Updated September 2021
On thinking about designing communities with lurkers in mind.
As community builders, I feel like lurkers tend to raise insecurities within ourselves and frustrate the hell out of us. We strive for participation and engagement. We are often targetted with nothing but upwards trends in growth. We can feel like we are failing the community when lurkers don’t come out of the woodwork.
Society puts pressure on us to focus on a good community that performs well. That looks active. That has a constant flow of conversations going on. That brings direct value to the end business.
In the midst of it all we can easily forget whether we are providing the value for all.
- What if we are wrong to think like this?
- What if it is completely normal and ok for there to be a huge percentage of lurkers?
- What if it is a natural human tendency for there to be only a certain amount of activity we can cope with?
- What if the majority of people are introverts and enjoy communities best by lurking?
- What if we designed communities for lurkers (and all other needs) in mind?
Lurkers (probably) still want to be seen
My gut instinct is that lurkers don’t necessarily want to be unknown, but it is more the case that they are reluctant to make the first step in participating. Some may always want to lurk, others may need to take a more stair-stepped approach in building up their abilities and confidence.
There can be a never-ending reason for lurkers to lurk:
- We can sign up and have good intentions, but life is just not aligned right now.
- We can sign up for the community as a whole, but only be interested in a specific part.
- We can sign up and feel like we are unable to contribute something of value.
- We can sign up and feel like we aren't much of an expert to dive into the community head first.
- We can be introverts and choose to participate in ways that we feel comfortable.
- We can be human with varying capabilities, mentally and physically, and choose to participate in ways that we are able to.
- We can sign up and feel intimidated to contribute, minorities often feel this way.
When you start to look at lurking from this perspective it almost feels rude to push people to come out of lurking. If we shouldn’t push people out of lurking, then I start thinking about how can we positively design communities for lurkers in mind.
Let’s have a look at what lurkers tend to do
I’m a big fan of studying your people
. And in this instance it would probably be helpful to look at the things from the perspective of lurkers:
- Sometimes they follow or sign up for notifications, sometimes they won't
- Often they will show up regularly, but not participate
- They can identify as being part of the community without participating
- The fact that they lurk is because they find something interesting
- They need some time to get comfortable before participating
- They may not visit the website but may follow other forms of communications (e.g. email, Twitter)
- Often they will consume things and then have discussions elsewhere (e.g. on Twitter or one on one in real life conversations).
This is not a comprehensive list and these things can vary from community to community.
I’d really recommend put your thinking cap on and see if you can find out who and where the lurkers are within your community. I’d even challenge you to go searching for discussions that are happening outside of your community — what can you find?
Community design strategies for lurkers
So if the majority of people within a community are lurkers, how can you make it a better place for them? They might not like participating according to your expectations, but what about trying other strategies?
Here I present you with some rosie ideas!
Maybe you can send them an email or DM that is personal or at least feels personal. Make it targeted, but don’t make it feel like you have selfish reasons. Instead of saying ‘I notice you haven’t participated’, strike up a conversation in some other human and engaging manner.
Make it clear what the terms of participation are. Let them know exactly what will happen at things like online meetups, conferences, or video calls. Make it clear they can opt-out, maintain privacy, or lurk in the background.
Whilst some people like to go with the flow, other people like to plan for community activities. Dealing with unexpected events, even if they seem small, can be stressful for people. You just need to put yourself in the shoes of people with social anxiety. Being around people isn't easy for everyone.
With Rosieland meetups, for example, I’m trying to make it as clear as possible that the online meetups are not recorded and notes will be taken for the benefit of them and others who can’t make it.
I often go ‘meh’ at surveys, but if we are to be inclusive I probably shouldn’t dismiss them so easily.
A survey could quite easily be sent out and maybe there is a way to see if lurkers respond to them. That could be a super useful point of engagement and conversation.
In this type of situation, I would seek to ask questions that would help you design something appealing for them. I would also be careful with the questions you ask, when you ask people about ideas, often people will agree with them, or suggest some of their own. This does not mean they will actually end up using any of the suggestions they make.
Asking: when was the last time you visited our community? Should hopefully give you a factual answer to help you understand the reality of their participation. This is actually more helpful than an opinionated answer, where the member might not actually do what they are talking about.
In addition to this, using the survey responses as a starting point for a conversation is the part that gets me most excited. It's such a missed opportunity when we simply just aggregate the data. You may not be able to respond to every response, but the insights you can get from having a quick email exchange is powerful.
Most communities rely on contributions of content and expertise from their community. Often it is the ones who participate publicly the most that end up getting the attention and opportunities.
What if you did a campaign to specifically attract lurkers in? Start some conversations to make it clear that their voice is important too. Allow them to contribute in valuable ways that aren’t so public.
As a woman in tech, I feel this a lot. And I know many other women do too — they would happily contribute, but they don’t necessarily want to compete against the unfair advantage that men tend to have. This happens for minorities across the globe.
One trend that has happened on Twitter is people posting to say 'hello' in response to a tweet if you have less than x followers. We can learn to be mindful and inclusive about the discussions we start. I'd also just encourage engagement outside of the typical chat and forums. Ask people to respond to an email, or jump on a call — giving people opportunities to engage in different ways accommodates for different needs.
Shock horror, imagine paying people for their time. Not many communities do this well. Often blaming lack of budget.
Not everyone is fortunate enough to freely spend time contributing to communities. You know, maybe holding down a job and feeding their kids takes priority. Some people will jump at the opportunity for paid gigs. Even if they have available time, paying people to help out will naturally prioritize doing the work for your community. Paid works makes people more accountable for their deliverables.
Do some research
Spend time researching who your people are. Google them. Follow them in other places they hang out. You might be able to find patterns, topics or themes on who they are or what interests them. Use the research to your advantage to find ways to create deeper connection.
It might lead to your community sharing their work, recommending them to someone else or finding a valid reason to ask them some questions.
Help them be seen
Sometimes people want to know that the community they are a part of matches with who they are.
This means existing and doing things in a way that is meaningful to them. Cover topics that matter to them. Write about them, or people like them. Mention them, or people like them. Recognise the value that everyone can bring.
The more inclusive you become the more likely they will be willing to step up. Of course, if they are on the periphery, then it can be hard to help them be seen if you don't know who they are or what they are interested. This is why community building is hard, you need to find ways to knock on people's doors and let them allow you in.
Lurkers like to learn too
We all have different learning styles. For communities that do things together where lurkers don’t participate, how can you bring that experience or learning takeaways for the lurkers to benefit from it too?
I don’t think it’s just the case of recording things and making them available afterward, we should try to become more creative than that. Maybe try summarising key learning points over time, make a habit of note taking, or get community members to share their takeaways from their perspective.
Encourage invisible relationship building
Relationships don’t need to be had visibly online.
Community builders need to lead the way in building relationships, how can you build this into your community culture? And how can you show that you are doing this to the community around you?
For example, as a community leader, I will often personally reach out to people. Then later on down the line, there might be a story worth sharing. By sharing that story, even if it is just in a forum post or a tweet, demonstrates to the community the things that we do and the things that we are all about. The hope is that people will mimic the behaviour you show.
Make it part of the culture that we were all lurkers at one point too
Everyone was once an outsider, we should encourage and seek help from the rest of the community to pull people in.
At Ministry of Testing we developed this thing at our conferences where we encouraged people to look out for each other if they were on their own. This happened by us communicating in emails and on stage, but also by the community actually doing the work of looking out for the well being of one another and intentionally trying to create positive relationships.
How can you build something like that into your culture?
Let us redefine who lurkers are
Lurkers are not stats, there are people behind them. People we should try to get to know better, accommodate and design better communities for.
- finding courage
- healthy sceptics
- silent advocates
- strong principled
- curious members
- private supporters
- sober expectations
- non-native speakers
- have low self-esteem
- loyal customers & fans
- can't be publicly visible
- time or tech constrained
- behind the scenes activists
- don't drink the kool aid-ers
- checking out the landscape
- searching for meaning and interest
- FODOers - fear of disappointing others
- future creators tanking up on inspiration
- unable to add more value to the current conversation
🙏🏽 Thanks to everyone who contributed suggestions in the below tweet.