.
• Stan Garfield: See Why people won't ask questions and Sound of Silence and
• Tony Melendez: Love this! This is a MAJOR obstacle in the KSA. Culture isn't
conducive to visible questions. Visible answers, yes. Questions, not so much.
• Lee Romero: I like Tony's last comment there - "Culture isn't conducive to
• I translate that into what you and I have called the "fear of asking" (and you
mention in your post on "Why people won't ask questions").
• I see that with the organization I'm in.
• People don't like to ask questions "publicly" (in a community or ESN) because
it means they don't know the answer and who wants to admit they don't know
• Instead, they hand-pick a few people they know and directly ask them (via
email or IM).
• Less "risk" but also less likely to get a good answer (unless you're really lucky
and happen to know someone directly who has the answer) and also it does
not make the conversation visible to others (so no benefit to others).
• I haven't seen any change in the 90-9-1 rule for communities
• I see more evidence of 95-4-1, even in groups focused on
knowledge management and collaboration
• And some think that the number of inactive members should be
• Note that the Community Roundtable data was taken from a
survey, which is different from directly measuring data in actual
• I prefer to rely on empirical data, rather than survey data
• If you can generate a higher percentage of active community
members, that's great
• For internal communities, this usually depends on factors outside
the direct control of the community manager, such as senior
leaders who are active and get others to follow their example
1. 90-9-1 Rule of Thumb: Fact or Fiction? by Stan Garfield
2. Twitter Discussion and subsequent SIKM Discussion
3. Power Laws, Weblogs, and Inequality by Clay Shirky
4. 90:9:1 – the odd ratio that technology keeps creating by Charles Arthur
5. Is it true that over 50% of all edits on Wikipedia are done by the 524 most active users?
6. 1% rule in Wikipedia
7. Community Management: The 90-9-1 Rule is Dead by Sam Fiorella
8. Ripples of influence in a CoP, moving through the 90-9-1 rule by Ewen Le Borgne
9. The 1% rule and why it still matters by Ramy Khuffash
10. Where is Everybody? The 90-9-1 Rule Explains Where Your Blog Audience Hides by Dani
11. Is the 1% rule dead? The BBC thinks so, but it’s wrong by Bobbie Johnson
12. The 90-9-1 Rule in Reality by Michael Wu
13. Is the 1% Rule Still Relevant? by Kevin Spidel
14. The 90-9-1 Rule: Dead, Different, or a Distraction? by Crystal Coleman
15. Mapping Power Law Distributions in Digital Health Social Networks: Methods,
Interpretations, and Practical Implications by Trevor van Mierlo, Douglas Hyatt, and Andrew
16. Community by the Numbers, Part III: Power Laws by Christopher Allen
17. The 90-9-1 Collaboration Paradox: Org’s Should Aim To Reverse It by Dan Pontefract
18. Leveraging the 1% rule by John Stepper
19. Lurkers are learners: new approaches to understanding participation by Catherine Shinners
20. Ten Principles for Managing 90-9-1 for online community engagement by Crispin Butteriss
For additional information
• Join the SIKM Leaders CoP http://tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/sikmleaders/
• Twitter @stangarfield
• Site http://sites.google.com/site/stangarfield/
• Implementing a Successful KM Program https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/implementing-
Principles and Practice
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