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Reaching Out to the Silent Majority

All communities and social networks have a silent majority. We tend to call them lurkers. Most users – about 90% – don’t participate very much. About 9% of users contribute from time to time. And only about 1% of users participate heavily and account for most contributions. This is known as the 90-9-1 rule and the phenomenon is known as participation inequality.

By now you might be shaking your head and thinking, “Well, that’s no good at all. I want to see lots of engagement in my community by many different kinds of people! How do I overcome participation inequality?” You can’t.

First, it’s important to realize that participation inequality has been a part of online communities since there have been online communities. It has existed in every online community that has ever been studied. Even Wikipedia, which has nearly 19 million registered users, has only about 130k active users (users who have performed an action in the last 30 days).

blog_01_May2013Second, it’s not as bad as it sounds. Although lurkers may not be actively participating in your community, they’re still there consuming your content and possibly sharing it. Plus they add to your unique visitors and page view. And while you may not be able to overcome lurking completely, you may be able to change the 90-9-1 distribution to, let’s say, 80-16-5.

If you want lurkers to take the next step, it’s useful to understand why some people lurk rather than actively participate.

  • They’re learning. They’re taking the time to learn how to use the site and get to know the social culture.
  • It’s already been said. The user feels someone else has made the point first and better and that s/he doesn’t have anything to add.
  • There’s no call to action. You’ve said everything for them and haven’t asked your audience to do anything.
  • It’s all too complicated. They don’t know how to post, the website is incomplete or confusing, the questions or topics are too hard or complex, the action requires too much work or data.

blog_02_May2013Once you’ve taken a look at the design and management of your community and eased some of those barriers to action, you can create a plan to engage lurkers and better equalize participation. Here are some ideas:

  • Offer your content across a variety of media. People may lurk more on some platforms than others. For example, they may lurk on your forum, but they may be active on Facebook. So, offer your content there as well.
  • Offer different kinds of content for different kinds of users. Some users will respond to questions with lengthy posts. Others don’t want to do much more than press a button or post images. Create polls and add buttons with phrases such as I Like, I Agree, and Thank You for easy participation.
  • Encourage all levels of participation. Let your audience know that you’re interested in what they have to say.
  • Reward users for participating. Sincerely show your appreciation for your users’ time and activity.  Thank them, offer prizes and gifts, and highlight users.
  • Make lurkers an offer they can’t refuse. Do something special, something crazy, something you’ve never done before and may never do again (until next time). Create a special promotion, a discount, or give something away.
  • Email the lurkers. Send a personalized monthly email to your lurkers. Make it friendly and highlight what’s going in the community. Link to some fun content as well as FAQ or how-to guides and make yourself available in case they’re having usability problems or have other questions. Sometimes lurkers don’t realize that there are real people behind the forums and think that moderators are bots. Emailing them can help break the ice and form relationships.
  • Stage an intervention. If you’re able to identify when your lurkers drop out (after one contribution? After two weeks?), then you may be able to step in at a crucial moment with an email or special offer.

Keep in mind that while the ratio of lurkers may remain constant, the lurkers themselves change over time. Today’s lurkers may become tomorrow’s super-users and your ten new registrations may all be lurkers. Continue to cultivate your new users and keep building your community to maximize the number of active users.

What has your experience been like with lurkers and what strategies have you tried to turn them into the next generation of super-users?

Cosette Paneque
Community & Project Manager

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