Since the emergence of social media and online communities in business, there has been a debate surrounding member contributions and engagement as being the most important metric in determining someone’s social influence.
How is social influence determined? My friends and I often joke that it seems like it is calculated using some Dr. Seuss like mathematical algorithm that’s based on some combination of the number of friends or followers, likes or loves, pins or shares, thumbs-up or thumbs-down, comments or shares, stars or approvals, etc…
Let’s be serious. Within any online community, there are many member types. Some that are very active are referred to as “super users” or “top influencers” and there are members who just read but who do not participate who are often referred to as “lurkers” to social media professionals. The reality is, no matter how good the content of any community is, the vast majority of people that visit a community are the lurkers.
Many years ago now, Jim Storer, Heather Strout, Mike Pascucci, and I got the opportunity to defend the honor of the value of social media lurkers on a panel titled Lurkers, Your Most Important Community Members at South by Southwest. This has become a topic of conversation again. Therefore, I thought I would bring back some points from a past post to help address the question.
The word lurker is harsh. If you are in a group setting, there are always a few people that are more outgoing than others. If you are in a learning setting, a small number of students typically ask the instructor the majority of the questions. If you are in a large meeting, usually one or two people do most of the talking. If you are working as a team on a project, one person generally presents the findings. Do we call those people who don’t talk lurkers?
Why should we expect the dynamics of an online community or any social network to be any different?
I used to lead a community called “Commonground” which won a Forrester Groundswell Award as a Top B2B Social Network and had a terrific following. When we asked members, 75% indicated they visit Commonground at least once every couple of weeks, and many of them visiting daily/weekly to keep an eye on what is happening. The 21,000+ posts and comments came from a smaller percentage of overall membership, and even though that percentage was well ahead of industry averages, it was still less than 10% of the overall membership. Why? In addition to the fact we as humans are busy, our personalities are different. Some of us are outgoing, some of us are not at all, and some of us are once we become comfortable with the environment. In other words, we gain trust. While working on Commonground, many members came up to me in person and said they loved the community, and one day they hope to be comfortable enough to post.
If someone is hesitant to post, share an article or picture, or comment, does it mean they are being creepy when they talk with you in person about something you may have shared? Could be, but 99.99% of the time, the answer is no.
There are plenty of other ways they will drive value such as offer help, refer their peers at work to join, let someone know about a job opening when they are the recruiter, forward a great article to someone in their office, go to a meeting with a better understanding of the issues, etc..
In a world where we want to market less and help leverage inbound marketing more, social media lurkers have potential to be extremely valuable, but just not care about taking the credit publicly. And yes, that is hard to track, but smart marketers are willing to take that chance.