Roles in CoPs Revisited: Lurking

(This is the fourth 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.)

The Lurkers comprise the largest segment of any open online communities (remember closed communities, by nature, don’t have linkers and lurkers).  Yet their participation is very limited.  Don’t be distressed when you discover this is true for your community because research has shown that Participation Inequality happens in all social media and online communities. The 90-9-1 rule applies to all online social media environments. It says that 90% of participants will be lurkers, 9% will contribute to the community, and 1% will do most of the work of the community.

I’ve come to think of Lurkers as participants who have not yet developed a “voice” in the community.  In a recent learning community in which I was serving as Community Manager, I conducted 1-on-1 interviews with participants to gauge a number of factors.  As I was preparing to talk to one participant, I noted that he hadn’t completed any activities and hadn’t posted anything in the community except his introduction.  Obviously, I asked him about his lack of participant.  He explained that he’s a listener. Even in face-to-face situations he seldom shares his ideas unless they are truly an addition to what has already been said.  He assured me that he was keeping up.  In work later in the cohort, his actions with his team proved that he was right.  He was a highly engaged Lurker.

Lurking Behaviors

Lurkers tend to download resources provided by the community and read but not contribute to discussion boards, blogs, and wikis.  (This is why Vanessa DiMauro and others prefer to call them Active Readers.) They may participate in liking, rating, promoting/demoting content.  If they do contribute, it is sporadic and not enough to build a voice in the community.

But according to research that DiMauro and colleagues conducted, lurkers can be very engaged community members even if you don’t see it.

  1. They are engaged in personal development and chose to “listen and learn”
  2. They are often taking your content and share it with others,
  3. They talk about what they learned from your community, and
  4. They even provide referrals to your community.

Many Lurkers consider themselves to be part of the fabric of your community because of these activities.  They can be brand champions. They are also the most likely candidates to move into Learner and Leader roles in the future.  In many cases, they are engaged, but not committed.

It is also important to remember that amongst the Lurkers are former Learners and Leaders.  Those who have had good experiences with the community but stepped back from more involved roles can serve as mentors and champions of the community to Lurkers.  They can be advocates for Lurkers who are interested in increasing their involvement in the community.  They can model desired community behaviors.  In short, they can be a real asset to the community.

Find ways to show them that they are important.  Highlight their contributions when they do work up the motivation to add to the community.  Give them opportunities to co-create.  Make it crystal clear as to how to contribute and how they can get involved.  Have community mentors/stewards who are resources to help interested members create and amplify their voices within the community and beyond.

On the other hand, it’s important to remember that not all members are happy and looking to add to the community.

Lurking amongst the Lurkers you will find folks who aren’t working for the community’s purpose.  They may even be working against it or to undermine it.  It could be members who are frustrated because they have been trying to get more involved but are frustrated by unclear processes or an unapproachable leadership.  They may be former leaders who were forced out due to politics or their own incompetence.  It’s important to watch such members and to work with them to not do harm to the community.

Engaging Lurkers

Lurkers are getting to know the community.  Some will be satisfied indefinitely with being DiMauro’s Active Readers.  Consuming what the community produces and, in many cases, sharing it with those around them outside of the community.  Encourage them by providing a flow of good content and experiences to keep them coming back and to build their loyalty.

Others want to get involved deeper into the community but either aren’t yet ready – due to their time, their perceived knowledge of the community or not yet confident in their standing in the community – or they don’t understand how they can be more involved.  In either case, they will need help from the Learner and Leader groups to make the transition to greater involvement.

Richard McDermott talks about providing benches for participants to get to know each other.  These benches should move beyond a standard discussion board.  Webinars, videocasts, strategic planning sessions, town halls, conference calls are all examples of activities that encourage members to get to know each other.  TLDC’s daily TLDCasts are a great example of this.

Getting to Know Your Lurkers

There are numerous ways to track lurkers, including:

  • number of downloads
  • participation in events (webinars, videocasts)
  • number of likes, ratings, comments
  • engagement surveys
  • discussion board contributions
  • Net Promoter Score

But no matter how you quantify the activity of Lurkers, you really won’t understand them until you dig deeper and get to know them.  What brought them to your community?  Why are they staying?  Why aren’t they more active?  What is there motivation? 1-on-1 conversations, focus groups, and strategy sessions are time consuming but understanding this part of your community will give you the opportunity to drive growth and loyalty.

Your Turn:  What do you think of the Lurkers in your communities?  If you are a Leader, do you feel you know your Lurkers well?  How do you learn about them?  What do you think about Lurkers who are silent but utilize the community’s content?  Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

In the next post in this series, I’ll discuss the Learner group of participants.

Previous posts in the series:

Coming posts in the series:

  • 5) Learning
  • 6) Leading

3 responses to “Roles in CoPs Revisited: Lurking

  1. Pingback: Roles in CoP’s Revisited: The Original Post | new eelearning·

  2. Pingback: Roles in CoP’s Revisited: Purposes, Characteristics, and Types | new eelearning·

  3. Pingback: Roles in CoP’s Revisited: Linking | new eelearning·

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