Forget The 1-9-90 Rule, Here’s The Key To Making Money In Social Media

Photo: respres (via Flickr)

A great deal has been written about the so-called 1-9-90 Rule and user behaviour in Social Media.The conventional experience is that 1% contribute a lot of content and participate frequently, 9% contribute from time to time and 90% don’t contribute or comment.

This is all true at any moment in time.  It fails, however, to account for changed user behaviours over time.

As such, the 1-9-90 rule provides to be of little real guidance about how to make money in Social Media.  If it tells us anything at all, it is that people should make whatever money they can by simultaneously driving the 1% of heavy duty contributors to create while monetizing the other, mostly passive, 99% by whatever means available — predominately low cost per impression advertising. 

This doesn’t work very well for most people running websites.  It sub-optimizes revenue in a fundamental way.

The key to making money in Social Media is to monetise the right segment of the audience.  First, though, one needs to view the segments by something other than their 1-9-90 participation.

The highest value audience segment has participation that changes over the passage of time.

Here’s an alternative view, one that is key to realising profit from social media.   I break the audience into four segments, that don’t correlate perfectly with the content contribution break out of 1-9-90.  They are Catalogers, Discoverers, Influencers and Lifetime Lurkers.

Catalogers seek an online home for their information and knowledge.   In the view of the 1-9-90 model, they start in the 1 per cent of heavy contributors and migrate over time into 9 per cent and maybe into 90 per cent.  They are the highest value audience, but more on that in a minute.  They are doubly valuable because they build the web site initially with content contribution AND return to it loyally even after they have completed the cataloging process.  They are also the user with the most personal sense of ownership, deepest relationship with the web site and willingness to buy premium services, subscriptions, etc.   Catalogers are commonly mistaken for a formerly valuable audience member (i.e. they used to contribute and now do not) under 1-9-90 instead of the most currently valuable member.

Discoverers want knowledge and insight.   They arrive in large numbers and leave in large numbers.  They are the locust swarm that has been moving from web site to web site since the early days of the Internet and its’ wooden CPU’s.   They may derive the greatest value from the information and are the least inclined to pay for it.   They are a tempting audience.  But it is folly to pursue them.  They don’t want to pay, they have never paid and they are not going to start paying now.  And they are leaving soon and are unlikely to return, there may be other locusts but not the same ones.  It is tough to monetise any audience that perpetually refreshes itself.   Restaurants and web sites need their loyal, paying customers.  The Discoverers are not inclined to be either loyal or paying ever.

Influencers want to demonstrate knowledge and influence others.  They correlate well with the 1% in terms of activity but generate little meaningful content.  They derive psychic reward from expounding and demonstrating expertise.  Yes, they comment a lot but like the discoverers, they tend to take more from the site than they provide to it.  They do provide animation and an organic liveliness to a web site operation but don’t much impact the catalogers or discovers who will dismiss them by and large.  But one must distinguish between contributing to the web site’s knowledge and information and commenting on it.  Value for the site owner is derived infinitely more from thoughtful and well crafted contribution than comments.

The Lifetime Lurkers have begun and will end their relationship with a website as lurkers, having never been a Cataloger, Discoverer or Influencer.   And, yes, there are a lot of them.  And, yes, lower cost impression advertising is probably the best way to monetise this group.    But if you follow 1-9-90 Rule, you will lump the high value Catalogers into the Lifetime Lurkers category and never realise your revenue potential.   I wouldn’t disparage Lifetime Lurkers in any way.  They pay the bills after all.  But they aren’t the key to making money in Social Media regardless of conventional wisdom to the contrary.  Though that wisdom is in itself flawed by defining the group to be much larger than it really is.

Many people perform different roles with websites over time based upon subject and individual passion.  We are complex beings after all.  If you want to succeed at monetizing an audience in Social Media or User Generated Content, viewing the roles people play and the changing nature of those roles is a starting point. 

Find your Catalogers and find ways to create more Catalogers; they are the key to making money in Social Media.

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