Inside the mind of an online community lurker

by Martin Reed on 30 September 2009 in Articles

lurkers in online communities

You shouldn’t judge your community by the number of members it has – one of the reasons why is because typically, only a fraction of those members will actually be active contributors. Getting more lurkers active can be one of the most frustrating and challenging aspects of online community building.

What is a lurker?

My definition of a lurker is pretty simple – someone who has registered as a member but hasn’t contributed to the community. Having said that, make sure you give new members time to settle in – they don’t become a lurker just because they haven’t posted an hour after joining.

Lurkers still have value

Don’t fall into the mindset that lurkers are bad. They are interested in your community (they wouldn’t have registered otherwise), and they are still engaging with the community if they login and read existing discussions.

I have seen members join an online community and not make their first contribution for months. I have seen members join and login almost every day but not contribute at all. These members still have value, but it’s less visible.

An online community won’t be very successful if your members don’t contribute, though. Therefore, you should make it a priority to maximise the number of contributing members. First, you need to figure out why lurkers aren’t contributing. Here are some possible reasons:

They don’t know where to start

Your community may have too many features or communication channels. Your community may be so busy, new members don’t know where they should be posting. New members need guidance – are you offering it to them?

Make sure all new members are prompted to take action. When you welcome new members, ask them to introduce themselves (you do have an introductions forum, right?). Invite them to fill out their profile. Suggest topics that may interest them based on their profile or what you have learnt about them. Get your existing members to contact new members and introduce themselves. It’s all about breaking the ice at this stage.

Don’t put the onus on the new member to figure things out and get involved. The onus needs to be on you and your existing members to encourage that member to get involved.

They feel intimidated/shy/vulnerable

Strong communities can be intimidating to newcomers. New members may lack the confidence to dive in and get involved when existing members clearly know one another and are sharing private jokes. It’s like walking into a room of people who are already friends – you want to chat with people but you feel like an intruder.

Break down this barrier by having a section of your community dedicated to newcomers. I remember AOL used to have dedicated chat rooms that were accessible only to new customers. These chat rooms also had more staff covering them so new members could ask for help and easily seek guidance.

Having a separate area for new members is a great way of easing people into your community. They can help each other out and relationship building is much easier; after all, they already have something in common – they are all new members.

They haven’t found anything of interest

Some online communities are just boring. Someone might join because they see the potential in your community, but then get bored when nothing of interest grabs their attention. Not all members want to reply to every message; some only like to get involved in discussions on specific topics they feel passionate about.

Every member is different – some will love getting involved in discussions that run over a number of pages whilst others will be looking for a quick, short, informal chat. If you are finding a lot of members aren’t getting involved, try contacting them to see if you can help. Ask them what kind of topics interest them. Learn more about what they are looking for so you can cater to their needs.

At the very least, when members fill out their profile ask them two important questions.

They see a negative precedent

When members contribute to your community, they are putting themselves on the line. If they get no response, it can be devastating. Imagine a stand-up comedian delivering a line only to be met with silence or the occasional cough – they won’t feel too good, and their confidence could well be shot to pieces just from that one experience.

Make sure that your community doesn’t contain failed threads. If new members see that all (or at least the vast majority of) new discussion topics receive replies, they will be more comfortable taking the plunge themselves.

They forget

Life gets in the way. People are busy. They get distracted. Don’t get upset with people because they have forgotten about your community – just reach out.

If you have their permission, sending members community newsletters can be a great way of ensuring members don’t forget about your online community. Additionally, they are a great opportunity for you to showcase your community’s best content, put members in the spotlight and encourage them to get involved.

Why aren’t lurkers getting involved in your community and what are you doing to encourage member participation?

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Becca October 1, 2009 at 11:05 pm

Great blog post. Lurkers seem to be the most frustrating part of running a community (next to trolls, I suppose). I try to make everyone feel welcome and encourage them to submit and contribute. Since my community only adds a few new members per week, I am able to send each one of them a personal message and point out discussions that may be of interest to them based on their profiles. I also invite them to the new member introduction thread if they’re just looking for a way to get started. I also send out an e-newsletter to my members every few weeks highlighting the most popular conversations and the members who either started them or contributed to them. This seems to work well in terms of bringing people back and encouraging participation.

Agent October 2, 2009 at 4:04 am

What advice do you have when these paths don’t seem to work?

One of my communities is based on a game and I’m having trouble getting lurkers to make any moves. I have lurkers, both of the registered and non-registered type, and I can’t seem to get them to chat publicly or privately. I have introduced myself, pointed to some of the key areas of the community (profile settings, introduction board, contact methods), and asked some basic interest questions about the game (the scope of the forum). There are some members who don’t seem to budge. I don’t want to push them, so I end up giving up and moving to the new lurker.

I thought maybe this is their first community and they are unfamiliar with the software. It’s understandable because we were all new at some point. So, I asked someone I know outside the cyberworld to give it a try. This person isn’t well versed in forums, but they were successful in navigating to the forum, registering an account, and chatting with the community privately and publicly. This also ruled out a system bug.

What advice do you have for daily/weekly readers, but don’t reply even after you reach out to them?

Martin Reed - Community Manager October 2, 2009 at 12:13 pm

Becca – Thanks for sharing; being personal and showing genuine interest is a great way of encouraging member engagement.

Agent – Are you managing to get any feedback from the lurkers that you are contacting? If not, have you thought about asking members who are active if they came across any issues after they registered (eg, not knowing where to start, being confused about something, shy, intimidated). Ask them for their ideas for getting lurkers active.

Some people won’t contribute no matter how often you appeal to them. All you can do is continue to work on the community as a whole – don’t repeatedly hound lurkers, just make the community irresistible.

Nicole Price October 3, 2009 at 8:44 am

As a lurker, I can share my experience here. I take my time to get familiarized with what is going on. After this, some features in some communities is just too difficult to navigate and this can get somewhat confusing and off putting. Some sites are just too complicated to navigate and if the administrators care, they respond to suggestions to modify. The larger ones, often do not and that is one sure way to lose a lurker.

Mr Woc October 5, 2009 at 11:54 am

Hi guys

Every site gets lurkers you only have to look at sites like sitepoint and some of the larger webmaster forums, they also have this problem.

It is always something you should be working on, try to catch peoples eye that is the best thing you can do, keep things simple.

As martin said some people just wont contribute, some people are lazy by nature and some people will only contribute if they have something to gain, these people are not people that will be the difference between ur site being a success and failing !


Jon McDowell October 12, 2009 at 7:24 am

Well, if that’s the definition of a lurker, I must admit that I’m a lurker! I think, I need to defend myself about this matter. Most sites where I’m joining are usually not user friendly. In addition, the mere fact that it’s hard for you to talk with the site moderators. It’s actually very disappointing that can even result to lose of interest.

Frank Lynch October 21, 2009 at 8:41 am

absolutely, when i compare Friendster, Hi-fi with Facebook and Orkut, i can really find differences, people are using Facebook and Orkut more than Hi-fi and Friendster, but at the same time they login once to Hi-Fi and Friendster to make profile, but they don’t use them actively.

tgrimsley October 21, 2009 at 4:21 pm

I’m a lurker and proud of it. Just because I join I do not have to get involved. If the forum is of interest I will read it but I may not feel the need to get involved

Ben October 23, 2009 at 6:03 pm

I find that I am often a lurker and it is hard for me to make that next step. Aggressive threads are my biggest turn off. Makes one feel like commenting is pointless. Plus in my world everyone is flexing there mind muscles.

Paul November 25, 2009 at 4:49 pm

It seems like lurkers definitely have value. While some will never participate, many will come arond eventually.

If your niche is small, you can expect to have a smaller community.

Jonathan November 29, 2009 at 11:21 am

I agree that lurkers still have value. Whilst they may not be contributing they can boost the figures of your online community, which can in turn encourage others to join or to boost the premiums that you can charge for advertising on your community pages

Dave B February 5, 2010 at 5:30 pm

For many software forums I lurk because I’ve noticed some of the members have way more experience helping people out. I still learn things from posts that are made but I find that most of my questions have been answered earlier.

Tom April 18, 2010 at 8:58 pm

Lots of times in some of the more technical forums I don’t want to sound like an idiot.

I am currently learning linux and it is blowing my mind. When you are used to Windows it’s really difficult to pick up at first. There are lots of newbie forums for it but when you get answers most of the time the person answering assumes you know the basics and I really don’t yet.

I guess I’ll just keep lurking and let someone else ask the dumb questions.

Doug Taylor May 29, 2010 at 2:43 pm

I will admit I have lurked around several community forums before making posts. The main reason is education. I read forums to learn about the topic I am interested in, then try to apply what I have read. Once I have become somewhat familiar and more comfortable with what I am doing, then will start to contribute to these communities as being an active participant. The last thing I want to do is make comments about something and look like an idiot. It is best to provide value.

Karn Evans September 19, 2010 at 4:46 am

I am just like Tom. I will often lurk in forums where I am getting use to the niche. For example when I bought my Apple computer. I didn’t ask questions because I felt I did not know what I was talking about instead I hunted around for people who had already asked my dumb questions and try to use their responses.

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