Sam Fiorella, Partner at Sensei Marketing, recently wrote “Community Management: The 90-9-1 Rule is Dead,” about how the old concept that 90% of all your followers are just lurking, 9% are engaged, and that only 1% of the community actively produces content. Sam believes this is dead and that it’s closer to 70%/20%/10%, according to some research by Paul Schneider (back in August of 2011).

I don’t know if I agree with this — I think it’s more like 990-9-1 — we’ve attained a culture that is getting further and further from being an actor and more and more comfortable in the audience.

From Producers to Audience, from Hobbyists to Consumers

It’s happened like this over and over: photography, filmmaking, recording, radio, television, computing, the Internet, message boards, blogging, and now social media. At the beginning of each of these creative innovation, there was a heyday of hobbyism, during which ambitious and creative innovators were able to use their wits, a little money, and loads of sweat equity to become the earliest of adopters, well before commercial interests even knew there were commercial opportunities available.

I have recently become obsessed with Amateur Radio. Even though radio has been commercialized since the mid-20s, Ham Radio holds on to the hobbyist nature of radio, almost as if radio were captured in amber. Amateur radio reminds me of what it was like being a blogger in the late 90s using tools like Greymatter, Zope, and Pyra Labs (pre-Blogger). You needed to connect to your platform intimately, understanding all the layers of online communication: hosting, web service, bandwidth, programing languages, monetization, plugins, domain names, DNS, moderation, anti-spam strategies, site architecture, SEO, and the rest. With message boards, it was the same thing. Even if you weren’t a creator, admin, or host, it took quite a lot of effort to become a USENET member. If you wanted to join, you really needed to figure out your computer, your modem, you ISP, your terminal, your BBS, and then find your way through a gateway or two, until you found your way into USENET — and then you’d need to find your way around that entire thing.

It’s not like that any more. There’s very little need to be a hobbyist to engage with the Internet any more. Who even needs to know what Apache is, what an IP address is, how to set up a DNS, navigate the MX records, hack an .htaccess document or be concerned with ping latency. Now, all of that stuff is invisible, seamless. The barrier to entry has been (mostly) razed.

There are still coders, hackers, geeks, nerds, and hobbyist around, but those are hundreds-of-thousands of folks and not hundreds-of-millions — to say nothing of the 2 billion folks who are online, globally. Today, circa 2014, it’s tough to even get that close. You need to go out of your way, these days, to be able to run your own mail and web server from your own home. It’s not even easy to get an ISP or web host to give you access to shell access.

And, if you don’t know what the hell I’ve been talking about in the last few paragraphs, you’re part of the problem and not the solution.

So, as a result, we’re entering a world with fewer and fewer active Internet-, Web-, Blog-, Social Media– and Content-Creators. Social media, including Pinterest and YouTube, is becoming more and more celebrity-, brand-, agency-, and studio-driven.

Again, as inheritors of all previous communications innovation, we’ve pretty much transitioned from being makers to being takers — and if you don’t think this is true then maybe you’re just surrounded by geeks. Don’t let that influence your perception. And, let’s say every one of those 1.19 billion monthly active users of Facebook do engage, OK? Well, they’re probably just micro-sharing: cat photos, family photos, selfies, and dinner plates. These are insular, contained communities. Even amongst these communities, while there is a very high level of engagement when it comes to photos of cats, children, babies, vacations, etc, these are completely insular friend-and-family communities. While each member may very well follow Ellen DeGeneres on Twitter and Like her on Facebook, they’re probably lurkers in that community.

If they’re from Atlanta, they’re required to follow The Coca-Cola Company on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ — but will they engage? Will they participate in a real way through sharing and commenting? (Are you still a lurker if you Like things? Are Likes really true participation or does participation require a share, reshare, or retweet?)


I have been a professional online community manager since 1999 and the numbers for online participation between passive lurkers, the engaged (commenters) and creators of content (on generalist sites) is closer to 99.989% lurkers, .01% engagers, and .001% creators, or 1000 lurkers for every 10 engagers for every 1 creator. This is for a generalist site, and is more realistically 1,000 people who are followers but not aren’t paying active attention — active listening, 100 who are actively listening, maybe even Liking or Plussing, and surely clicking through to your links, and then there are only 10 who are resharing, retweeting, commenting, and repinning, and finally, only 1/1000 are actively writing, publishing, tweeting, blogging, or even dropping links into sites like reddit, becoming true OPs. Or, if I were to be more charming, 900-90-9-1.

This is an important differentiation. Those 900 are important, even if 90% of them bounce, there’s still an impression. It took me a while to register the importance of my long tail blogger outreaches. While my conversion is roughly around 15%, of the 4,000 bloggers I’ll reach out to via loosely-targeted personalized emails in any particular outreach, around a thousand respond directly to the pitch and click through to the social media news release. With the project I did for Mizuno, The Mezamashii Project, one-half of the 4,000 bloggers we reached out to clicked through to the SMNR. To the world of altruism and branding, this is possible the first of seven touches that they will have received.

While we all want conversions to sales and we want true-believers, true-bluers, and a hoard of fan fanbois, marketing and sales isn’t only about farming and over-farming the same superfans again and again. The same thing with lists, groups, communities, etc.

Don’t we need to devote at least some attention to those detached majority? I know why we don’t, actually: we’re afraid of scaring off our fan base, right? We’re afraid of diluting what has been working for us into something that nobody wants. We’re afraid of selling out, maybe, and losing the attention of our reliable core.

The Lurkers Still Consider Themselves Citizens of Your Community

I used to be on the Vestry of an Episcopal Church on Capitol Hill. As part of the Parish’s edification, we hired an Organizational Consultant. The facilitator was called Bob Gallagher of Congregational Development. He told a very good story that helped explain the nature of the community to me — which is also a perfect analog to the virtual online community. The model works perfectly because all online is an opportunity to globally communicate and commit with people who have the same interests, passions, or concerns as you do.

The Members of the Church Analogy

Who are the members of that church at the center of town? The one right off the square? The one with the fine bell that chimes. Is it the Rector? The Vestry? The Choir? Those who are registered members? The daily attendees? The every Sunday mornings set? The Christmas, Easter churchgoers? The people who only come in for weddings and funerals? No more, right?

Well, according to Bob, the effect of this simple town Parish goes much further. People who have family ties to the Church even if they don’t attend. Let’s go further. According to Mr. Gallagher, he once knew of a parish church that suddenly lost its bell. The bell tower collapsed and the church did not have the funds to repair it right away.

The bell went silent and it wasn’t just the tithing members of the church who noticed, it was everyone in the town. Not just the average 184 church members, but the average 6,200 residents of a small town. The constant presence of the church building and signage, its persistence involvement in the community, and its constant soulful tolling bell, touched much more deeply than the Rector and Vestry were consciously aware (especially after counting the donation plate after Sunday services these days).

Its regular tolling — and the stoic and beautiful presence of its belfry on the town square — had become part of everyone’s identity. It was as important a part of the culture of the town as anything else. When that bell stopped ringing, it freaked everyone out. People who had never actually attended church clearly perceived the church as “their church” too.

In the case of this simple, apocryphal, story, it would be an error to limit the appeal for the money required to repair the bell. If there really is, indeed, a much larger perception amongst the greater town that the church with the broken bell is, indeed, “their church,” were they asked, then targeting too tightly — down to only the closes and most active members of their faith community — would have been a mistake.

It seems to me that it would be better to find a way to appeal both the greater 6,200 residents as well as anyone and everyone who had ever lived in that town — the alumni of the both the town and the church, even if they had moved away.

To bring it back into focus, while those 6,200 citizens in the small town were not active members of the church community — they were very passive lurkers — many of them not only were very aware that the bell has stopped chiming but they were more than willing to self-identify with the church being theirs and of members of the church, their church, the same church they had never attended in their lives.

Even so — even though they were not active participants — they were willing to contribute to the “save the bell” fundraiser.

Targeted Versus Untargeted Followers and Lists

Granted, there are surely better numbers than this. When I talk about the 900-90-9-1 rule, I am discussing communities in which there are little or no targeting. Communities like mine, for example. My Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Tumblr, Instagram, Vine, Flickr, Pinterest, YouTube, and blogs are open to the world. I have around 5,000 friends on Facebook, around 50k followers on Twitter, 5,643 followers on G+, only 387 followers on Tumblr, 7,236 followers on Instagram, a mere 326 followers on Vine, 404 followers on Flickr, 1,863 followers on Pinterest, and 3,483 subscribers on YouTube. While I try to draw people into my communities who are interested in digital PR, social media marketing, and online reputation management (ORM), I don’t do a very good job of only creating content about that. So, I have a relatively low engagement with folks who do follow me, though I do have quite a lot of influence. I create so much content on so many topics, all the time, that people are always bumbling into me through one channel or another. While this is terrible when it comes to a quick conversion, a quick sale, my channels do introduce quite a lot of people to what is often their first experience of what I am reviewing, discussing, or sharing; however, with such general followership over so many platforms, numbers of followers and volume of content count.

However, targeting tightly requires some choices. How are you going to collect a targeted list? Are you going to collect a loose list and then ping/pitch it a few times to try to collect together a sanctum sanctorum — an inner sanctum — of influencers? Are you going to be discerning and exclusive? Are you going to work hard to collect that list of influencers or are you going to be lazy? Will this then mean that you’re in a competitive space, fighting with others for these choice, engaged, few? Are you willing to buy lists? I believe folks like my friend John Hlinko collect very effective and extensive lists and groups of people who have a proven interest and passion. In John’s case, it’s liberal and progressive politics. His lists are not cheap at all, but they’re worth it because he’s done a lot of work and shouldered a lot of risk.

The way I do it is by doing a broad, deep, and large loose outreach on behalf of my clients. Of the 4,000, there are probably upwards of a thousand folks who respond positively to the outreach; and, while they might not be ready to message or share on behalf of my client over that particular issue, offer, or pitch, they’re generally interested in keeping connected.

Each time you engage the larger community, you can then skim off the most responsive participants. You can skim off the folks who have their hands out, the folks who are mean, unresponsive, uncool, and uninterested and then collect those who are willing to engage into a social CRM or some other method — a Rolodex? A CRM? — to allow you to engage and track the relationship over time. To add what you know about them and what they’re interested in, over time. To build not only a rapport but actually intimacy, connect, and fellowship.

Conversion Carries Across Channels and Platforms

Numbers matter. According to an article by Spring Metrics, “A 2007 Article in Target Marketing cites 2.9% as the average conversion rate. Most numbers that you see fall somewhere around the 2-3% range, which hasn’t changed much for a decade.” And it won’t change, generally-speaking, unless you really learn how to both hyper-target your lists, followers, following, and groups. If you want to be lazy, then it’ll be just a numbers game for you. No matter what sort of list, followership, collection, community, or platform you target, no matter how general — when you just take it and throw it again the wall — you’ll probably get a 2%-3% conversion rate. So, numbers matter.

Empower your .001% to empower your .01% to empower your 99.989% — make sure the closest member of your inner sanctum feel empowered to be brand ambassadors on your behalf. Converting the 9 to become a member of the 1 is as essential as having the 9 bring the 90 closer. These are gimmes. If you can convince your closest, most passionate 91 to bring members of the lurker community — the 900 — into the fold, then you’re really being a community manager.

At the end of the day, 100% of your followers and friends — even the lurkers — are members of your community, even if they’re not converting. You could, of course, reject those lurker as freeloaders just because they’re not bending a knee in your pew every Sunday (at least) and passing an envelope to your donation plate; or, better yet, you should 1) empower your deeply engaged and embedded members to act as ambassadors on your behalf, encouraging them to bring the lurkers closer 2) develop a more engaging content strategy that will draw more of your lurkers into the fold — but beware: changing the programming of your channels may well turn off your most passionate fans. You’ll need to make a choice when you come to the crossroads: selling out for popular success and untold riches or keeping things tight in order to keep things authentic and real.

It’s all up to you.

Either way, pop me a note. I’ll always be a member of your sanctum sanctorum. Go git ‘em tiger!