Lurk PipeAfter reading Davina Brewer’s article about the puzzle of engaging lurkers, I decided to read up on lurker behavior. I was interested in how to reach out to people you can generally only see as a number, browser type, and national flag in your Analytics screen. I wanted to know what kind of people lurkers are and why. I wanted to know whether we should communicate with lurkers differently than with those who engage with us, and how. Perhaps most importantly, I wanted to know whether we should even be trying to convert lurkers into contributors at all.

I found an article by Michael Muller, a social science researcher for IBM Research, that offers the results of his tests of a few theories that have been circling among his kind about lurkers ever since Web 1.0’s forum days. The three theories:

The Personal Trait theory: We lurk because we’re born with a tendency to lurk.

The Engagement theory: Lurkers in one place are usually contributors to a similar number of other places online, be that a large or small number of communities.

The Social Learning theory: We keep our mouths shut until we have enough information, experience, or clout to begin contributing with confidence.

Read the article to see his graphs, charts, and further description of the results, but the upshot is that the only theory that held water was the engagement theory. In fact, the test of the social learning theory actually found the opposite: it seems we’re most engaged when we first become members (which make sense when you think about it: we tend to join a new community when we have the most questions about a topic or the greatest need to establish ourselves as entities in a community, so it would be then that we’d engage).

So that answered my questions about lurkers as individuals. What I also realized from the data was that although your readers may not talk to you, they’re definitely talking to others about you or your industry elsewhere. Depending on how many communities they contribute to (which appears to directly depend on the number of communities they lurk in), they may talk about you a lot or a little–but again, mostly elsewhere.

So is it necessary to communicate with lurkers differently? Here’s the thing: if you have a loyal lurker in your social community, you can be sure a) they’re very interested what you create (or they would no longer show up in your Analytics stats), which would infer b)they’re your ideal customers, your direct competitors, or others who expect to benefit from you somehow (again, why stick around otherwise?).

Combine that with the results that basically say that everyone is probably a lurker somewhere and a contributor somewhere else, and I think Davina’s tip in her response to a comment of mine on her article to be as “findable, searchable, and approachable” as possible is a valuable one. That means ramping up search engine rankings, making sure it’s easy to subscribe to our communities and newsletters, and keeping our social media sharing buttons simple and visible.

Is it necessary to try and convert lurkers into contributors in your community? Lurking isn’t an in-born trait, according to Muller’s findings. That means lurking is a conscious decision on each person’s part not to contribute publicly to your community. Don’t be hurt by this. This is where the difference between contributing and an engaging becomes clear.

Lurkers are engaging. They’re reading, sharing (either on social platforms or elsewhere), and they give your words weight when they make decisions. As they contribute elsewhere, your influence can’t help but be noticed.

With all this in mind, the bottom line is the same as always: communicate your purpose clearly, market with a defined focus, share and reach out consistently, and you’ll be a favorite of all your community members, be they lurkers or contributors.

What do you think about lurkers and lurking in general? Have you had success reaching out to people who were lurkers in your community until then?

Photo credit: Volker Neumann, courtesy Flickr, CC 2.0.

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