For every regular contributor, nine occasionals and ninety-nine lurkersOnline participation

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Working with everything from political groups to online discussion boards, I've heard the same lament: "We have so many members. Why do we have so few people participating?"

Hard though it is to admit, for the vast majority of members, that organization or web site that occupies the dead centre of our universe lies at the outer fringes of theirs. Whether because of interest, attention or life's many other demands, they'll only partake of a little of the array of functions and content we've set out before them.

Frustrating? Maybe. But their time is as scarce as anyone else's, and the fact they're devoting any time at all to our cause or community is still flattering.

Earlier this month, Jakob Nielsen (whose first two names might as well be "usability guru", because the phrase invariable precedes every mention of him) posted some superb advice on participation inequality in online communities.

First, adjust your expectations:

User participation often more or less follows a 90-9-1 rule:

  • 90% of users are lurkers (i.e., read or observe, but don't contribute).
  • 9% of users contribute from time to time, but other priorities dominate their time.
  • 1% of users participate a lot and account for most contributions: it can seem as if they don't have lives because they often post just minutes after whatever event they're commenting on occurs.

Next, understand how that skews the feedback you can expect from your community: "On any given user-participation site, you almost always hear from the same 1% of users, who almost certainly differ from the 90% you never hear from." And accept that this inequality will always be with us. You can take measures to budge those numbers, but you can probably forget about reversing them, according to Nielsen.

Finally, do what you can to flatten that curve, even a little. Nielsen suggests five approaches:

  • make participation easier
  • make participation a "side-effect" of using the site passively
  • offer templates for users to edit, instead of expecting them to create from scratch
  • reward participation
  • promote quality contributions.

It's well worth reading. And it has important implications for much more than just the number of active participants on your site. By encouraging richer participation, and valuing quality over frequency of contributions, you can dramatically improve the conversations happening in your community.

And that goes a long way toward encouraging even more participation.

 

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