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Social Media Theory – the 1:9:90 Rule

Networking online is valuable to your business

The 1:9:90 rule is not really a rule at all, and for ease of reference is also written 1: 10:90, but it does help in understanding how Social Media selling works. What this theory proposes is that for a mature website, just 1% of visitors to your website or social media site will actually produce original material or user generated content (UGC).  Meanwhile, 9% will be editors or more likely commentators on that material and 90% of visitors will only ever read the material without ever making a comment.

Respectively, these groups are known as:

Originators                                    1%

Editors (or Commentators)        9%

Lurkers                                           90%

The balance between these groups is very stable over time and almost impossible to change. In fact, social anthropologists have tried to link these numbers to the hierarchy in stable hunter gather societies. So for example, there would be one chief who sets policy.  He (or she) would have 10 senior elders who each would direct 10 others. The same rule applied to Roman Legions. A centurion would direct the action of 100 soldiers through the intermediary of 10 “tent group leaders”*. It is probably something to do with the phenomena of “span of control”. Using just word of mouth, around 8 to 10 is the optimum number that can be controlled. Later of course, it was possible to control much larger populations through paper based administration (think the British in India) and later again through electronic means – but the basic human to human span of control is around 1:10.

The question arises, which of these groups should a social media mangers try to attract?

UGC is a very desirable thing on a social media site. If you can get your audience participating and creating original content, it will allow you to punch considerably above your weight and appear to have a large and active user base. (Which itself is attractive to other prospects). Social media managers, professionals whose aim is to prime the pump of commercial social media sites with interesting content, go out of their way to produce content that will attract comments and readership. But it is even more profitable if social media managers or business owners can persuade others to create relevant and original content. So attracting originators is important. – But it will not lead to many direct sales.

Getting comments on your social media site is very important as it gives you credibility- especially if the comments are positive. A Facebook “like” is a comment, but it is much better if someone has gone to the trouble of explaining why they might recommend your product or service. Since around 9% of your audience will be in this category, you do have some chance of making sales in reasonable numbers directly to this category- and by definition they are interested in your product or service. These are your low hanging fruit and not to be ignored if you expect to see sales any time soon.

But the category that we all need to pay much more attention to is the lurkers. This is the pay dirt for a social media based sales strategy. This is where the big numbers lie. By definition you have no true engagement with lurkers and social media theory suggests that you first have to get some engagement (that is, have them post comments and  ideally create original content) before you can hope to sell.

However, the good news is that although the ratios are relatively stable, the individuals that make up each group are in constant change and motion. A lurker might indeed get interested and become a commentator before eventually buying and then just disappear or go back to lurking. Or your 1% of Originators might suddenly stop creating content and become lurkers. And of course, what the1:9:90 theory does not address at all is that outside of your active users is a whole world of potential prospects that you hope one day will become at least lurkers.

I would suggest that in fact, traditional or new media based mass advertising techniques (such as search on Google or Yell.com or Facebook advertising) can be much better at attracting entirely prospects to become your new readers or Lurkers. This is why I would suggest that social media sales techniques are always coupled with new media advertising of one sort or another for almost all business types. Of course, there will be times when through direct social media recommendation, you can attract new readers (lurkers), but whatever you do, keep testing this aspect of your business for maximum efficiency.

* In fact Roman legions were more commonly groups of 80.  A Contubernium: (tent group) consisted of 8 men.  A Centuria: (century) was made up of 10 Contubernium with a total of 80 men commanded by a Centurion.