The 90-9-1 Rule: Dead, Different, or a Distraction?

The 90-9-1 Ratio or 1% Rule (out of 100 people in any given community, 90 will be lurkers, 9 will engage with content, and only 1 will create content) has been up for discussion a lot lately.  The BBC came out with a study that 77% of people online are content creators in March. It came up at the Online Community Unconference in May.  Paul Schneider declared it dead way back in 2011 (but his writing on the topic has shown renewed interested this spring). The Community Roundtable's State of Community Management Report also declared the number outdated. There seem to be two different conclusions that people have come to regarding the current state of the 90-9-1 principle: either it's completely dead or it needs to be updated. I'd like to make a different conjecture: it is a distraction.


A study like the one that the BBC conducted, which flips the numbers so completely upside down, seems to suggest that the rule is completely dead. If 77% of people online are creating content on one or more platforms, with the other 23% mostly choosing not to, the age of the lurker is dead. Everyone is a creator, an engager, and a consumer, simultaneously. 


Other articles have posited that the numbers in the formula just need to be updated for this new Age of the Creator. The Community Roundtable found their survey produced an average ratio of 55-30-15. In communities that were used for intra-company communication, the ratio changed to 17-57-26, with more creators than lurkers. Schneider's survey found that a 70-20-10 ratio was more in line with his findings. 


I'd like to propose a third option (which I've heard others suggest, as well): Any "rule" that tries to pinpoint a ratio for online engagement is just a flawed distraction. Every community elicits a different level of participation from its members, so trying to attain a magical formula just because you're told that you should is taking you away from the things you should be spending your time on: welcoming members, coming up with great content, planning events to bring your community together, and focusing on your community, not the numbers.


(Image: Participation Inequality 90 9 1, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from christophera's photostream)

Edited for clarification of 90-9-1 Rule, 7/14/13.

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