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Let the Lurkers Go

Last month I asked my network what we should do with Lurkers in a community: let them lie, activate them, or kick them out. Really I was expecting for everyone to validate my own theory of how to navigate lurkers in your community. I was SHOCKED to see that I was literally the only one who thought you should kick lurkers out.

So I asked Jerry Li and the team from Gradual to host a debate where community professionals could battle it out on the different approaches to lurkers. While you can watch the recording here, I wanted to take a moment to synthesize my points in a blog post as well.

How to Define a Lurker

A lurker is defined as: a person who lurks, in particular a user of an internet message board or chat room who does not participate.

A lurker is someone in your community who logs in, reads information in your community, but never shows any signs of participation. There is a pulse, we can see that from their log-in activity, but other than that you would have no idea they are there. They lurk in the background, gathering tips and insights and value, without ever really showing up in an authentic way.

Now, don't get me wrong. Lurkers are not evil. I'm not trying to vilify them. I myself lurk in many communities! But I am taking a stance that lurkers belong in your audience, not in your community. The more that you can usher them kindly back into your audience, the more you honor the work of those who are showing up and participating in your community.

If community is "a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals," I believe that an excess of lurkers makes it harder for people to find fellowship and connection in a community.

The Pareto Principle

In any community, about 80% of your members are going to be more or less Lurkers.

The Pareto Principle is a universal phenomena where 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. It happens everywhere: 20% of the trees in your orchard will produce 80% of the apples. 20% of your closet will get worn 80% of the time.

And you can bet your mom’s homemade pie that the reverse is also true: 80% of the causes (hiiii, lurkers, that’s you) are producing 20% of the effects (activity in your community).

My Personal Experience

Early in my career-building journey, I looked at this phenomena in my newly minted community and thought logically: “Okay, don’t panic, we just need MORE of that top 20%. It’s harder to recruit a brand new person into the top 20% than it is to convert someone from the 80% into that top 20%. They are already warmed up if they are in the community, right? Focus on converting the lurkers into active members.”

Fast forward six years.

It didn't work.

Because of three false assumptions.

Assumption #1: A member’s excitement and energy to participate in your community will grow over time.

Closer to the truth: While it's possible a that an older member can be re-engaged and become active, for the majority of your members, if you don't capture their energy and excitement in the first 30 days, it's really hard to get back. There are exceptions, but this is generally the rule.

Assumption #2: I am the exception to the 80/20 rule.

Closer to the truth: No matter how hard I tried, my community always fell roughly into an 80/20 dynamic. You might change the definition of what it means to be active, but this universal rule will prevail. Spending the majority of your time trying to change this rule will prove futile.

Assumption #3: The top 20% are doing so much already that I can’t ask them to do more.

Closer to the truth: People rise to the expectation you set for them if you have their attention. I learned to stop saying no for them and start inviting them into more action, responsibility, and reward. When I focused my energy on the leaders who were already showing up and invited them into more, our community grew.

Why would someone lurk?

There's many reasons someone might lurk in a community: they are homeschooling their kids and don't have time to comment, it's just not the right season for them, they are scarred to contribute, they are still feeling out if this place is a good fit for them, or they do not see any value in contributing.

Each of these reasons (read:excuses) comes down to one thing: value. They do not see the value in engaging in your community as more than a lurker.

I'm sorry, but "not having enough time or energy" is just the excuse they use to not hurt your feelings. The truth is if they truly believed engaging in your community was the best solution to their endless problem(s), they would sure as heck become an active member.

In my experience, we are scarred to face the truth that some members might not get value out of our community. There are two things we can do about this:

First, we can accept that our community ISN'T for everyone. Not everyone will get value out of it. We need to be willing to admit that and stop wasting peoples time and kindly exit them from the community.

Second, we need to bust ass to understand what WILL provide value for our target members. We need to do a better job of communicating (dare I say sell?) the value. We need to create a safe and inclusive environment where people with feel heard and received. We need to define the expectations for what it means to show up in this community and enforce those expectations.

Instead of asking questions to get to the root of the issue and doing the work to support members, we take the easy way out and let the hoard of lurkers grow quietly and exponentially.

Okay, but why can’t I just let them lurk? They aren’t hurting anyone.

If you believe that your audience is different than your community (more on that here), with different goals, then I a silent majority of lurkers in your community are bringing the energy in your community down.

I believe the best communities clearly distinguish what is meant just for their audience and the expectations and guidelines for someone to be considered a part of their community. No one notices someone sneaking into the back of the auditorium halfway through. But in a collaborative group project, you will feel the presence of lurkers who are benefitting without showing up to give.

By making it clear to members from the beginning the rules and expectations for engagement and participation, you are honoring and validating the members who are showing up and giving consistently in your community.

Okay, well how do we do this gracefully?

First, set the culture and expectation in your community of what it means to be a part of this community from the very beginning. State clearly and decisively what this community is about and who it is for. Make it clear that if they are a part of this community, they are expected to contribute, here is why, here is how, and here is when. If you haven’t done this yet in your community, start now. Host an event where you re-launch the purpose of your community and expectations for member participation.

Second: enforce the expectations you set. I mean it. Not enforcing is worse than never setting an expectation. If you don’t, members will notice and it will corrode trust over time.

Third, give them every opportunity to step in or see themselves out. My favorite way to structure a community is make the application process easy and accessible (I have no clue who will unexpectedly thrive here!) and then make the expectations, values and culture of the community so blazingly obvious that those who are not a good fit self-select out. Make it easy for them to do this, no shame, no shade, but here’s the door.

After x amount of time without any activity, send them a private and automated note saying we noticed you haven’t been participating. Ask if they still want to be involved in the community and if so, here’s exactly how to do that in three steps. If not, they’ll be gently removed in x days and if they want to re-join they’ll need to re-apply.

The point of this isn't to convince them get them active. That might be a nice side-effect, but the point is to create boundaries that protect contributing members and show that their contribution means so much to you and this community that you are willing to let the lurkers go.

WOW, I’m sweating.

Reflections from the debate

I'm being a bit bullish here because I think a lot of people skip over this posture because they think it's unkind to "kick someone out." I hope I've made a good argument that helping someone find the place they want to be is one of the kindest things you can do for community members. That being said, here were some of my reflections from the debate:

- Not all communities have a clear distinction between audience and community. The space between the two is more grey, so it would be unfair to kick out lurkers.

- Good communities have non-linear paths for engagement and leadership. If they are leaving for seasonal reasons, make sure you maintain a high touch with them so they can re-join when the time is right for them.

- Do we expect all members to provide value in the community? Tim challenged me with this question and I don't have a good answer to it. I don't know that I need everyone to provide value, but I do believe that anyone who is identified as a community member should meet some standard for participation that is defined by the community.

One last thing

Speaking from my own experience here, usually the only real reason we keep lurkers around is because we are afraid. We fear what our community will look like (to our boss) and feel like (lower membership numbers to report). If this is you, take heart! Work with your team over time to help them see that ultimate community growth isn't going to come from the lurkers, but it IS going to come from those contributing and leading in the community.

While I fully support this very courageous act of letting the lurkers go, you and your team might not be ready for that. The important first step is to not spend any more time and energy trying to activate your lurkers and focus instead on your onboarding experience to and developing leaders.

And if you're still attached to the lurkers in your community after all this, I would put money down that you are talking about an audience, not a community.

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