In his latest post, usability guru Jakob Nielsen talks about participation inequality and gives some tips on how websites can overcome this problem.

In any given online community, be it a discussion board or a site such as Amazon which uses customer reviews to help sell its products, the rule of thumb is that 90% of users (Nielsen calls them lurkers) will never contribute.

Of that 10% or less that do contribute around 9% will participate occasionally, while the majority of content is generated by around 1% of those users.

This pattern is the same on a variety of online communities, with few sites managing participation rates of more than 10%.

For example, around half of all Wikipedia article edits are done by just 0.7% of users, and more than 70% of all articles have been written by just 1.8% of users.

Such low levels of participation mean that websites which rely on user feedback are not necessarily getting a representative sample of their users or customers.

Nielsen offers some tips on overcoming the problem, though he argues that participation will always remain unequal.

Niesen argues that contribution could be made easier for more casual users by allowing them to click to rate items such as music or movies. This avoids the hassle of registering details with the site which can be offputting for many. Also, making participation a side effect, as Amazon does with its ‘customers who viewed this item also viewed…’ recommendations is an excellent method.

Rewarding contributors with special offers or discounts will also encourage greater participation. This would encourage more contributions and allow visitors to sift through large amounts of comments. Slashdot’s reputation rankings are a good example of this.

Research suggests that contributers to online communities are motivated by what they can receive in return, increased reputation and a sense of having an effect, as well as a sense of community, and Nielson’s tips would make it easier for contributers to achieve these goals.

Further Reading:

Internet Statistics Compendium – September 2006

Participation Inequality: Encouraging More Users to Contribute – Jakob Nielsen