Via Hank Horkoff of Network Sense and ChinesePod (I met him via Adam Bornstein), I saw an post by Jakob Nielsen on participation inequality in social applications. Well, the 80-20 rule and even "long tail" have become conventional wisdom, but I think this post highlights the extreme nature of this rule in social applications. I first saw this when I was running ClickRewards, a 5 mm member loyalty program (not really a social application). Getting customers was easier than we thought, but activating them (driving engagement) was more difficult. This applies to blogging and social applications in an even bigger way.
Some examples that drive home the point:
Inequalities are also found on Wikipedia, where more than 99% of users are lurkers. According to Wikipedia's "about" page, it has only 68,000 active contributors, which is 0.2% of the 32 million unique visitors it has in the U.S. alone.
Wikipedia's most active 1,000 people -- 0.003% of its users -- contribute about two-thirds of the site's edits. Wikipedia is thus even more skewed than blogs, with a 99.8-0.2-0.003 rule.
Participation inequality exists in many places on the Web. A quick glance at Amazon.com, for example, showed that the site had sold thousands of copies of a book that had only 12 reviews, meaning that less than 1% of customers contribute reviews.
Furthermore, at the time I wrote this, 167,113 of Amazon’s book reviews were contributed by just a few "top-100" reviewers; the most prolific reviewer had written 12,423 reviews. How anybody can write that many reviews -- let alone read that many books -- is beyond me, but it's a classic example of participation inequality.
I met Jimmy Wales when I was at Intuit where he really put a point on this. Its really 1000 people who really drive the entire engine at Wikipedia!
Is this your blog? or your membership program? or your loyalty program? or your mmorpg?
Here is Jacob Nielson's prescription:
- Make it easier to contribute. The lower the overhead, the more people will jump through the hoop. For example, Netflix lets users rate movies by clicking a star rating, which is much easier than writing a natural-language review.
- Make participation a side effect. Even better, let users participate with zero effort by making their contributions a side effect of something else they're doing. For example, Amazon's "people who bought this book, bought these other books" recommendations are a side effect of people buying books. You don't have to do anything special to have your book preferences entered into the system. Will Hill coined the term read wear for this type of effect: the simple activity of reading (or using) something will "wear" it down and thus leave its marks -- just like a cookbook will automatically fall open to the recipe you prepare the most.
- Edit, don't create. Let users build their contributions by modifying existing templates rather than creating complete entities from scratch. Editing a template is more enticing and has a gentler learning curve than facing the horror of a blank page. In avatar-based systems like Second Life, for example, most users modify standard-issue avatars rather than create their own.
- Reward -- but don't over-reward -- participants. Rewarding people for contributing will help motivate users who have lives outside the Internet, and thus will broaden your participant base. Although money is always good, you can also give contributors preferential treatment (such as discounts or advance notice of new stuff), or even just put gold stars on their profiles. But don't give too much to the most active participants, or you'll simply encourage them to dominate the system even more.
- Promote quality contributors. If you display all contributions equally, then people who post only when they have something important to say will be drowned out by the torrent of material from the hyperactive 1%. Instead, give extra prominence to good contributions and to contributions from people who've proven their value, as indicated by their reputation ranking.
UPDATE: I posted on various aspects of China social applications on my new blog at CN Reviews. I also posted about China microblogging as part of my overall coverage of CNbloggercon.