A lot of online communities invest time, money, and resources in reducing the number of “lurkers” in their midst. These parasitic members who consume what they want but never contribute in return—who needs ‘em! One survey found that 30% of online community managers consider lurkers an obstacle. But are they really? Is it possible that lurkers are actually an asset to the community, or that having too many active users would be detrimental to participation and growth? Let’s take a look.
Understanding “active lurkers” and their impact
There is a much-touted rule of thumb in online communities: the 90-9-1 rule. It goes like this:
- Only 1% of members actively create & contribute content on a regular basis
- 9% of members contribute at all
- 90% of members never contribute (our “lurkers”)
Or in the context of a community like Wikipedia, where users can both create and edit content:
- 1% of people create content
- 9% edit or modify that content
- 90% view the content without contributing
And this has been shown to be broadly accurate for most types of community. However, according to an MIT study, 40-50% of your audience are likely to be “active lurkers”. These are lurkers who contribute indirectly to the goals of the group. For example, they take something valuable from the community and pass it on to others, through word of mouth. Or they may be users who scan the customer support community, find the answer they need, and go solve their problem—without contributing in the process, but also without taking up valuable time from support staff or repeating existing queries.
While it’s hard to directly measure and attribute, within your horde of lurkers there may be as many as 50% who regularly, but indirectly, contribute to the community. So don’t write them all off as parasites!
How to handle lurkers in your community
There are two approaches here: try to convert them to more active users, or ignore them completely.
Convert lurkers to active users
The problem is that even if 50% of lurkers are passively contributing, that still leaves a massive number of members with a one-way interaction with the community. Some communities have optimized the 90-9-1 ratio closer to 65-30-5, and this is something you can aim for. Some combination of excellent rewards, incredible content, visionary management, and regular interaction with your current “superusers” is needed to bring these guys out of their shells.
Ignore them completely
There is a contrary school of thought that says that investing time in decreasing the 90% isn’t actually worthwhile; instead, we should focus on increasing the 1% of extremely active users. The idea is that the more highly active users there are, the more value is provided to the community. This leads to a better experience for new members, which encourages the first participation…and the healthy cycle continues.
According to Mark Suster, an expert on the topic:
These power users need to have the right tools, social status, rewards and stickiness to your product because they don’t want to abandon their creation. You live or die on the power users because they build the most compelling content and help promote your website (because it helps them).
But there is no correct answer here. Or rather, the ideal case is simply achieving both of these goals.
The point is that if you have lots of lurkers, and you’re not sure what to do with them. Perhaps you don’t need to do anything at all: many of them are likely contributing indirectly already. And if you do act, you should attempt to convert them into more active participants—don’t just kick them out the door!
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