I can’t think of a worse term to use for community visitors than lurkers.
For almost 40 years, we’ve vilified people getting a lot of value from a community as some sort of pest (or problem to solve). This mindset leads to three mistakes.
1) A misguided effort to turn learners into active participants (i.e. ‘lurker to leader’ or ‘de-lurking’).
2) A failure to optimise the community experience for the majority of visitors.
3) Undervaluing communities by ignoring the value visitors gain from the community.
These are three separate issues but they have one root cause – castigating the people enjoying and getting value from our community content as lurkers instead of learners.
From now on let’s rename lurkers as learners and treat them accordingly.
What Many Community Professionals Get Wrong About Learners
If you ask a random sample of community professionals why people lurk and don’t participate, you will likely hear it’s because people are shy and worried about saying the wrong thing.
This makes sense intuitively. We can all recall times in social groups when we felt shy.
The problem is this simply isn’t true.
The studies to support this are 20+ years old. They were undertaken in an era of internet ‘stranger danger’ – long before we all became comfortable publishing our thoughts and intimate life details to complete strangers.
This misguided belief has led to community professionals wasting huge amounts of time spamming members with onboarding messages to ease their anxiety. Yet there is almost no data to suggest any of these onboarding efforts have had any impact.
Even if members took the time to read the onboarding messages and welcome guides (they don’t), it wouldn’t have an impact because it’s not solving the real reason people don’t participate.
The Real Reason People Don’t Participate In Your Community
We’ve personally interviewed thousands of people over the past 14 years. We’ve also collected surveys from hundreds of thousands of people from dozens of communities.
Non-participants almost always give the same reason why they don’t participate.
It has NOTHING to do with anxiety or fear. It is far simpler than that.
The reason they give for not participating is almost always the same.
“I don’t feel I have anything to contribute”
That’s it. That’s the reason.
People don’t participate because they don’t feel they have anything useful to share.
Once we understand this we can stop spamming our members with messages to encourage them to participate.
Spamming Members To Participate Does More Harm Than You Think
If you don’t feel like you have anything to share, it doesn’t matter how often I remind you the community exists, dangle badges you can earn, or ask you to share your thoughts.
All of this just comes across as spam. And it simply doesn’t work.
Even if it did work, it would cause more harm than good.
For example, if you did get 5% of inactive members to participate (which won’t happen), you’ve spammed 95% of your audience with information they didn’t want.
This has significant negative consequences.
1) They’re less likely to open future emails for you or your brand.
2) They’re more likely to unsubscribe from all brand messages.
3) They’re more likely to mark your brand messages as spam.
That last one is especially pernicious because it’s training Gmail and other inbox providers to mark your communications as spam to different audiences.
For sure, you can host a one-off activity and see some success. If you say something especially controversial, for example, many members will emerge from the woodwork to criticise you (now they have something to contribute!). But you can’t sustain that spike.
Your efforts to convert learners into participants cost you far more than you gain – it’s just the impacts show up in areas you’re not tracking.
Ultimately, learning isn’t a problem you need to solve, it’s an opportunity you need to embrace.
Your goal isn’t to turn learners into participants, it’s to turn learners into the best learners they can be.
Get Data On Learners
If you want to know what learners think, we need data on them. This means we need to define what a learner is.
The common definition ‘someone who visits but doesn’t participate’ is so broad and vague that even superusers can be classified as learners if they don’t participate for a couple of weeks.
Likewise, newcomers who joined five minutes ago can also be considered a learner. We need something more precise. I’d argue a learner is someone who meets one of the two following criteria:
1) They haven’t logged in. Visitors who aren’t logged in are learners by default. There is no other way to get data on them. 90% of visitors will fall into this category.
2) Logged in plus:
a) Registered more than a month ago.
b) Visited in the previous 30 days.
c) Haven’t contributed in the previous 90 days.
This isn’t perfect, but at least it excludes superusers and newcomers.
Interview Learners To Uncover Best Content Options
Use this definition to build a segmented sample of members and reach out to them for interviews. You want to know:
- What challenges they’re experiencing? (in detail).
- How do they try to solve these challenges? (where else do they go? Why do they go there?)
- What kind of content do they find most useful (topic + formats)?
- What would be the dream resource for them?
Undertake UX interviews with learners
You should also recruit 3 to 5 learners to participate in UX interviews. Have them load up their screen and see how they experience the community. Identify where they get stuck and why. Then make changes accordingly.
Best Ways To Improve The Learning Experience
Do you want to know what learners say they want in a community?
I can predict the answers before you do the survey (the answers are always the same).
They are (in order).
“Easier to find information”
“Stay informed about best practices / learn what others are doing”
“Avoid mistakes / find answers to problems”
(You should actually run this survey if you don’t believe it.)
If you want to drastically improve the value of your community, improve the experience for the majority of people who use it – your learners!
We can turn the survey results above into very specific actions which will improve the learner experience. This includes
1) Simplify the taxonomy and navigation. Upgrade your taxonomy, fix your metadata problems, consider a federated/cognitive search tool, show related discussions and content alongside each other, use a widget to show community discussions alongside product content (Slido is a great example) and ensure terminology uses the same language members user. Make sure everything is a max of three clicks deep.
2) Undertake UX testing to see where people get stuck and make improvements. You can learn more about the process here. Set up interviews with non-participants, give them learning tasks to do, see where they get stuck and make improvements. This helps surface unforeseen problems you can resolve. If you can’t do this, install some on-site tracking tools instead and see how visitors explore your site. HotJar is a common example.
3) Create a ‘community best practices’ newsletter. Create an opt-in newsletter where members share their best practices/lessons learned each month. Create a growing collection of these visible on the community website too. Keep it brief.
4) Highlight ‘common issues/mistakes’. Create a 101 guide which highlights any common problems that surfaced by community members and how best to resolve them. Make sure the majority of members are able to easily find this on the site – add to it over time. Make sure the posts which attract the most visits (as opposed to comments) are featured.
These are examples, but you get the idea. When you drop your own presumptions and do real research, you can deliver a far better experience to learners.
The problem right now is too many people improve the experience for the few highly active members at the expense of the majority of learners.
Improving The Learner Experience Generates Huge Value
In enterprise communities, organisations gain value not when new information is created but when that information is consumed by others. Enterprise communities are essentially tools for creating and transferring expertise. The number of people consuming the information is far more important than the number of people creating it.
For example, a million people publishing content that no one reads doesn’t help anyone (and becomes a moderation headache).
In a support community, value isn’t created by the number of people who ask questions, but by the number of people who benefit from the answers.
In a success community, value isn’t created by the number of people sharing expertise, but by the number of people who read it and learn to use products/services better (this in turn makes them less likely to churn and more likely to upgrade).
In a user group, value is created not by the number of people who speak up at the event, but by the number that attend and feel a part of something special.
All of this means a relatively small improvement in the learning experience has a big impact.
If you reduce the time it takes for people to find what they’re looking for by just a few seconds, the impact across the community is huge.
If you get a small percentage of people to click on a related article or post when viewing another article, the potential increase in expertise across the community can be huge.
If you make just a small percentage of members more aware of a current issue, the reduction in frustration is significant.
An intervention which makes a relatively small percentage impact has a big long-term impact across the community.
Lurkers has always been a problematic term. Let’s stop using it. Instead, let’s adopt the term ‘learner’. Someone who is enjoying reading and getting useful information from the community.
You don’t need to persuade learners to participate. They don’t want to participate. They simply want to learn. Your onboarding messages aren’t going to change that.
Instead, the best use of your time is to improve the experience for your anonymous learners. You often won’t know they are. You can’t count them or see them. But they’re always there. Always learning.