Tuesday, December 9, 2008

90/9/1 Rule--Tell Me What It's Good For.

In the social media circles, hot topics travel quickly, as you might expect. We are the fanners of the flame, after all.

Today's hot topic is the 90/9/1 rule. This principle suggests a benchmark for community participation--roughly speaking, an online community can expect to have 1% of its members be active content creators, 9% of the members will edit that content (comment, respond, vote in polls, rate, etc) and 90% are content consumers--they read but don't do anything else.

Martin Reed and Mike Rowland both challenge this principle from the perspective that accepting this principle is to accept less than the full potential of an online community. And of course, there are a whole lot of "amens" coming from both sides of the issue.

This is Sam's perspective of the issue. He doesn't really care. This pic isn't germaine at all. I just promised that my cats would appear in my blog and it's a reminder not to take any of these social media conversations TOO seriously. It's still more art than science.

My perspective on the topic...

90/9/1 is a guideline, not a rule. And a very, very valuable guideline.

Many community managers look at online community with a wide-eyed sense of higher purpose and idealism. Online communities are changing the way that corporations interact with their customers, they give power to the people, can lead to dramatic social change, and they connect people around shared passions. There is certainly a strong sense of evangelism shared among community managers everywhere. Our cause is just and holy.

Yes to all of that.

And...online communities/social networks are also a commodity. They are an inves
tment. *Somebody* is paying for the bandwidth, the people, the designers, engineers, moderators, etc. for a reason. There is something they want in exchange. While doing a greater good and shifting a paradigm is fun and part of the objective, let's face it, it's still all about the Benjamins.

As a commodity, social networking/online community is largely funded by marketing departments. At least, that's my experience developing communities for major brands over the past 10 years. Some online communities might come out of customer support budgets, but by and large, I think we're seeing the spread of social networking online as a function of marketing dollars at work.

Marketing people like metrics. It's what they do. They want results for campaigns that are measurable against benchmarks. Doesn't matter if it's a short campaign like a tv ad running for 4 weeks or a long campaign like an online community. They want to hear those 3 beautiful little words that drive relationships all over the world.

Return. On. Investment.

Now, I'm not saying that's the *right* attitude to take. Just pointing out current reality. As an industry, social networks/online communities have a serious dearth of available metrics that make a case for *value* of an online community in a way that marketers like to hear. Yes, I know there are all kinds of metrics out there that can (and are) used to illustrate value. Some of them are voodoo....some are quite useful.

But marketing folks like to know "I spent x dollars on y campaign and that moved sales z % against an expectation of q industry benchmark. Therefore, my campaign was a success (or failure)."

We're getting there, but we don't deliver those types of results in the social media world yet. We're in the process of defining metrics that do show ROI, and we're in the process of redefining what community 'success' means in the marketing world.

But that's a long road to travel and in the meanwhile, the people paying the bills want to know what they are getting for their money.

The 90/9/1 rule is just a benchmark for marketers to understand.

Remember those old TV car commercials where they would spout off gas consumption efficiency, and they always ended with the legal disclaimer "actual mileage may vary"? It's like that.

Marketing people aren't the type of people who are going to hand you a check for $250K to develop an online community and not expect to see some *results* for that investment. And saying "I don't know what type of results to expect" isn't a very satisfying answer.

Neither is "we're going to connect people with your brand in a holistic way so you can be part of a conversation with your customer."

Sure. Sounds good. To what purpose?

Enter 90/9/1. This principle gives marketers a rough idea of what to expect, although actual mileage may vary. There are SO many variables at play--site design, prominence of links into the community, content integration, outside marketing, tone and culture of the community, etc.--but it's better to have *something* resembling a benchmark than not.

Online communities still need to contribute to the bottom line of a company. Having the online community is either adding revenue, saving expenses or improving brand awareness or there is isn't much reason to have it.

And those criteria are measurable in every other aspect of running a business, so why not for online communities, too?

The 90/9/1 rule gives a standard to compare to, but it's like any other rule of thumb. It's a good approximation, not a specific measurement.

Get 20 random people together and I'll bet that their thumbs will show a variance of at least 50% in size. And yet the rule of thumb says that the width of a thumb is roughly 1 inch and that's close enough. The standard lets you know roughly what 'normal' is, even with a variance.

In my experience managing both online and offline communities, the 90/9/1 rule is relatively accurate. Yes, there are exceptions both in terms of far exceeding and underachieving those ratios, but I've found it to be roughly true.

Previous statement disclaimer: I don't quibble over movements of 1-5% in community metrics. I look for larger trends and dramatic impact. For me, 5% is that margin of error or 'your mileage may vary' factor. I just don't consider changes that small to be statistically significant over time. Community behavior is just too volatile to worry about small swings in behavior until they become consistent.

I think the real point in using this principle is that it gives some comfort to people managing communities that you can be successful with as little as 1% of your viewers contributing content. When you consider the emphasis place on BIG numbers by most marketing folks, you can truly see the value of the 90/9/1 rule--it keeps the expectations reasonable while trying to nail down the exact ROI of the site based on *actual* behavior.

Short version of the story--it's a good guideline, but don't freak out if your site doesn't measure up and you still feel like you're getting value out of your community. And if your metrics far surpass this rule and you feel your community is successful, pat yourself on the back for a job well done.

If you're not measuring up to the guideline and you don't feel like your community is being successful, then it's time to examine your site strategy and implementation more closely and make adjustments.

As always, your thoughts are welcomed.



Palymama said...

Don't you think social media/online communities qualify for brand awareness? I'm just curious, as an ex-advertising-type, it strikes me it qualifies. The only difference might be the ability to measure brand "awareness" after the "campaign" - which in this case is ongoing. Also, I'm beginning to think a company's presence in an online community can serve as a vaccination against BAD brand awareness which is something that can never be measured but like polio, you're glad you didn't get it.

Mark said...

Palymama--you're so right! Yes, communities are a great way of building brand awareness.

And yes, it's measurable--I used to run advertising programs for our company back when we ran a very large chat site (10M visits per month), and the brand awareness of the advertising we ran in chat rooms was SKY HIGH compared to other venues.

The only problem is that not many people are buying brand awareness any more. The big companies are looking to move the sales needle and if not directly, then a strong indirect correlation.

For smaller to mid-size companies though, they *definitely* should be adding a community element to their online presence.

I used to run live theater companies/festivals before coming to the online community space 10 years ago, and can tell you how *valuable* instituting little things like discussion boards and feedback loops were.

Online was the ONLY way that small theater companies could compete (and win) with big theater companies.

That works for any other business. Online, nobody knows how big you are, so it's VITAL to get your community of fans and customers a place to talk about you so others find you.

What type of biz are you in?