Don't discount the lurkers

August 31, 2010
Posted by: Jenna Woodul

Last week one of my colleagues sent me an interesting discussion brought forward by Mark Suster about the 1-9-90 rule. This is a loose rule of thumb that says most communities will see 1% of people posting a lot, 9% posting now and then, and the rest of the 90% lurking (or watching, or reading, terms I like better). Mark talks about the benefits to each of the rule’s component roles, pointing out that you shouldn’t worry about the non-participant watchers. They’re happy doing what they’re doing and chances are low that you’ll convert them, as they like to consume, rather than create content. Generally, I’d agree.
The 1/9/90 rule can vary a bit. If a site is relatively small and very tightly focused on one purpose, you could see a higher percentage of participation. With more volume, that percentage usually goes down. The very very large sites on the Internet don’t have anything like 1% of core contributors. Because of the massive volume involved, many of them (such as YouTube) have a contributor percentage well under 1%. Yet clearly, the main value comes from the enormous number of watchers.

You don’t have to change them

You don’t have to fixate on watchers as potential 1-percenters or 9-percenters. If they’re coming back regularly, they’re clearly getting what they came for — they’re being entertained, or getting information, or feeling supported, or they just like to follow the action. In some ways (but not all), this is a bit like being a part of the audience at a play, or the crowd at a football game, or the gallery of the Senate, or any other situation where I’m just consuming the content. I begin to know the characters or players, I get emotional, I enjoy the action, I learn stuff, and — possibly most importantly — I’m likely to tell my friends about it. Which is great 🙂

But it’s good to think about them

But keep in mind, everyone’s a watcher until they first post. It’s good to consider why some people don’t participate. As one of the commenters on Mark’s blog noted, sometimes it has to do with reluctance to communicate in a second language. Or maybe some intimidation in the face of debate. Or unfamiliarity with the community customs. Or, especially in a very active and passionate community, an unwillingness to interrupt.
You can’t do much about people’s internal fears of self-expression in a public venue. But you can do your best to promote an environment that values each person’s content and treats it with respect. What the watchers see community members posting helps to determine whether they will ever get on the dance floor. Are posters, especially new ones, recognized? Welcomed? Or do posts just sit there with no response? Do people respect each other and cultivate a particular community etiquette? Or do cliques tend to shut newcomers out? That type of thing.

As it might help everybody

As people note a positive reception to new posts, they may stick a toe in the water to let you know they’re around. Take care at that point not to overwhelm them with welcome or praise. Let them stick around for a while before you ask them a direct question. As sophisticated as today’s online users are, many people take a while to warm up — just like they do at any party or gathering. Let them take their time; they’re racking up your page views and unique visitor numbers, and they may be sending lots of other folks your way.