Online participation

If you spent the weekend catching up on online news, you may well have seen the start of a small disagreement between GigaOm and the BBC.

The issue at stake?  Whether or not the 1% rule is dead or not.

The 1% rule of online interaction is a variation on the Pareto Principle and says that a minority of us – around 1%- are creating most of the content when it comes to online discussions, blogs and social media.  A further 9% are creators, great for editing or changing content, or sharing and spreading it, but less likely to actually drive new content from scratch. The other 90% are lurkers, hanging around the web, sucking in information and inspiration but choosing to remain on the outside rather than get stuck in digital conversations themselves.


The BBC – using new research carried out for the BBC Online Industry Briefing on the Participation Choice – suggested that the 1/9/90 rule no longer applied and that, actually, participation is the now the norm rather than the exception with “77% of the UK online population now active in some way”.

That last line – “active in some way” – is what GigaOm picked up on to raise questions about the validity of the BBC’s claims:

“The BBC appears to have missed the fact One Percent Rule was never intended to dictate a single pattern across the entire web: it was a rough guideline for expectations inside any given online community or service.

Should it be a surprise that 77 percent of people are active in some way in some sort of community? I don’t think so — and to suggest otherwise ignores the fact that people behave in different ways in different places. After all, like me, you could be highly active on Twitter, and therefore part of the one percent, but remain a lurker on a site like Metafilter (even though I’ve been a member there for a decade).

Or you could be a highly active Wikipedia editor (one percent) who uses Instagram simply to browse pictures from people you know (10 percent). Or you could be an active commenter on one blog but never leave comments anywhere else. It goes on.

That’s where your 77 percent comes from: the BBC research is really just comparing apples and oranges.”

Apart from the obvious surprise at the original interpretation from the BBC, there’s another a big question that seems to have been ignored by their industry briefing:  What should we really be valuing when it comes to online participation?

Targeting mass participation at the expense of real engagement is exactly the type of quantity vs. quality debate that matters to all types of marketing or customer engagement, irrespective of the channel.

Yes, saying that 77% of people are participating might sound good, but if all they are doing is posting a photo of their summer holiday on Facebook once a year it hardly represents a ripe opportunity for rewarding online engagement.

Similarly, just because someone doesn’t overtly participate online doesn’t mean they’re not engaging with a brand.  They might be sharing a message offline via word of mouth, or responding by directly following a call to action such as purchasing a product.  They might be telling their friends to follow someone verbally rather than re-tweeting a comment…. or, they might just prefer to sit back and listen.

Just because some people prefer to listen than talk doesn’t make them any less valuable when it comes to online community building.

A community could have virtually no signs of active participation – in the form of comments, user generated content etc. – but if its user base is genuinely loyal, keeps coming back and is genuinely getting value from the content they find, far from suggesting a wasted effort and zero participation it suggests a great match and understanding between those writing the content and those consuming it.

Just as in the real world introverts and extroverts use different style to very different ends, just as sometimes it pays to speak up whilst at other times it’s good to be quiet, online participation is a personal choice.

Aiming for 100% participation is useless unless there’s a real reason to want those people to tweet or comment or post.  Mindless participation will simply clog up communication channels for those who really do want to create.

So, perhaps there are three lessons from this weekend’s discovery:

  1.  Large corporations don’t always know best – Thanks GigaOm for pointing that out.
  2. There’s  some life left yet in the 1/9/90 rule of online participation. (And it pays to check what those stats are really saying!)
  3. Participation may not be all it’s cracked up to be.  Be careful what you wish for, and use solid strategies to target participation that’s genuinely valuable for all concerned


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