The Value of Lurkers in Online Community

Dortmunder Nashorn - lurking behind a corner 1

Image by Erich Ferdinand – Creative Commons

I’ve been thinking a good bit about the recent discussions surrounding whether lurkers have any value in an online community, and I have to weigh in on the side of lurkers – at least in association and non-profit communities.

I believe this discussion started at the ASAE 2013 Annual Meeting, with Ben Martin, chief engagement officer of Online Community Results, telling an audience that lurkers shouldn’t be counted in any way when measuring a community’s value or viability. I wasn’t able to attend the meeting, but Joe Rominiecki reported in Associations Now that Martin’s argument centered on online communities needing visible activity because people want to engage in active communities, not stagnant ones.

That makes sense. And it’s why we all strive to get members commenting and discussing in our communities. Not only are comments visible – and easily measurable. Not only do they help attract other commenters. They also demonstrate a higher level of engagement – more skin in the game, as it were – than simply visiting and reading. It’s one thing to care enough to read something, but something else to declare publicly that you have an opinion on it.

Don’t ignore the bystanders

But consider this: The so-called 1% rule of online interaction says that silent users make up 99% of most online communities. Usability expert Jakob Nielsen puts the number at 10% but adds that the majority of all interactions happen within the top 1% of most active users. The truth of the matter is that there simply are some people – a majority in most online audiences – whose nature is not to join in a fray. They are observers, passive learners, introverts in some, or many, cases.

My concern is that if we dismiss these people as irrelevant or valueless, we are putting our own needs ahead of those of our members. At best, we are declaring the community ecosystem more important than the individual community member.

Think of it this way: Associations and non-profits are member-driven organizations. Associations, especially, exist primarily to serve their members. Members are the customers. So ultimately, it’s not really engagement that is the end goal of your association’s community, or anything else your association does. The end goal is member value. And if members get value from reading the material posted by others in your community, who are you to say that value doesn’t matter – or doesn’t matter as much as the value derived by someone who posts comments, questions and discussions?

Commenters are important – not all-important

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work to get people posting more frequently, and more people posting. We should. More activity is definitely better than less activity. The more people post, the more content there is for the lurkers to find and value. And a lurker who consistently finds value in a community has the potential to be turned into a content creator over time – when, for example, he/she comes to the community with an important question and can’t readily find the answer. We should nurture that member and do everything we can to make her or him feel welcome after that initial posting, to ensure an answer to that all-important question gets posted, to help the member leave the exchange with a positive experience that will make a follow-up posting more likely.

Maggie McGary offers a nice suggestion on her Mizz Information blog, asking if we should consider replacing or augmenting “most active commenters” widgets with “most insightful commenters” or “most helpful community members.” I like this. Your community platform might even let you put some of this in the hands of the community itself, with a “rate this comment” function. Activate that, and you might even find some of your lurkers using it, particularly if the ratings allow them to remain anonymous. Another way to reward your quieter members for speaking up is simply to make sure someone welcomes and thanks them when they do. Whether a public reply or a private message, you – or another community member – should acknowledge them as new posters, welcome them to the community, and offer them help if they need it.

But don’t be devastated if that member goes silent again later on. And please don’t dismiss that member as no longer important, or less important than his or her louder neighbor. You might devise a way to follow up to see if they have a positive opinion of the community a month or two later, or send a survey asking them to gauge the value they find in the community. It is, after all, member value that we’re aiming for.

Remember, though, that it’s natural for people to revert to their basic natures. And if a member’s essential nature is to observe, we should be OK with that. Because, after all, it’s the member who is most important.

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