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Why Lurkers Are Valuable To Your Online Community

Posted On: March 6th, 2011 by Heather Strout

I have had the opportunity to do a lot of thinking about the breakdown of community members lately  as I prepare for my panel, Lurkers: Your Most Important Community Members,  at SXSWi in about a week.

Lurkers are those members who log in to your community, read blogs and discussions, and don’t contribute to discussions.  These community members are often dismissed as not valuable or at least significantly less valuable than your contributing community members.  I think part of the reason that’s the case is because it is much easier to determine the value that your active contributors are providing to your community and your business.  What is often more difficult is determining what value your lurkers have on your community.

Who are your lurkers?
Before you start determining any type of value your community is deriving from lurkers, you must create the parameters you will use to analyze lurkers, as well as your contributors and evangelists.  This includes things like the timeframe by which you measure activity such as weekly, monthly, quarterly, or annually.  The measurement timeframe you use should be based on that community’s expected activity rate.

Why lurkers are valuable community members?
In most communities, lurkers make up the bulk of the community membership.  They come to the community to read, learn, and digest the information contributors and community managers provide.  Additionally, those who are lurkers are learning from the contributors.  If the lurkers weren’t deriving value from the community, they would not login and peruse content.

From my experience, lurkers experience significant value from the community.

  • They can often be very loyal brand advocates who communicate the brand value to their networks.
  • And, while contributing participants are critical to a community, many of them don’t start as contributors but lurk for months, or even years before they start contributing.
  • While there’s not arguing that contributors need attention, you are remiss if you ignore lurkers and their value as members.

Converting lurkers to contributors
The best way to convert lurkers into contributors is to reach out to them.  Call or email those who are high-level lurkers.  A great way to start getting them to engage is to invite your most active lurkers and occasional contributors to join a member steering committee focused on getting them to feel comfortable to participate and lead others to do the same.

Overall, there are some general principles to follow so that both your contributors and your lurkers will find value from your community: good content, a variety of content types, email reminders such as newsletters and member outreach calls.  Content can include videos, white papers (both short and long white papers), blogs, discussions, in-person events, roundtable events, etc.  This variety allows your members to determine what channel works for them.  Once your community has been live for a period of time, analyze which content items and channels are most valuable to your members, based on quantitative and qualitative feedback and focus more of your energies on those that are more interesting to your members.  Then, constantly evolve your offerings based on what your members have indicated they want from their membership.

You may also be interested to get a different perspective on the value of lurkers from the blog post Mark Wallace wrote about Social Media Lurkers.  Mark, along with Jim Storer and Mike Pascucci will join me on the panel.  If you’re going to SXSW, you can learn more about lurkers by joining us.  If you do, please say hi.

Update 3/8/11: Read Mike Pascucci’s blog post for a bit more about what we’ll cover in the SXSW panel and why you should attend.

Post Comments:

  1. Comment by Mark Wallace on March 07, 2011

    Great post. Thanks for including my post as another perspective. Each day more of our “lurkers” let us know they derive great value from our community and that it is a differentiator vs. many of the other companies in our industry. We cannot expect everyone to contribute, but the better experience we can create, the more likely a “lurker” just might jump into the conversation.


  2. Comment by Luke on March 07, 2011

    I would say that contributors are lurking 90% of the time. I would also say that a lurker isn’t a category of user merely a type of action or in this case inaction.

  3. Comment by Aaron on March 07, 2011

    Great post. I love the idea of reaching out to your “Lurker” community members. I am curious though, what is it that you utilize to truly identify someone that is a “Lurker”, and not someone that has become a fan, follower, etc who pays no attention to the actually community?


  4. Comment by Heather Strout on March 07, 2011

    @mark, thanks for the comment and thanks for offering further thoughts on how Lurkers are valuable members. They are often loyal customers. I look forward to presenting with you this week.

    @luke, great point and I agree. For reporting purposes, it makes it easier to bucket members into specific categories. While members can move from category to category, and many contributors also spend lots of time lurking, categorizing each member helps us measure them for a specific timeframe.

    @aaron, that’s a great question. For each community, you must first define how you will categorize lurkers versus your inactive (or single activity) members. I spoke myopically from a very specific perspective of insular member communities but I think each organization must figure the member-type categories for themselves. I generally suggest measuring a member who does a specific action or set of actions during a specific timeframe as a lurker, for example, if they login (separate from their initial registration), look at content, register for an event or other activity for the timeframe by which you are measuring, you would consider them a lurker. As Luke alluded to, members can migrate in and out of categories. If it makes sense, I might suggest creating another category to capture those who only take action once. You may see some patterns or trends in that category that could help you shift your strategy.

  5. Comment by Mike P. on March 08, 2011

    Heather, I can not wait to present with you, Jim and Mark, it is definitely going to be a great session. Lurkers are so important to any community, whether it is online or offline. The valuable information that they observe is definitely absorbed and shared at later dates, whether the person realizes it or not. It is great when those lurkers do decide to take the step and participate and interact with others though, within the community, but the tough part is in figuring out how to make that happen. See you soon.

    Mike Pascucci

  6. Comment by Jim Storer on March 08, 2011

    Great post Heather! I’m looking forward to the live debate in Austin this weekend. It should be a great session. I’m looking forward to talking about how companies are making a mistake by focusing too much (all?) of their attention on “influencers” right now. In my experience, lurkers are just a “thank you” “hello” or “what’s up?” from becoming some of your biggest fans. Ignoring them by focusing on the people who are already raving about your brand seems illogical to me. Since lurkers comprise such a large % of most communities, it presents the greatest opportunity for community managers. I look forward to seeing you in a few days, when we can pick up the conversation IRL. :-)

    Jim | @jimstorer

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