Roles in CoP’s Revisited: Linking

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(This is the third post in a series of six that is a revision of a post I wrote on ATD’s “Learning Circuit’s Blog” on June 10, 2006 entitled “Roles in CoP’s” in which I introduced the 4L Model of Roles in Online Communities.)

Why do people join online communities?

  • Socialization – They want to be around like-minded people.  “I want to be around people who speak my language and understand my problems.”
  • Expertise – They want to learn from and with the leaders on a topic. “I want to learn from them.” “I want to understand how they do what they do.”
  • Reputation – They want to build their status within the community, field, or their own organization.  “I want to be respected by these people.”
  • Affiliation – They are attracted by the community’s purpose and membership.  “I want to be a part of that group.” “I want people to know I’m a member of this group.”
  • Behavior – They want to do what the community does or helps people do.  “I want to do what they are doing.” “I want to change what I’ve been doing.”
  • Contribution – They want to help a community achieve its purpose.  “I want to use my knowledge and skills to help.” “I want to give my time and efforts to a worthy cause.”
  • Competition – They want to learn what is going on in other organizations.  They may even be looking for employees or experts to poach.  “I want to know if they are doing something that we don’t know about.” ” I want to find out who they are talking to/with.”
  • Assignment – and some people are assigned to participate in communities for projects or courses.

To be clear, I am defining “joining” as taking an action that intentionally brings a community into my life.  This can be as formal as paying a membership fee or achieving a certification or as minimal as signing up for a newsletter or bookmarking a web link.

Groups in Online Communities (formerly Roles in CoPs)

I know, about time. Right?

Let me start with a couple of key principles around groups.

  1. These groups are not mutually exclusive of each other. The boundaries between the groups are not starkly defined. The groups are descriptors of general behaviors.
  2. An individual can play more than one role in a community.
  3. We all play different roles in the different communities we join.

There may be a fifth group to consider, but I’m not to the point of adding them to my model, but I will talk about them briefly.  Based on his research around the Landscape of Trust and Communities of Practice, Julian Stodd is suggesting that communities are more defined by their community than by their common purpose.  He argues that the shape of the community may come from understanding who is left out – disenfranchised, excluded, denied membership, lack of technical access, lack of specific knowledge, etc – than by who is in the community.

Linking and Lurking

The first two roles I’ll discuss are Linking and Lurking.  Often these two groups are lumped together, but I think there are differences between the two that are important.

Research has clearly shown that these combined groups are by far the largest group of people involved in open online communities.  Closed communities that restrict access to a membership and internal communities will not have these groups of members (or very limited ones). Valdis Krebs, says this group can be as much as 2/3’s of a community’s participants.

Back in 2006, there was very little ability to see Linkers and Lurkers.  Today, thanks in

Linkers and Lurkers Illustration
Linkers and Lurkers in Online Communities

large part to the efforts of our colleagues over in Marketing who have had to deal with the massive shift to Social Media Marketing, there are simple ways to get an understanding of not only how many Linkers and Lurkers an online community have, but to understand a great deal about who they are, what they value, and what they do.


These people have taken the most minimal actions possible to join your community. They may have bookmarked your URL or signed up for your mailing list. Some may not realize that you consider them to be a part of your community.

Of course, the question begged here is “If they aren’t involved in the activities of the community, why should we care about them?”  There are several reasons to strive to understand these members of your community.

  1. Future members – Clearly they are interested enough in what you are doing to have taken action to join your community. Analyze what the action was that drew them in. Follow up with more similar opportunities.
  2. Feedback for Improvement – You likely have some way of reaching out to these folks.  Survey them regarding why they haven’t participated.  What would it take to get them more involved?
  3. Dissonant Voices – It’s very likely that there are disgruntled potential participants and former participants among your Linkers.  While approaching them may be tricky, they are likely a drag on the community now. Find out what their pain points are and see if you can’t meet them.
  4. Your Brand – Despite their lack of participation, there are a lot of them and their views on your community can have an impact on your brand’s reputation in the marketplace. Letting Linkers know you are aware they are there can create that little spark that will lead them on a path to becoming members.  Asking their opinions can accelerate that process.

Some Linkers will “check in” on your community from time to time.  Make sure the initial image of your community is dynamic and current.  If they are linked to you by a newsletter, make sure the newsletter is appealing and tells a compelling story about your community.  In both cases, you might have a special offer of new content or a simple community poll. These efforts could be the thing that gets a Linker to start Lurking.  The key is to make sure that the public facing side of your community is attractive to potential new members.

How Do We Know They are There?

When I wrote the original post in 2006, there was really no great way to tell who was a Linker. Sure there were things like tracking if someone posted your permalink somewhere – but that data was limited and didn’t include folks who simply bookmarked your site. At Learning Circuits Blog, we tried a number of tactics to get a better idea of how many linkers we had.  The best tool we added were anonymous mini polls that addressed an issue in the blog post. This did shine a temporary light on our linkers.  We had proven they were there, but only episodically.

Today there are a number of devices and tools that Social Media Marketers have developed to see who is visiting their sites, where they are coming from, what campaigns led them to their site, etc.  In addition, social media listening tools are powerful ways to keep an eye on what people are saying about your community. We in L&D need to spend time understanding these techniques and adapt them to meet our needs.

In the next post in this series, I’ll discuss the Lurking role.

Previous posts in the series:

Coming posts in the series:



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