The Pareto Principle also known as the 80/20 rule states that roughly 80% of the effects come from roughly 20% of the causes. This means that about 80% of the activity in an online community would be provided by 20% of the participants. Interestingly enough when it comes to online communities the rate of participants and activity are quite different in that 1% of members are active and regularly participate in the community, 9% of members view community participation as secondary thus contributing only occasionally, and 90% of the members lurk in the background occasionally reading and/or observing the activity without actively participating. More detail on the 90-9-1 principle can be found in Jakob Nielsen's article "Participation Inequality: Encouraging More Users to Contribute". What I found interesting about this research is different community tools have different variations of the principle, for example blogs have a much lower level of active participation.
I've been involved in a number of communities at Cisco, both internal and external, and one thing I've come to learn and appreciate is a successful online community is hard work. It makes me appreciate our community manager Laura Douglas all that much more for the effort she puts into this community to make it as successful as it is. When it comes to online communities there seems to be an expectation that people will join, these people will have expertise to contribute to the community and the user-generated content (UGC) that is created will become viral throughout the community and beyond. It's because of these grandiose expectations that many communities fall short and ultimately die on the vine. That's not to say it isn't possible to create a community and have it take off like wildfire, but given the participation inequality rule it's not probable. One example of such a community within Cisco is the Apple/Mac community. This community grew organically within Cisco with user generated content on how to use Apple products within the Cisco network and member supported resolutions for issues related to using Apple products. However, it took a long time to reach critical mass, but now ~20% of the Cisco employee base belongs to the Apple community.
Online communities can be a powerful way to share information among members that have similar interests and build upon these ideas for new forms of innovation, but they do take a lot of work. The largest challenge seems to be in driving participation and converting lurkers and part-time participants into full time users and contributors. Examples of things we've done to drive community success are:
- Mission statement and goals- before even starting on a community, define what the purpose of it will be. It can be visionary, but should be specific. Also, establish goals that show progress to meeting the vision for your community.
- Architect your community- what tools will you make available and how will they be accessed? If it's not incredibly simple to contribute and find information in the community then people will stop participating.
- Create incentives for participation- rating systems, rewards, recognition provide incentives to participate, but there are other incentives as well. For example, I worked with my manager to create MBO goals for community participation that are part of my performance review.
- Always improve- survey your members to find out what's working and what's not. Review content (create a content review board of active members) and archive outdated and irrelevant content. Moderate the community and work with other community moderators, sometimes it makes sense to merge communities and other other times to split a single community. Encourage active feedback from the community members.
- Be relevant- seed topics and actively drive participation. Ask executives and experts to contribute top of mind pieces. Don't just be relevant with content, but be relevant with tools used, if a discussion thread is running long then move it to a wiki and turn it into a contributed paper. Understand the breakdown of members (sales, IT, marketing, etc.) and create areas for each.
- Market the community and content- continue to promote the community through existing vehicles such as e-mail and newsletters, do an internal case study or best practices with lessons learned. If there's a relevant topic that's not getting the desired activity reach out to experts and ask them to contribute, then market their posts.
Online communities are built on Web 2.0 technologies that are readily available in peoples personal world. These technologies are also the basis for Enterprise 2.0 and people who use such technologies in their personal life are more apt to use them professionally. However, the Enterprise 2.0 online communities must be as intuitive and perform as well as the personal Web 2.0 communities, if your users don't have the quality of experience they expect they will not continue to participate. The good news is that many of the lurkers are going to be people new to Web 2.0 and there's an opportunity to convert them to active participants with the right training and motivation.
Are you using online communities today and what tools have been most effective? How are you driving participation in the community and increasing the number of contributors?