[originally posted here for BBH Labs]
We recently got excited about a 15 year old chart (pictured) we were presented that effectively encapsulated participation inequality. We love the level of detail beyond the typical 1:9:90 ratio (creators:editors:audience). We can only assume “1:10:100:1000:10000 rule” is too much of a mouthful to say, thus the shorthand.
It makes us stop and think about how unbelievably valuable the “catalytic creative contributor” is to any community. A digital community designer should want nothing more than to please this particularly small set of people. Even if most brands primarily monetize the “ninety percent”, there would be nothing for this group to engage without the catalytic creative contributor. They are the heart and soul of any community.
A quick glance through digital communities revealed that the highly successful ones clearly cater to this elite base. As we examined what these digital communities did for these special users, we noticed parallels to one of our favorite pieces of business literature ever written: “Leading Clever People” published a few years back in the Harvard Business Review (Goffee & Jones, March 2007) about how to lead those whose skills or knowledge in your organization make them disproportionately valuable. If you haven’t read it and manage people, may we politely suggest you leave our blog and Google it immediately.
Some of the article’s “things to know about clever people” are particularly relevant to catalytic creative contributors, who also offer disproportionate value at quite a high “management” cost. Here are three we found striking:
1. They know their worth
As game mechanics have taken over the world, this principle is regularly forgotten. If a certain group knows their worth, shouldn’t they get some form of VIP status others simply can’t earn? Although Stickybits is a favorite app here at BBH Labs, they recently shifted their focus from content creation to promotions. It’s impossible to say the cause, but from an outsider’s perspective, it may be the consequence of failing to acknowledge the VIP base. There was no established benefit for tagging content. Assuming a small percentage of users must be responsible for creating large quantities of content, Stickybits failed to illustrate the reward of such behavior.
Conversely, Yelp continues to astound with their incredible understanding of the catalytic creative contributor. The Yelp Elite Squad is an example of understanding some creators are more valuable based on quality, and acknowledging they know their worth. Getting this recognition can’t happen via persistence. Yelp subjectively evaluates your contribution and lets you know if you fit the bill. It’s counter intuitive to growing a base via “game mechanics,” but the reality is these people require special attention, and Yelp is willing to yield to their high maintenance requests.
2. They have a low boredom threshold
This one is interesting because “boredom” is so difficult to address. That said, there are clear patterns for those that do it successfully. Wikipedia is legendary because of the exceptionally small number of people that edit the community. A famous article once stated that greater than 50% of the edits come from 0.7% of the community. Editing alone is different from catalytic creative contribution, but it does illustrate the point that a very, very small group will take upon a vastly disproportionate task (we saw this during The Betacup). It might sound boring, but it’s clearly fulfilling to those key people. This is because the system itself alleviates boredom. The reward is in the act of doing, as each entry is unique and has its own audience. It takes quantifiable skill to be one of these 500 people and they no doubt pride themselves on the fact that the vast majority of us couldn’t successfully do that job even if we were so motivated.
Compare that fulfillment with Foursquare. Foursquare is still in early development, but it currently depends on the system to alleviate boredom. The monotony is broken via badges created by Foursquare or its partners, and awarded for activities any user can do (i.e., “check-in”). In other words, it’s not self-fulfilling. It places an exceptional burden on Foursquare itself, rather than on the community, to validate the catalytic creative contributor. Put another way, Foursquare may have created a barrier to its own success. This is especially interesting in the context of their recent shift toward couponing and rewards.
3. They are well connected
Having a core base of hardcore creators is likely necessary for any digital experience. However, it’s easy to lose sight of the other value those content creators bring: a passionate base of advocates and recruiters. It’s similar to the idea of Propagation Planning (“planning not only for the people you reach, but the people they reach”) and poses an interesting challenge to user experience designers. Digg and other supposedly “democratic” news systems know this well. A review of the Top 100 Digg users shows what few people likely realize. A miniscule group actually controls what makes it onto the homepage. That sounds like the opposite of Digg’s offering, but in fact, those users are sought out by the audience because of their influence and reputation. Regular contributors (“editors” in 1:9:90 framework) go out of their way to Digg and link to what these people post. Digg gets traffic and self-propagates. They give these users preferential treatment (the front page favors their submissions), and as a result have a high quality product and a built-in extended audience.
A number of the other observations about leading clever people apply to digital content communities, but these three struck us because they can be applied to help community managers and designers build for the catalytic creative contributor.
This group may be an exceptionally small percentage of the internet, but it wouldn’t surprise us to see an increasing amount of digital experience design just for them. Gamification is a popular trend, but those subtly swimming against the current are seeing success. In fact, the best way to win the game with the masses may actually be by catering to the clever few.