Should you allow lurkers to view forum posts?

by Martin Reed on 18 March 2007 in Articles

In most forum software you can decide whether visitors to your website who are not members are allowed to view or read posts. I have often come across forums where I am not even able to view topics, let alone posts unless I register. I have also come across forums that let me see topics and thread titles, but to read the content I need to register. Other forums allow you to view and read as much as you like, requiring you only to register in order to post (some forums allow you to even post without registering, but I will talk about that at a later date).

I can understand the rationale behind each of the options a forum administrator may choose to take, and would like to summarise what I feel are the advantages and disadvantages of each.

Unable to view topics or posts

So I arrive at a site, intrigued by what it may be able to offer me. I have been looking for months for others with an interest in purple pygmy mountain goats and have finally found a community where these people hang out. What joy! I navigate to the forum, but see nothing. I can see a link asking me to join up, but I cannot see what people are talking about. I cannot get a ‘feel’ of the community. I know that some fans of these pygmy goats can be a little odd, so want to make sure I will feel comfortable in the community before I join.

Unfortunately I cannot see the posts … not even the topics, so I have no idea what people are talking about or even if I would fit in to the community. Sure I am curious, but am I curious enough to register? Probably not, no.

Able to view topics and post subjects but not post content

Well, things are getting better now. I can at least get a general impression of what people are talking about. I can see people may well be talking about things that interest me, judging by the subject lines of the posts, but I still don’t know anything about the personality of the community. Perhaps I will join as there really are no other forums that I can find dedicated to my highly specialised subject area. Chances are though, if there were a lot of forums to choose from for my subject of interest, I would choose one where I can spend time reading all the content of the forum.

View all forums, threads and posts

This is no doubt the ideal situation to be in from the perspective of the visitor. They can take the time to view all the posts made on your forum, and really get a feel for the community they are interested in joining. Sure, open forums like this may get a lot of ‘lurkers’ but at the end of the day, you know that when a user joins it is because they are genuinely interested in your community and want to join it as it is.

Perhaps by not allowing users to view posts, you encourage them to join. Well, that may be the case if you have a niche forum. However even when they join they may then read the forum posts and decide the community is not for them, and consequently leave.

What have you got to hide? Let all visitors freely view your content – they may not join up right away, but those that do will be far more valuable than those that become members then decide your community is not for them.

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Javier Marti April 30, 2007 at 12:38 am

Good posts don’t have to be long or express complicated things to be good. This one is an example.
I have been internally debating this point you mention for some time now, and this post of yours gave me the 25% push I needed to follow my instincts…

Martin Reed April 30, 2007 at 11:08 am

Hi Javier – thanks for your post, I am glad you enjoyed the article. What have you decided to do in the end? Make your forum visible to non-members, or hide your content?

abbigliamento October 27, 2007 at 5:58 pm

I think the content must visible to all , otherwise you can’t get vistors fro SEs.

Martin Reed - Blog Author October 29, 2007 at 9:27 pm

abbigliamento – You make an important point; when you hide your content from people, you are also hiding it from the search engines!

dan May 10, 2008 at 12:44 am

I allow lurkers to see 90% of the posts. If nothing, I want the Google bot to see them :) But we’ve also had quite a few lurkers converted into regular members….

The 10% is there for the “suspension” purposes, as you noted elsewhere ;) It creates a curiosity about what’s in there, behind the “closed doors” :)

Martin Reed - Blog Author May 12, 2008 at 7:22 pm

Dan – You make an important point; content your visitors cannot see is content that the search engines can’t see either. I like the idea of having a small, specific area of your site off-limits to new members – it really can encourage them to join, as long as the content they can see is good enough to make them want to register!