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How We Know the 90-9-1 Rule for Online Community Engagement is Officially Outdated

Written by Heather McNair on June 29, 2020 at 3:30 PM

Two community leaders discuss 2020 engagement trends

A rule about online engagement has floated around the internet for a while, called the Rule of Participation Inequality, or the 90-9-1 Rule. The rule goes something like this:

User participation in any online internet community generally follows the 90-9-1 rule:

  • 90% of community members are lurkers who read or observe, but don't contribute
  • 9% of community members edit or respond to content but don't create content of their own
  • 1% of community members create new content

For anyone new to community management, this is a discouraging benchmark. If active participation is this low, what’s the point of creating an online community at all?

For organizations who’ve already launched an online community and don’t see high engagement, this rule might lead them to accept it’s the norm.

But we see communities generating impressive results for their organizations every day. To do that, a community needs to have solid engagement. The 90-9-1 rule just doesn’t align to that.

We decided it was time to re-look at the data so that we could have accurate expectations for engagement levels today.

Here's a sneak peak of what we found. This is the first trend we dive into in the just-released Engagement Trends Report. Explore the details and discover two more community engagement trends in the full report.

Report Higher Logic 2020 Engagement Trends Report

The 90-9-Rule is Outta Here: Higher Engagement Levels Have Arrived

We wanted to dig into the reality of what engagement or the new 90-9-1 rule looks like for our own customers at Higher Logic. Does the rule hold true?

Turns out, it does not.

In our research, we found that the 90-9-1 rule has given way to more community member participation. In fact, a large portion of community members participate in the online communities they’re part of, especially in small communities.

In doing our research, we categorized all of the possible activities in the community into one of four levels to show the amount of engagement associated with that action. Community members were then categorized by the highest level of engagement they displayed in the given time period.    

There are four different types of community members:

  • CREATORS Users who create posts, blogs, and other new content
  • CONTRIBUTORS Users who reply to comment on the created content
  • CONSUMERS Users who exclusively view or log in to consume the created content and its contributions (also known as “lurkers”)
  • INACTIVE Users who have not made any actions in the community in the last year

This is to be expected, but unlike the traditional 90-9-1 rule, where just 1% are creators, we found that a much larger group of community members, up to 23%, are actively creating new content.

The 9% part of the 90-9-1 rule was fairly consistent with our research when we looked at the contributors (members who only respond), because that was around 10%. But when you combine it with the creators (who respond and create), we saw engagement levels up to 33%.

This holds true in branded communities both big and small.

According to our research:

  • In small communities (under 5K members), 33% of community members are Creators and Contributors, which is 3x the community standard.
  • In medium and large communities (10K-50K members), 20% of members participate with equal amounts creating content (around 10%) and reacting to it (around 10%).
  • Even in the largest communities (50K+), over 5% of users are actively creating content with another 5% responding. While the total amount of Contributors is consistent with the conventional 10% participation, the equal split shows more users are comfortable creating new content.

What does this data tell us? Community engagement is clearly much higher than commonly thought.

When users are encouraged to create content, they build value for other community members. More content begets more interaction, such as replies, comments, and post recommendations. These interactions create value for community members at all levels - even those quiet consumers.

Additionally, it’s clear that branded communities are considered safer spaces than public social networks. In branded communities, people feel more comfortable showing vulnerability by asking questions. There can also be greater rewards for sharing and showcasing their expertise.

One caveat to keep in mind is that all online community software providers are not created equal – engagement differs depending on the strength of the software’s engagement capabilities. This research was based solely on Higher Logic customer sites. 

Don’t miss reading the full report, where we dive into this trend in more detail. Plus, after each trend, we share strategies to increase your engagement.

Download the 2020 Engagement Trends Report.

Want to learn more? Join us for the report launch webinar, where you can hear more about the data and tips for improving your community engagement.

Webinar - 2020 Engagement Trends Report

Editor's note: A prior version of this post was published in 2011 and has since been updated with 2020 data. 

Topics: Online Community Management, Engagement, Customer Communities, Member Communities, User Group Communities, Customer Engagement, Member Engagement, Online Community

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