When it comes to building a community, engagement is everything. That’s why it’s no surprise for a community manager or moderator to feel frustrated when certain community members simply watch from the sidelines.
We call them ‘lurkers’ in the world of online community building (not the most endearing term, is it?) — members who read and observe community interactions but don't actively participate in them. Lurkers can significantly impact community dynamics, and their lack of participation can make it challenging to foster a sense of connection and engagement.
Lurkers can be hard to understand and monitor since they don't actively participate in conversations. However, understanding a lurker’s point of view can help you increase engagement and build a stronger sense of connection within your community.
In this article, we'll dive into why people lurk in online communities and provide guidance for community managers to respectfully and effectively encourage engagement from lurkers.
Why lurkers lurk
Lurkers are an enigmatic bunch.
According to Nielsen Norman Group, they make up 90% of online community users, yet there are only a few studies exploring the motivations behind lurker behavior. However, there are some common patterns behind why people lurk.
- Seeking information: Lurkers may be interested in a particular topic or discussion but need more knowledge or experience, so they observe and learn from others in the community before participating.
- Observing community norms: Every online community has unique rules and cultural expectations, and lurkers may want to understand and adhere to these norms before participating.
- Fear of judgment: Lurkers may be worried about being criticized or ridiculed for their opinions, especially if they are new to the community. If they have previously had a negative experience on social media, an individual may be more likely to lurk until they feel safe.
- Limited time or energy: Some individuals may be interested in participating but may need more time or energy. Lurking allows them to stay connected to the community without the added pressure of contributing actively.
- Privacy concerns: Some individuals may feel uncomfortable sharing personal information online, and lurking allows them to remain anonymous while benefiting from the community's resources and insights.
It’s important to watch how the lurkers in your community behave to understand why they remain on the sidelines. You almost need to get inside the head of the lurker so you can better serve their needs and go on to elicit engagement from them.
Benefits of engaging lurkers
Lurkers may prefer to stay quiet wherever possible, but that doesn’t mean you ignore them. Finding ways to encourage lurkers to come out from behind the curtain should be essential to your online community management strategy. By doing so, you can :
- Foster community engagement and activity: Engaging with lurkers can create a more inclusive and dynamic community. When lurkers see passive participants like themselves stepping forward, they may feel more comfortable joining in, leading to increased activity and engagement.
- Collect valuable feedback and insights: Community managers can gather feedback from broader perspectives by engaging with lurkers. This can help prevent bias in feedback collection and lead to more reliable data.
- Influence community culture and dynamics: Acknowledging and appreciating lurkers can help establish a positive and welcoming community culture. This can create a feedback loop where lurkers feel more comfortable participating and contributing to stronger member relationships.
- Boost retention rates: Engaging with lurkers can help keep them interested and invested in the community. When lurkers feel valued and heard, they are likelier to stick around and become active members.
- Promote diversity of perspectives: Lurkers with different points of view and demographics can bring new ideas and perspectives to the community's conversations. This can lead to a more enriching and diverse community experience for all members.
Best practices for engaging lurkers
Avoid thinking, “once a lurker, always a lurker.” There are various creative ways for community managers to transform otherwise invisible lurkers into active community members. When you reframe your perspective of lurkers and see them more as learners, you may find creative ways to connect with and engage with them.
Here are some guidelines and ideas when you’re looking at ways to engage lurkers in your online communities:
Create a welcoming and inclusive online community
Lurkers will often observe conversations for quite some time to get a lay of the land, so to speak. Are the discussions helpful? Are members respectful? How quickly do admins welcome new members? When you work hard to create and maintain a welcoming community, lurkers notice and appreciate it, even if they don’t say anything.
📖 Community guidelines are essential in creating this kind of environment, and you can learn more by reading Everything You Need to Know About Community Guidelines.
Make the first move
Reach out to lurkers personally and invite them to participate in the community. You can do this through a direct message in the community, email, or social media. Ask yourself: what value will this individual receive from joining the conversation?
Consider the individual's interests and offer them something valuable to encourage participation. For example, you can share additional resources or insights if they have viewed a particular topic multiple times.
Another effective way to engage lurkers is to create a specific onboarding process. When new members join your community, send them a welcome message and a guide to help them get started. This is one of our recommended community engagement tactics, and it is effective with members more reticent to participate.
Encourage participation through prompts and calls to action
You need to make the barrier to entry as low as possible for lurkers. Create clear, easy-to-complete prompts for them to engage. An example could be “Upload a profile picture” or “Introduce yourself.” Doing so helps lurkers feel more comfortable and confident in participating in your community.
Calls to action are another effective way to encourage lurkers to participate in your community. This helps lurkers feel valued and provides a platform to share their thoughts and ideas. For instance, you can ask for their opinion on a particular topic or encourage them to share their experiences with others.
Don’t be afraid to break the ice with unconventional methods. Spoiler TV, for example, hosts Stop Lurking Day, a fun campaign that acknowledges and celebrates the presence of lurkers in the community. During this day, members who have been quietly observing are encouraged to introduce themselves and engage with the community in a way that makes them feel seen and valued. Spoiler TV took a term associated with negative connotations and turned it into an inviting offer to participate.
Acknowledge and appreciate contributions, no matter how small
If a lurker goes out of their way to engage in any form, follow up as soon as possible. It could be a reply, a thumbs-up, or a tag/shout-out.
When deciding how to respond, it's essential to consider the preferences and expectations of the community members. Understanding their preferences can help tailor the response to align with their interests and values.
Once lurkers engage for the first time, they are more likely to do so again. However, if the first try goes unnoticed, their chances of engaging again decrease drastically. Be sure to capitalize quickly on the opportunity by acknowledging their efforts.
Provide incentives for participation
Offer rewards for participation, such as badges, points, or exclusive content. This can encourage lurkers to contribute to the online community.
For example, a fitness-focused online community could offer exclusive workout routines or nutrition tips to members who actively engage in discussions or share their progress. Similarly, a financial management platform could offer credits or a free trial to users who refer friends to the platform or share their success stories on social media. Another example: an e-commerce platform could provide discounts or rewards to customers who actively participate in the community by leaving reviews, referring friends, or sharing their shopping experiences.
By creating a reward system that resonates with the target audience, community managers can not only encourage active lurkers to contribute but also enhance the overall experience for all members, fostering a more vibrant and engaged community.
Make it easy to participate
Make sure the process for participating in the community is simple and straightforward.
Your community should have clear guidelines and make asking questions or providing feedback easy. This can include setting up a dedicated forum or chat where members can ask questions or share their thoughts. Having an accessible and responsive way to provide feedback can help to foster a sense of ownership and involvement among members, as they feel that their input is valued and considered.
Make it personal
Encourage members to share personal stories and experiences. Personal connections can help build relationships and engage even the most passive members.
It's also important to remember that every community member is unique, and what works for one person may not work for another. By personalizing your approach and making the first move, you can create a more inclusive and engaging community that encourages participation from everyone.
Use data and analytics to identify patterns and opportunities
Lurkers are hanging around because they must find value in your community. Dig deeper to learn more.
The ratio between lurkers and active participants can be valuable for measuring a community's progress. You can use this information to gain insights into what types of content and interactions are most appealing to lurkers and tailor your approach accordingly.
Several metrics help you understand how and why your lurkers are behaving the way they are. This includes visitor count, page views, time spent on the site, click-through rates, saved content, and more.
This information can help you understand which aspects of your community are most important to your audience and which pages they find most engaging. If lurkers spend a significant amount of time on a particular page, you can create more content related to that topic to encourage them to engage further.
Overcoming challenges in engaging lurkers
Addressing fear of judgment or rejection
To help a lurker overcome their hesitations, community managers can create a supportive and inclusive environment by establishing clear guidelines for respectful communication and interaction. For example, a popular platform for developers called Stack Overflow created a ‘Be Nice’ code of conduct, fostering a welcoming atmosphere where even newcomers feel comfortable asking questions and sharing their knowledge.
Finding the right balance between encouraging participation and respecting privacy
It is essential to balance encouraging lurkers to participate and respecting their wish to remain anonymous or private. One way to achieve this is by allowing users to contribute anonymously or under pseudonyms, as seen on platforms like Reddit or Quora. Additionally, offering multiple channels for engagement, such as private messaging or closed chatrooms, can provide a safe space for lurkers who may be hesitant to participate in a public online community.
Avoiding burnout for community managers and moderators
Engaging lurkers can be time-consuming and challenging for community managers and moderators, who often have numerous responsibilities. To avoid burnout, it is essential to enlist the help of dedicated volunteers or staff members who can assist with monitoring and engaging the community.
📖 We outline this and more in our 10 Best Practices for Community Moderation.
So are lurkers positive or negative for a community?
Lurkers are associated with negative feelings if you’re a community manager, given that the almighty metric is engagement. However, the lurkers you’ve come to know and love in your community can actually be a force for good . . . if you maintain the proper perspective. One community moderation expert has even learned to ‘love the lurkers’ - and found these active learners to be one of the online community’s most significant drivers of validation and growth.
What is an active lurker?
While typical lurkers mainly observe and consume content, active lurkers occasionally engage in a community by hitting a like button, sharing a video, answering a poll, etc.
Active lurkers are more likely to become active participants in a community, so be sure to follow the best practices above to nudge them in that direction.
What are some common misconceptions about lurkers?
Many think lurkers are disinterested, lack knowledge or expertise, or are "freeloaders" who only take advantage of the community's resources. This is far from the truth. It’s best to think of lurkers as learners, as they often take action when ready. Everyone learns (and lurks) at a different pace.
The success of online communities relies on creating a sense of connection, inclusivity, and participation for all members, including lurkers. By constantly improving strategies to meet lurkers' specific needs and motivations, community managers can strengthen their communities' impact. This leads to lasting success and helps build a thriving environment where every member's voice and contribution are important and valued.