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If you build it they will come (or: the 90-9-1 principle of user engagement)

If you build it they will come (or: the 90-9-1 principle of user engagement)


If you are a movie buff then you will have recognised the title of this article as a quotation from the Kevin Costner movie, Field of Dreams. But like all great quotations, that everyone knows, it is never said in the movie. The actual line is "If they build it he will come".

As website developers it is our job to build great websites for our clients. I also believe it is our responsibility to advise our clients and to set their expectations. Too many times I see companies and organisations that are struggling who think all their problems will be resolved by a new website. The website might help but if there were underlying reasons that the business was struggling it will not magically resolve them.

User Engagement and Interaction

A common mistake is to "copy" the features and functionality of a large, successful competitor. These might include:

a forum comments social sharing

The Undeniable Truth

In the early days of the web people used to see it as a challenge to be the first to post a comment - even if it was only to say "first post". Times have changed and interactions on the web have reverted to following existing social norms. Very few people will be the first to post. Even if they have a comment or a question they will probably wait to see if someone else posts first.

When your school teacher asked if anyone had any questions hardly anyone would ever raise their hand. If they did, then it would usually be the same people.

90 - 9 - 1

There is a long established theory that is known as the 90-9-1 principle of user engagement.

90% of your site visitors will read but not interact 9% of your site visitors will read and interact occasionally 1% of your site visitors will read and interact regularly

So if your website is, for example, for an organisation of 200 members you can only expect to have two people who regularly post a comment and another eighteen who will do so occasionally.

This has been shown to hold true across a large range of websites over the years although at the extremes (eg YouTube and Wikipedia) the numbers are closer to 99 - 0.9 - 0.1

Setting Expectations

Before adding any User Engagement features to a website you should first evaluate the target audience to determine if it will work and if it is worth the cost and expense. Use the 90 - 9 - 1 principle, do the math and calculate if it will work for you.

A client who has paid for you to add a commenting system or a forum will not be happy if it is never used. They will appreciate your honesty and integrity when you explain to them why those features are "not for them".

Changing the Numbers

There are a few things you can try to "cheat" the system and change the engagement numbers. They might work for you but they will require more time and effort and some people will question their integrity . The most obvious things you can do are

Reduce the barriers to entry.
If you need the visitor to login, make it quick and easy. No one wants to spend ten minutes filling out a form that asks for their entire life story and if they like to eat broccoli. Strongly consider using a "social login" system that lets them just login using their existing account from Facebook, Gmail, Twitter etc.

Remove the reluctance to post.
If there is already a "first post" then some people will be more willing to respond. You can create additional accounts for yourself and use those to make the all important "first post".

Actively monitor and respond
Ensure that you respond to all questions and comments as quickly as possible. Not only will this ensure that the user feels they have been heard but it also shows other users that you value their comments.

Create discussions
Combine the last two by engaging with your users using your fake accounts. Any engagement encourages response especially if it is challenging.

Is it all worth it?

Only you can decide. Do you have enough users? Are you willing to make the extra effort? Will you be the first to comment on this article or is it enough for you just to read it?

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Thursday, 29 February 2024

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