The 85% Rule for Learning: How Goodreads Built a Book Community of 2.6+ Million Members


Hatched by Glasp

Sep 30, 2023

4 min read


The 85% Rule for Learning: How Goodreads Built a Book Community of 2.6+ Million Members

Learning is a process that is optimized when we succeed around 85% of the time. This rule applies not only to humans but also to machines. Various learning algorithms, such as stochastic gradient-descent, have found that the optimal training accuracy is around 85%. This finding aligns with Barak Rosenshine's study of successful classrooms, which found that an 80% success rate was optimal. It suggests that adjusting the level of support based on the success rate can enhance learning.

Lev Vygotsky's zone of proximal development theory supports the idea that tasks slightly beyond our current capabilities, but achievable with assistance, maximize learning. When faced with a test that requires problem-solving or inference, students with more background knowledge perform better because they are forced to retrieve that knowledge when faced with a more challenging task.

Anders Ericsson's model of deliberate practice argues that we often plateau at levels of ability that are far below our potential. This suggests that engaging in difficult tasks that require effort and struggle can actually be beneficial for our growth and motivation.

Robert Eisenberg's theory of learned industriousness complements these ideas by highlighting the role of difficulty in motivation. When faced with difficult problems, individuals who believe that effort plays a crucial role in success are more likely to persist and find motivation even in the face of failure.

Now, let's shift our focus to Goodreads, an online book community with over 2.6 million members. Goodreads began as a passion project for its founder, Otis Chandler, who started building the platform on his own before receiving any outside funding. The success of Goodreads can be attributed to several factors.

Firstly, Goodreads had a clear use case that resonated with users. It allowed people to keep track of the books they've read and share their reading experiences with others. This simple yet compelling concept led to users sharing Goodreads with their network, leading to organic growth.

Another key factor in Goodreads' success was its coverage on influential platforms such as Mashable and recommendations from book bloggers. These endorsements helped Goodreads gain traction and attract users who were passionate about reading. English literature students, in particular, became power users of the platform due to their love for books.

Goodreads also leveraged the power of social connections. The platform emphasized the importance of friends and provided features that allowed users to see what their friends were reading. This social aspect created a strong driver for users to come back to the platform regularly.

However, Goodreads faced challenges in user engagement. While users could register books they had read in the past, only 10% of users actually did so. This suggests that even in the context of articles, where registration may be expected to be lower, the ratio would likely be even lower. To address this, Goodreads introduced groups, which provided users with more activities and reasons to engage with the platform.

Groups also served as a way to bring in users' friends, further enhancing the social aspect of Goodreads. By creating a sense of community around specific book genres or interests, Goodreads tapped into the power of niche communities and the strong bonds they foster.

One of the key insights from Goodreads' success was the importance of compelling content. Goodreads focused on user-generated content, showcasing what friends thought of specific books rather than just displaying what they had read. This approach created a sense of trust and authenticity, as users could rely on their friends' recommendations and reviews.

Another aspect that contributed to Goodreads' growth was its focus on authors. Recognizing the challenges authors face in marketing their books, Goodreads provided a platform for authors to connect with their fans and gain readership. The platform also introduced a self-serve advertising product that targeted book genres, making it easier for authors to reach their target audience.

Listening to user feedback and prioritizing features based on user needs played a crucial role in Goodreads' development. By actively engaging with users and addressing their concerns, Goodreads was able to continuously improve and meet the needs of its growing community.

In conclusion, the 85% rule for learning and the success story of Goodreads highlight the importance of finding the right level of difficulty and leveraging social connections in the learning and community-building process. To apply these insights in other contexts, here are three actionable pieces of advice:

  • 1. Fine-tune the level of support or difficulty based on the success rate you're experiencing. Finding the sweet spot between tasks that are too easy and too challenging maximizes learning and motivation.
  • 2. Incorporate social elements into your platform or community to enhance engagement. Providing features that allow users to connect with their friends and share their experiences can create a strong driver for users to return and participate actively.
  • 3. Focus on compelling content and user-generated recommendations. Users are more likely to trust and engage with content that comes from their social connections. By showcasing what friends think and recommend, you can create a sense of authenticity and build trust within your community.

By following these pieces of advice and understanding the principles behind successful learning and community-building, you can create a platform or community that fosters growth, engagement, and meaningful connections.

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