The Whole 9%: Social Q&A Data and the 1-9-90 Rule

July 12, 2011 by John Swords

We’ve been noticing an interesting correlation between the well-known 1-9-90 rule derived from online forums and the participation rate in our ecommerce-based Q&A system.

Initially noted by Bradley Horowitz in 2006, the 1-9-90 rule claims that online forums can be divided into 3 participation groups: Creators (1%), Contributors (9%) and Lurkers (90%). Creators will initiate content production unprompted. Contributors will respond to content others have initiated. And lurkers just read. (For a primer on the 1-9-90 Principle check out Bradley Horowitz’s post, and for some serious number-crunching check out Dr. Michael Wu’s articles.)

Here’s what we noticed. The TurnTo system emails questions from people shopping on an online store to past customers who bought the item that the shopper is considering. The people who receive those emails are a pretty random sample of the overall customer base of the store. And those randomly selected customers answer those shopper questions at an 8% rate per email sent (average across all stores using TurnTo – top stores get a 10-12% answer rate). That’s awfully close to the 9% that Horowitz observed on forums. And it suggests that from a “participation” point-of-view the composition of an online store’s customer base may look a lot like the composition of the membership of an online forum. Namely, a small percentage will initiate a dialog, around 9% will respond, and the rest will read what the other two groups produce.

This is a significant insight if you run an ecommerce business and want to build deeper customer relationships through online community. There’s a big part of your customer base that is very willing to engage if given the right invitation. You can’t count on them to actively seek out ways to contribute, but if you reach out to them, they will respond. Don’t settle for 1% when you could have 9%!

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Have you noticed online activity that relates to the 1-9-90 Principle? Tell us about it in the comments below.