The Rule of 1%. Why it matters to your online community.

Effective use of Information Technology

Llun o Victor Meldrew o wefan y BBC / Picture of Victor Meldrew from the BBC website
Llun o Victor Meldrew o wefan y BBC / Picture of Victor Meldrew from the BBC website

I have to be careful here and try to avoid sounding like a curmudgeon.

A few words of caution for anyone about to launch an online community;


  • Most people will not participate (even if they say they will),
  • Many of those that participate initially, will stop after a few months (weeks probably),
  • You will be left with a core of ‘die hard’ enthusiasts (talking to each other), and
  • An (increasingly disillusioned) ‘community facilitator’ working at
    full stretch to keep the community alive.

Sorry if that sounds very negative, but it is a fair reflection of the reality in some of the online communities I’ve experienced It’s also part of the 1% rule of Internet culture.

The 1% rule or the 90–9–1 principle is a hypothesis that more people will lurk in a virtual community than will participate. It’s been around since the mid 2000’s and has been likened to the 80/20 rule (Pareto principle), where 20% of a group will deliver 80% of the activity.

For online communities the 1% rule states:

  • 1% of people will actually create content;
  • 9% of people edit, modify or comment on that content; and
  • 90% of people will view the content without contributing.

Based upon my experience this feels about right and seems to be a very plausible hypothesis. It could also apply to some of the offline physical communities I’ve also experienced.

I appreciate that this sounds awful. Why would anyone bother with an online community with participation rates like that?

Well, there are many positives that can come from an online community, and some have much higher participation rates than 1% (it is after all an average figure from across the internet).

The good news is that you can boost your participation rates, and there are lots of helpful resources (many of them online) which will help you achieve this.

One of the key activities I would suggest is to ask why? Why do we need this online community?

To answer this question it is worth thinking about why people would participate in an online community, and designing the community to meet these needs. Lots of the online advice suggests six main reasons for participation. If you can provide an answer that is specific to your potential community members, you are probably heading in the right direction. Just ask, “will our online community satisfy members need for?”

  1. Anticipated reciprocity (you will get something in return),
  2. Reputation (it will make you look good),
  3. A sense of achievement,
  4. Altruism (doing good for others),
  5. A sense of belonging (the community provides this), and
  6. Emotional connection.

One of the key messages in much of the advice about online communities is that participation rates will decline after an initial peak. The secret to keeping the community alive is about making sure that activity bounces back to a sustainable level that makes it worth the investment, again, lots of advice about this online.

Finally, I did hear of an example a successful online community that had 1,700 members, discussing the finer details performance management. This community was held up as an example of success and ‘how things could be’. When I asked the Community Manager what was the secret of success they said, “the hard core of about 20 people who are always online, posting questions and commenting on what others have to say”.

I wasn’t aware of the rule of 1% at the time, but 20 active people in a community of 1700 feels quite close to the rule of 1% to me (1.2% actually).

3 things I’ve learnt:

  • Online communities are not ‘resource free’. In most cases somebody needs to facilitate the community and help to keep things ‘ticking over’.
  • Most people in online communities do not actively participate. The rule of 1% probably applies, even to your online community.
  • There will be an initial burst of activity when the community is formed. This will drop off over time. Unless something is done to invigorate the community, there is a danger it could become dormant.

This post is based upon two posts that were written on my personal blog in May and June 2012.  Links below:



  1. Passive viewing is not a waste of time, after all reading books or watching TV can be useful too but is similarly passive. If the blog/website/conversation is relevant and lively it will continue to attract viewers (as well as active participants) but it has the potential to influence all 100% not just the 1% or the 9%.

    Keep it up (on behalf of the 99%).


  2. Hi Chris,
    I’ve used a couple of forums in the past, one was brand new and fizzled out very quickly, the other was quite big and vibrant. But I stopped using it because one of the moderators was a nasty old boot. Shame really everyone else was quite nice.
    Perhaps i’ll go back and check it out? With a bit of luck someone else might have sent her a python in the post?

    Regardless of the rule the 99% of people are still reading and absorbing what you create, so provided there’s a sales message in there somewhere or you’re trying to build your personal brand it’s not a waste of time.


    • That’s a good point about your message being absorbed, and if it’s via a forum then you are seen as being a sociable individual or organisation.

      Do let us know if you go back and check out those forums – it would be interesting to know how they’ve fared!

      – Dyfrig

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