Write for the Lurkers

The 1% rule is the idea that only 1% of participants in an online community actively contribute content, while 99% quietly consume. The 1% create every new Reddit post, Twitter comment, and LinkedIn update; the 99% read and reflect. To use terminology that originated with the bulletin-board systems of the 1980s, most internet users are lurkers.

The precise ratio of the 1% rule doesn’t really matter, but the implication does: Whenever we look to any online community, we see the handiwork of only the vocal minority. The silent majority is still there—in fact, these quiet content consumers vastly outnumber the content creators—but they don’t make their opinions heard.

The 1% rule has a huge implication in content marketing.

We all use social media signals—comments and likes, reshares and endorsements, critiques and rebuttals—as a feedback loop for our marketing. (In marketing meetings, this type of visual, qualitative feedback often earns more attention than a positive-but-boring traffic graph.)

We care about the public reception our content receives, and we want to learn from feedback to make our next article more interesting and helpful. In practice, that might mean prioritizing content that is similar to our most liked or commented-on articles, or it might mean workshopping new ideas on social media before turning them into finished articles.

But assuming the 1% rule holds loosely true, there’s a big pitfall hiding within this process: We’re allowing the loudest voices to have the greatest influence over our trajectory. We’re overindexing on the vocal minority and neglecting the silent majority.

We’re prioritizing feedback from the wrong people.

Your Target Audience Is Part of the “Silent Majority”

Think about your target audience, the decision-makers who buy your products or services. Are these people more likely to be members of the vocal minority or the silent majority? Are they part of the 1% of the most vocal, digital savvy Twitter, LinkedIn, Reddit, and Discord users? Or are they included in the 99% of people who either don’t use those platforms or else prefer to quietly consume?

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The answer, often, is the 99%. Your target audience is a small portion of the giant iceberg hidden away from the timelines and newsfeeds of social media.

Many of the businesses we work with sell to experienced industry professionals, C-suite execs, team leads, and managers. Occasionally, those buyers are big social media users (especially if they work in marketing)—but more often, they work in sectors that have a smaller, quieter presence on social media, like finance or law or manufacturing. Rabid social media consumption and a proclivity to retweet are rarely on the agenda.

Social media feedback is still a good thing. Optimizing your content around likes and shares is a great way to get more likes and shares, which can help grow overall traffic and improve brand awareness. But if your goal is to get in the heads of your target audience and generate revenue, then social feedback can sometimes lead you astray.

Spend too much time acting on feedback from the vocal minority and you risk making your content less useful to the people who really matter: your target audience. You amplify messages that don’t resonate with them. You end up optimizing for likes, retweets, and shares at the expense of deals closed and revenue generated. You make content more popular but less effective.

Find the Feedback That Matters

The big, actionable takeaway here is a simple one: recognize that the most readily available feedback is not always the most useful. It should be one data point among many. That often requires seeking out more diverse viewpoints from the people who rarely speak up: the lurkers.

I spend a lot of time on Twitter because that’s where people like me hang out. I get feedback on my writing, and retweets and comments make me feel good. But I also know that my ideal reader is not like me. They don’t always hang out on content-marketing Twitter. If I over-rely on social media as a feedback mechanism, their voices are absent from the discussion.

I overcome this by taking pains to seek feedback from my target audience. Our whole team shares articles directly with customers and sales prospects. I join sales calls on a regular basis and discuss the ideas featured in our content. We celebrate social successes but spend more time talking about our sales pipeline and SQLs.

The engaged, active, enthusiastic 1% of any online community—the vocal minority—are powerful amplifiers and voracious readers, and they are the reason places like Twitter and Reddit are worth visiting. But as content marketers, it’s essential to remember that they are not always your target audience. We have to write for the lurkers.