Get more members of your online community active

by Martin Reed on 3 December 2008 in Articles

Get active online community members

It is an all too common problem – you have a couple of hundred members (maybe even a couple of thousand) but only a few actually interact in your community and create content. Some have even tried to declare this phenomenon a ‘principle’. I don’t like that idea as I feel it can make community managers lazy – I don’t think it is acceptable to suggest that having only 1% of users creating fresh content should be the norm. You should definitely have more than 1% of your users creating content. If you work hard, this is perfectly achievable – let’s debunk the 90-9-1 principle right now!

Community numbers and community activity are different

You should never be obsessed by the number of members your community has. It is the least important metric for measuring the success of an online community. You need activity. You need content. You need interaction. You need all this to happen repeatedly, in a cycle. I would rather have 250 members and see 90% of them contributing on a regular basis than have 10,000 members and only see 1% contributing regularly.

Work to generate interest and interaction – not your membership count. If you have an active community, you will naturally attract active members.

Why only a minority of members create content in online communities

Web users are a fickle bunch. They are lazy, and they are easily distracted. Many of your members probably stumbled across your site and decided to register in order to ‘test it out’. They may have even made a few posts. You might never see them again. Here are some reasons why you don’t have many members contributing in your online community:

  • The member only wanted to respond to a specific article or post
  • The member has got bored with your community
  • The member doesn’t know how to use your community
  • The member doesn’t feel valued in your community
  • The member has forgotten about your community

Luckily, you can overcome all of these issues. You need to build a relationship with your members – new and old. You should be complimenting your members – make them feel valued. If they have a connection with you, they have a connection with the community. Create a team of valuable members whose sole job is to make new members feel welcome. Call them ‘Welcome Reps’ or something similar.

If your members are getting bored, you are doing something wrong. I get bored in online communities when I return to see no new content. I’ll give the site a few chances, but after my third or fourth visit if I still see no new content I will leave – and then probably forget about the community. I want to be engaged and interested at all times. Your members are the same. See potential in a member but are worried they are getting bored? Give them a role in the development of your community. Make sure your site has new content every day. How about killing two birds with one stone and giving some members a role as ‘Engagement Reps’ whose sole job is to create fascinating, thought-provoking content? How about creating targets and ‘to do’ lists for new members? Each time they cross something off the list, they are recognised and rewarded.

I launched Female Forum because I felt existing online communities aimed at women were far too complicated to use. Remove everything your community doesn’t need. Make it as simple as possible to use. Bells and whistles are useless if nobody knows how to use them. Does your community have a prominent, easy to use help section? Do your members know who to ask for help? Do they feel comfortable asking for help?

If your members don’t feel valued, they won’t stick around. Sometimes members don’t feel valued because you allow sniping and other abusive comments in your online community. Others don’t feel valued because they don’t receive a response to their comments, suggestions or posts. I really can’t say it any better than Angela. You need to stroke egos. Suck up! Never forget to say, ‘Thank you’.

Members don’t forget about your online community overnight. They only forget when you let them forget. Do you really want your online community to be ‘forgettable’? Focus on making the whole experience of your members very unforgettable. Personally welcome them to the community (get rid of the tinned welcomes and make it personal), ask them for their thoughts, suggestions and comments. If you haven’t seem them for a week or two, send them a message to check everything is OK. How many online communities send you a personal message to see if you are OK after not visiting for a couple of weeks?

Already I know that two or three of my members will never forget Female Forum. Recently, one member received bad news in the family. I sent her a hand written card and a book – she lives in Australia. Another member recently fell ill. I mailed her a get well card.

Being unique is the key to success in online communities

The underlying theme of everything I have written so far: do what other online communities aren’t doing. You need to be more involved. You need to encourage interaction by making your members feel valued. You need to make it impossible for them to resist getting involved and contributing content. According to the 90-9-1 principle ‘in action’:

167,113 of Amazon’s book reviews were contributed by just a few ‘top-100′ reviewers.
Over 50% of all the Wikipedia edits are done by just .7% of the users – 524 people.

Does Amazon have online community managers? I have never heard of them if they do. Have you ever written a review on Amazon and then been personally thanked by a member of their staff? How hard does Wikipedia try to get readers actively involved? From what I have heard the editing interface is extremely difficult to use, and there are somewhat hostile editing cliques that don’t always look too kindly on newcomers. I wonder if they hide behind the 90-9-1 principle rather than work at improving the situation?

Never rest

Never accept inactive members as ‘inevitable’. Strive to get all your members active and involved. Don’t look for excuses. Have you asked inactive members why they haven’t contributed lately? Is your online community different to the competition? Keep thinking and keep working – the more effort you put into getting your members active, the more success you will see.

Your thoughts

How do you get your members active and keep them active? What makes an ‘active’ community member? Perhaps you are a firm believer in the 90-9-1 principle – try to convince me! Please share your thoughts, comments and experience by leaving a comment below.

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Jeffrey Henning December 3, 2008 at 9:45 pm

“You need activity. You need content. You need interaction. You need all this to happen repeatedly, in a cycle.” I actually just expanded on this very topic, the virtuous circle of online communities:

- Jeffrey

Mike Rowland December 3, 2008 at 10:06 pm

Hi Martin,

Good post. I posted yesterday on our blog that I have issues with the 90-9-1 myth because it doesn’t equate with what I’ve measured over the last nine years. The main idea is very similar to yours, but from a slightly different angle. There are far too many factors which impact the number and more importantly the quality of the content added by members.

We see that the ratios are all over the map. But the main thread that we see is that active community management (facilitation, not just moderation) boost these numbers significantly. The build it and they will come mentality will never achieve the results desired, yet for those folks who buy in to the myth of 90-9-1 it does give them an easy out when explaining why their community isn’t generating the results expected.

You can read my blog entry on the subject at:


Michael December 3, 2008 at 10:11 pm

Very nice, i like the idea of mailing your members ‘get well cards’ etc. But how did you find their address? I wouldn’t mind doing a few of those things.

And the idea of the Engagement Reps is perfect.


Randy Brown December 3, 2008 at 10:23 pm

We try all the ‘standard’ ways to get our members active: inviting introduction posts, ‘happy birthdays’, email reminders, etc.. yet sadly we still suffer from that 1% rule.. But we’re working on it.

Roger December 4, 2008 at 12:46 am

Thanks again for a great post Martin!

I agree it’s important to make your members feel welcome. And I love the idea to value the “regulars” the way you mention.

But I read some time ago from another post you had, that “you should keep out of their PM box”…
Is it really OK to send a message, asking them if they are OK, or asking why they haven’t posted lately?

Of course, I would feel great if the “boss” – the forum manager – sent me a PM, hoping everything was well.. But that’s ME :) – how can I now that everyone else think like this?

I remember you said some time ago, that your members shouldn’t feel “stalked”. Is there a way to write those kind of PM’s, to make sure the member actually feel this is great, and not have him to believe you’re desperate?

Mr Woc December 4, 2008 at 12:53 am

Hi There

An interesting post and i have probably been guilty of letting some of my members go idle in the past, its a case of trying to find ways to engage these people.

It isnt easy though and im still learning, it can be a difficult balancing act as if you send out emails welcoming people, some people dislike this, so you have to find a way to engage people without being too full on lol.


Nicole Price December 4, 2008 at 5:35 am

You are spot on Martin, numbers of members are actually not as relevant to a community as ACTIVE members. I for one would really really appreciate the kind of gestures made to send a card and book etc. That would certainly motivate me.

Greg December 4, 2008 at 8:27 am

Martin, this is a great article! Congrats!

To others reading it, I suggest you take note of what Roger mentions as they are some interesting points, basically I agree and would like to add: Don’t overdo it! Some members just need some time aswell…

As for the 90-9-1 rule well I think it’s clear from what you say about Amazon: “Does Amazon have online community managers? I have never heard of them if they do. Have you ever written a review on Amazon and then been personally thanked by a member of their staff?” this clearly shows that they have that percentage because they are also very inactive on this front.

The example given about the cocktail party 90.9.1 is interesting but what about a group of friends at a small gathering (friends who are much closer than just strangers at a cocktail party), this will definitely break the 90.9.1 relationship which goes to show you can do something about it if you build a relationship like Martin suggests!

I have been reading this blog for quite some time now (I’ve even been honoured with an article) and although I’ve also read other blogs and sites, put in a huge amount of personal dedication, a nice chunk of advertising and plenty of tweaking to my community, I would like to give credit to Martin – many if not most of the articles on are very valuable! Even if you don’t follow them to the letter, you can gain a lot from the wisdom here.

And I am proud to say that after just a few short weeks I have 56% ACTIVE MEMBERS and no I don’t only have 100 members ;)

Richard Millington December 4, 2008 at 11:30 am

Great post.

The 90-9-1 principle really has to be seen as an opportunity, rather than an excuse for not trying to improve it. Just a 1% improvement in creators doubles the amount of content – that’s an incredible target to aim for.

I think Amazon has recently begun to take their community very seriously. A recruitment agency contacted me a while ago about an opportunity to develop their video games community.

They seem to be working in the shadows though.

Amish December 4, 2008 at 2:08 pm

As a fairly regular contributor to a very large community, I not only post comments, I also post blogs regularly. What motivates me is the feed back mechanism that this portal offers in the form of regular email advise that announces posts and comments on my group’s member posts and comments. What this has been doing is expanding the circle of ‘friends’ as the list of commentators keeps expanding. This is a fairly simple way to keep your members participating regularly.

Angela Connor December 4, 2008 at 5:22 pm

Thanks for the mention, Martin! I go out of my way to compliment users on a daily basis and believe it is crucial that we all do that. A few other things I want to add in regards to this post. I am struggling with the 90-9-1 rule. Don’t get me wrong, I believe that it is likely accurate, or very close, but the minute I accept something like that as law, the mistakes will begin. And quite honestly, the passion can be lost if you harp on those numbers. One could grow to feel that it isn’t worth it, and it definitely is. Like you said, it can make you lazy. And as far as membership numbers go, I’m with you. We recently got to 10,000 just before our 16 month anniversary and while I am pleased, I know that only a fraction of those people do anything on the site. So, i am trying to develop ways to get them more involved, trying new things and pushing forward. Good post.

Gloria December 4, 2008 at 10:41 pm

It’s funny that you wrote this article because I was actually coming back to your site to find your e-mail so that I could ask you this particular question: How to make my members active. So it was a coincidence to come across a link to this article.

I always said that having a ton of members don’t mean anything if they’re not active. The question isn’t how many members you have, but how many ACTIVE members you have.

There is also another question that I needed to ask…I will e-mail you this one.

Martin Kloos December 5, 2008 at 7:53 am

Hi Martin,

I’m currently involved in setting up a community for a Dutch government organization. I value your posts a lot since they have helped me getting the community adopted by the organization. I thought it was about time for a little thank you :).

I think you have a strong point on stating that you should be unique before you should even consider launching a community. It sounds easy, but I see in my direct environment that many (Dutch) companies are launching only communities without proper thinking of what they could add.

I’m a strong believer of organizations and consumers / engaged community members working together and hand in hand to improve the overall community experience for both members and organization as facilitator. In my view, it doesn’t have to be all community member driven. An organization CAN add substantial benefit so the community can become relevant for it’s members. I’m really interested in what your thoughts are on this topic.

Martin Reed - Blog Author December 6, 2008 at 12:10 am

Jeffrey – Thanks for your comment and for posting the link. I think the model you describe is a little basic, but in principle it is spot on!

Mike – I couldn’t agree more. Maybe the 90-9-1 ‘principle’ needs to be modified to state this is the best you can expect without any community management or involvement. If you are attentive and pro-active within your community, you should never see only 1% of your members contributing.

Michael – I simply sent the member a private message telling them I wanted to send them something on behalf of the community, and if they are comfortable with doing so to please provide me with their address. I haven’t had one person turn me down so far. As long as you are professional and trusted (all part of how you behave and interact within your community), you shouldn’t have a problem getting the addresses of any of your members.

Randy – Keep on working at it! Never give up! Refuse to accept the ‘rule’! Are you creating content in addition to the announcements and reminders? You need quality content if you want members to get involved.

Roger – You’re welcome; thanks for your comment. Yes, it’s OK to send messages to members to check they are OK, or to tell them you miss them. Just don’t overdo it. If you sent two or three messages to a member in a month and get no response, then don’t continue. Just be sensible, and you’ll be fine.

I kept the PM pretty simple – something along the lines of:


I am just dropping you a quick message to make sure everything is OK as I haven’t seen you around for a while.

I hope everything is fine, and that we will see you back at Female Forum soon. We all miss your positive contribution to the community.


Martin Reed
Community Manager
Female Forum

Mr Woc – It’s all to easy to fail to pay attention to inactive members; after all, most of your time is spent keeping your active ones happy, right?!? Try to keep an eye on new members and those that aren’t active. That one person who forgot about your community might just become your most valuable member!

I find PMs far less intrusive that emails. If you are worried about how your members will take your messages, use the PM system rather than email.

Nicole – I am glad you agree!

Greg – Thanks for your kind comment! I definitely agree with you – you don’t want to hound your members, although at the same time there is nothing wrong with dropping them a couple of messages over the course of a month.

I like your analogy of the cocktail party breaking the 90-9-1 ‘principle’ – all community managers should be trying to get members as close to one another as though they are at a real party! Wow, a party with only 1% of people being ‘active’ – that would suck, right?!?

Congratulations with your success so far, and thanks again for your kind words.

Richard – I’m glad you enjoyed the article, and thanks for linking to it from your blog. I agree with you; in fact I think the only benefit to be derived form the so called ‘principle’ is seeing it as an opportunity. Unfortunately I think most people will look at it, see their community conforms to the model and leave it at that.

What a shame.

Amish – I am not sure I understand how the feedback mechanism you describe works. Are you emailed each time someone makes a post or adds a comment to the community? If so, yes – these can encourage activity but make sure you include an option for members to switch these notifications off!

Angela – You’re more than welcome! You know I am a big fan of your blog :)

I think you have the right philosophy – surely if we start accepting rules and principles as fact, we will get lazy and complacent. After all, we now have an excuse, right?

Good luck getting more members active – I think it is all too easy to focus on active members and forget about the quiet ones. Make sure you share any tips you come up with!

Gloria – I am glad you found the article useful. I received your (lengthy!) email and will respond to it when I get a spare moment.

Martin – Thanks for your kind words; it sounds like you have a really good project to sink your teeth into! I think a lot of companies are launching online communities simply because ‘community’ is becoming the new buzzword. They don’t want to get left behind so they launch online community features with no plan or strategy, and often throw a lot of money behind these new sites and features.

Corporate online communities should be a mix of engaged members and employees/representatives of the organisation. I completely agree that these kinds of communities needn’t be wholly consumer driven and I would argue that actually, they shouldn’t be. If you want active members, you need to get involved yourself.

Nicole Price December 6, 2008 at 7:13 am

Is it just me, or are we seeing a reduced frequency of posts here?

Nicole Price December 6, 2008 at 7:14 am

Didnt mean to sound demanding; Just that I find sometimes a reader giving me a nudge can give me an idea or two :)

Michelle December 7, 2008 at 3:53 am

I’ve noticed that, too. My guess would be Female Forum sucking up a lot of time. I’m trying to think of a topic to suggest but everything I can think of he’s already written on. Uh oh… Time to close the patent office. ;)


Michelle December 7, 2008 at 3:55 am

Actually, I just thought of one that’s not coming up in a search. Offline advertising. I’m looking into making flyers for my site. Could always use more ideas and suggestions. No idea if this is something Martin’s ever done, though.


Mr Woc December 7, 2008 at 7:21 pm

Hi guys

Im sure its quite difficult to think of new things to post lol, I know i struggle with my own blog to find things to post somtimes.


Martin Reed - Blog Author December 7, 2008 at 9:08 pm

Yes, Female Forum is taking up the majority of my time at the moment. I have definitely not run out of topic ideas – I have a whole list! :)

Michelle – That’s a good topic idea, but I haven’t tried it. Maybe I need to give it a whirl and then write about the process and results…

Jeff Weiss December 10, 2008 at 9:59 pm

Keeping content fresh is always troublesome, but it’s all about creativity. Active members need to feel that they can come to your site so that they can find something unique, not being offered elsewhere. This can be a lot easier than expected though. Simply giving your opinion can be considered unique, if speaking to the right audience.

mark December 11, 2008 at 6:02 am

Great post and while I agree with many of your tactics for increasing community participation, I disagree with your core point. Accepting the 90.9.1 principle doesn’t mean that a CM is lazy, or that this is some type of hard and fast rule everyone should accept.

I’ve written more on the topic at, but the essence is that this is a *guideline* in an industry that doesn’t have any meaningful benchmarks. The 90.9.1 rule suggest ‘normal’ behavior if you just allow people to do their thing. Of course, you can try to influence behavior and sometimes you’ll be successful, and sometimes you won’t.

I’ve been managing online communities for major brands for 10 years now and I have to say that 90.9.1 is roughly accurate.

More to the point, I think you’re overemphasizing the importance of the 1 and not giving enough credit to the 90. Your assumption is that having a larger percentage of engaged members/content producers makes for a better community and has higher value.

I would challenge that assumption. It MAY be true in some cases, but not all.

On Amazon, the 1% (or whatever it is) has a real influence over the 90% that come to buy something. The 90% don’t really want to join a social network or become a community on Amazon–they are there to buy something. Having reviews from ‘real’ people (the 1%) vastly influences the purchasing behavior.

If I’m buying a book on Amazon, does it matter to me whether there are reviews from 10,000 different people, or is it enough that maybe 250 people wrote a review? At some point, I’m overwhelmed and won’t get thru all the content before I get to the general feel of the reviews and make a decision or not.

So having a greater percentage of people writing reviews on Amazon really won’t have much of an effect–in fact, it might even devalue the existing content because a lot of the content will never be seen, which is disheartening to the content creator.

Now, Amazon is what I would call a social network, and not an online community. People don’t really react with each other on Amazon around a common passion.

In an online community, more engagement is generally thought of as being good, and I would agree–*depending* on the nature of the community.

Consider a real world community for a moment…say…a neighborhood group. The group decides to raise money to build a new playground in a local park.

This group needs to organize, raise money and then build the playground.

The 1% will be the people who form a committee to organize the effort. The 9% are the folks who agree to bake things for the bake sale, wash cars for the car wash, put up posters, send emails/letters, make phone calls, etc.

The number of those types of people are somewhat finite. Too many people at the core becomes counter-productive. That 9% can stand become a larger group, but even so, it has a limit on how big it can become and still remain useful.

The 90% is REALLY important–they are the ones who buy the cookies, get their car washed, see the posters/emails and pass the information on–or maybe do nothing at all.

If ALL you have in a community is a group of people who are talking to each other, if you magically had 100% participation in the community, all you have is a bunch of people who are talking to each other. Which is not necessarily a bad thing–if the purpose of your community is to be a party.

If your community is to spur people to action or to help, then you NEED givers and takers. You need people who create content, and those who consume the content. It’s a symbiotic relationship–keep in mind that the main purpose of the internet is primarily to find *information*, then it’s not necessary that EVERYONE contributes to the information flow.

The consumption of the content is what gives the content value.

Ack. Sorry for leaving a comment that’s really a blog article! Short version–I totally salute your efforts at increasing engagement in your community, AND I think you’re also missing the vital contributions of the people who are NOT engaged. Sometimes, they just need information, they find it from those who are more engaged, and they are perfectly happy with the transaction.

Hope to read more of your content soon. :-)

Martin Reed - Blog Author December 11, 2008 at 6:56 pm

Mark – Thanks for your comment and the time you have taken to contribute to the debate. I would never state that a community manager is lazy because they accept the 90-9-1 ‘principle’. However, I do think it can be used as an excuse for laziness and could even promote it.

You make a good point about me skipping over the importance and value of the ’90′ – this article wasn’t intended to be a thorough analysis of the principle, rather I was just including it in the context of promoting activity in a community. I completely agree with you that the 90 members who appear not to be interacting still have value – but I would still argue that the more members you have actively engaging within your community and creating content, the better. Amazon’s community creates value as it encourages people to buy. Therefore, it is perhaps less important for Amazon to encourage more members to get active by writing reviews. That being said, the more customers they can get creating content, the more valuable the Amazon community will be. You do make a good point about the quantity of reviews – sure, for a low involvement purchase like a book, ten reviews are probably of just the same value to a potential customer as ten thousand. However, when it comes to more expensive, higher involvement purchases – surely the more reviews you can read, the better? Then again, perhaps if you were really looking to commit to a high-involvement purchase, you wouldn’t be shopping online (but that’s a completely different discussion).

I think that the most important issue you raise in your comment is that online communities are unique and have different goals – they are not all the same. They have different aims, different objectives and (often) different functionality. Whilst increasing member activity should be the aim (in my opinion) for the vast majority, in some cases community brings its biggest benefits to the silent 90. We should never consider inactive members to have no value – if they are consuming content, they are still developing a relationship with the community and what it represents.

Gary December 12, 2008 at 2:39 pm

Some of the forums I visit have little post games which tend to make me want to go back. Stupid simple things really. One of my favorites is a Count to 1 Million thread, where the first post says, One, and people keep on posting until a million is reached, but they need to use words instead of numbers. Don’t know why really, but I find myself going back to check what the current number is.

It’s also an easy way for new members to post, without having to ask a question or answer something when they know they’re not an authority.

Jessie December 12, 2008 at 6:03 pm

What are the best ways to build a relationship with community members so that they post more content more frequently?

Shruti December 15, 2008 at 1:22 pm

Very nice post. I found the points describing reasons for not having many members in the community and the link complimenting your members most useful. Thanks for sharing this.

Martin Reed - Blog Author December 22, 2008 at 6:54 pm

Gary – Yes, those kind of threads can get members active, but how much value are they adding to the community?

Jessie – That’s far too big a question for me to thoroughly answer in the comments section. Ask yourself this – how do you build relationships with new people you meet in real life? Copy this in your online community.

Michelle December 22, 2008 at 7:03 pm

Martin: Sorry, missed your reply earlier. I’d love to see what you come up with. My printer should be arriving today and I plan on making up flyers this week and putting them out just after Christmas. Hopefully I’ll catch all the people with new computers for Christmas. :)

Gary / Martin: I stole the count to a million idea and it’s actually working well. I wasn’t sure if I wanted a thread full of numbers but it’s turned into a conversation starter. Someone else suggested that we could put just a number or add a little post if we wanted to say more. And then another person mutated it into putting the number and then something to go with the number. So it’s actually turned into a fun thread. We’re only up to 30 so we have a long way to go. :)


Patrick January 8, 2009 at 12:35 am

I think that every one should get involved with their online community, it helps us find more things that we could have ever imagined possible. What other place can you order a pizza find a date, get carpet cleaning, and send mail?? The yellow pages are on the way out the door, just makes more sence to find everything online.. Patrick

P.s. Great Post

Dennis January 11, 2009 at 8:59 am

Itís funny that you wrote this article because I was actually coming back to your site to find your e-mail so that I could ask you this particular question: How to make my members active. So it was a coincidence to come across a link to this article.

I always said that having a ton of members donít mean anything if theyíre not active. The question isnít how many members you have, but how many ACTIVE members you have.

There is also another question that I needed to askÖI will e-mail you this one.

Steve May 12, 2009 at 12:29 am

Getting more of your online community active is ideal, because what is the point if you don’t have active members.

I kinda like Gary’s “Count to 1 Million thread” idea to get members active, although I agree with you Martin in wondering what use it would be, or where would you go from there? Thanks for your post as always.

Michelle May 12, 2009 at 9:07 am

We’re up to 1408 on the Count to a million thread. A lot of the posts are just the numbers written out but I’d say at least half, maybe 2/3rds have other conversation on them. We use it to chit chat. Small stuff not worth making a whole new thread for.


Paul November 26, 2009 at 12:46 pm

Don’t forget the 80/20 rule. Typically 20 percent of members will provide 80 percent of the content in your online community.

Neil Miles December 2, 2009 at 5:33 pm

I have noticed just in the past 6 months 4 gaming forums that i post on have been overtaking with spam. Is that a trend we are seeing with communities online? Spammers ultimately win with posting garbage. I guess those forums lack people to moderate?

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