Thursday, July 23, 2009

The value of lurkers

In online community management, the holy grail is to have active participation from the majority of the members of your community. That is what online community managers work so hard to achieve. A lot of time and effort is put into getting everyone participating (posting comments or forum posts, friending each other, etc.).

As someone who is naturally a bit of an introvert, this always struck me as a little odd. Maybe I don't want to spend all of my time talking. Maybe I get more value out of an online community by reading (ie., listening). If you look at physical human communities, it is a diversity of personalities that makes them work. If everyone was standing in the town square -- all the time -- all trying to talk at the same time, how is that useful to anyone?

...Unless your goal was to measure and increase the amount of noise in the town square.

Lurkers (people who just read and don't actively contribute content) make up the vast majority of any online community. Are they of no value at all to growing a vibrant online community? I'm a lurker. I visit sites often, I subscribe to email newsletters, and I click on ad links. I feel a personal affinity to the site. I also talk about what I read to friends and family and I will buy (or not buy) things based on what I read on the community site.

Most of the experienced community managers I've met would meet this challenge with a heavy sigh and say "No, it's not that simple. Of course you need diversity. Of course every community member has value."

So why are community managers constantly setting up participation rates as community goals? What are participation rates so often the basis of a community's ROI (return on investment)?

I can make an educated guess. From a business perspective, providing an online community can be expensive. It takes a lot of people to keep everything running and friendly. Finding an overt measure of its value to a business is tricky. You often can't tell if reading a random blog post actually influenced a lurker to follow through with an action such as trying out a new brand of peanut butter, cleaning up a neighborhood park, or voting for a political candidate.

Are we using participation rates for ROI as a convenience because the web servers give it to us? Heaven knows I've done that. I was pushed into a corner and had to come up with something I could measure. I knew as I did it that it was a convenience and that it would likely bite me later. It did. What I found is that those participation rates didn't really do anything to predict or support the end goals of the community. I found myself managing two things:
  1. Making sure I met my participation goals, and
  2. Trying to move the community toward the stated goals of the community/organization.
I believe with all of my heart that the online community was doing what it was supposed to. I just couldn't prove it. If you can't prove something, it's hard to keep getting funded. I came away from the experience thinking that we need two things:
  1. Some more targeted, creative ways to measure ROI, and
  2. Some realistic expectations based on organizational goals.
If the goal is to sell gadgets, no problem. It's an easy value proposition. If your organization is a nonprofit with a goal like "improving the quality of life of one-legged hermaphrodites around the world", that's a bit trickier. A community, logically, must support the organizational goal. How do you measure that?

Come on. Really.

Will having 500 one-legged hermaphrodites whining to each other on your forums really make their quality of life better? Isn't it more likely that allowing people to see that they are part of a larger, global community -- whether they choose to put up profile photos or not -- is supporting the organizational goal better?

I'd like to argue that lurkers are an important part of any online community and need to find their way into more ROI measures. Some quick ideas:
  • You can measure the number and turnover of lurkers.
  • You can segment users into groups and start tracking email open rates more carefully.
  • You can measure how long a person remains a quiet part of your community.
I know I'm not the first person to think or write about this, but I think the value of lurkers to your online community is easy to forget. It's worth raising the flag every now and then and, as we learn more and more about the ROI of online community to business, brainstorming how to measure their value.


  1. Thanks for writing your thoughts on lurkers. I agree with much of what you say on the points that participation does not always fulfill a community's goals, may actually direct effort away from those goals and that many community hosts (managers, stakeholder and decision makers) grab at it because it's pretty concrete.

    My view is that tracking contributions is one of many measures that can help support an online community if it's kept in check by, as you say, having realistic expectations about contributions. Benchmarking is very important because that participation rate can be influenced by many factors such as who the community members are, the size of the community, the tenure of the community (how long have they been together) and even the intent of the community (information, support, collaboration). Much like a heartbeat, contribution rates can be a good measure of ill health. Too little and the community may have trouble sustaining, too high and it may be burning itself out.

    Moving beyond participation metrics, I would add overall website segments. I operated in the dark for years about the relation of the community to the rest of my (former) nonprofit site. According to participation measures, the community accounted for less than 1% of over all site usage. However, when I found out we could segment the web stats into those who did or didn't visit the community portion, we could see there were a very significant portion of the site visitors who were lurking on the community portion. To the tune of 40-50% of overall site use. Clearly, "participation" was not limited to posting a contribution to the community.

    We also tried to survey those who did not submit contributions and found some anecdotal evidence of people who had were loyal readers of the community forum and cited the information and indirect support happening in the forum as contributing to their goals. So again, explicit participation in a community can have a strong influencing effect on those who read.

    And moving beyond concrete measures, I strongly advocate breaking down the difficult intangibles such as "quality of life" in to chunks that have a better chance of being measured. For example, at the Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation our intangible was "life long success". We developed a model of change that said if people can get research-based information, reduce their feelings of isolation, change their attitudes about success, and take action to improve their lives, then they would be on their way toward life-long success. Sure our model might be wrong, but that's why we have lots of organizations and businesses taking different approaches. Regardless, this gave me a change to track (qualitatively) a set of success metrics separate from community health metrics. There was still pressure to improve participation rates, but I was able to teach decision makers that too much participation could undermine some of our goals.

  2. Online community managers need to wear many hats, don't they? Not only are they running a technically complex web presence, you are acting as party host, referee, psychologist, motivational coach, behaviorist, statistician, teacher, and you have to constantly invent new ways to prove their worth. Community managers don't get paid enough. Seriously.

  3. Let's be sure to add that they are often the most visible caretaker of a company's brand or NPO's mission. Yes, Community Managers of all levels are not getting paid enough.

    We need to continue to improve ways to document and communicate our value with those who are stakeholders, decision makers and purse-string holders.

    (Oddly enough, communities themselves often recognize the value of having a team of hosts, referees, coaches and teachers with out justification.)

  4. *grin* The communities do recognize this. Makes me wonder why we jump through these hoops in the business world.

    I'll add one more to your note about "we need to continue". We are all guessing and reinventing wheels. That is a colossal waste of time, money and personal brain cycles. We need to share better what is working and what isn't. That's why I really appreciate the long comment you initially made and wish I had a bigger audience for my blog. *sigh* I understand the issues around propriety and the competitive nature of the businesses we work for but it just feels like such a waste.

    OK. Off my soap box. *wink*