Most online communities have lurkers.
Lurkers are users on the fringe of a community—they observe what happens, but don’t interact, post, or contribute.
Most CMs have likely wondered how they can turn lurkers into regular contributors. There’s some academic research that dives into this topic. Yes, you read that correctly: academic research. (Stay with me…)
1. Why do people lurk?
Several academic studies have examined lurkers’ reasons for lurking and their relationship with the community. Here are two important points:
- There are some reasons for joining an online community that lurkers and contributors have in common (e.g. getting a general understanding of the community, reading conversations/stories). But contributors seem to be much more attracted by the prospect of engagement in the community (be a member, make friends, offer one’s expertise, get empathetic support). 
- A person may contribute to one community and be a lurker in another. The behavioral outcome is dependent on the person’s overall engagement (a personal characteristic trait regardless of the situational context) and strongly modified by the person’s attitude toward the topic, the community or the task. 
One study from 2006 offers especially interesting details:
Table: Reasons why lurkers don’t post (% of respondents) 
|Didn’t need to post|
|(53.9) Just reading/browsing is enough|
|(21.5) No requirement to post|
|(13.2) Had no intention of posting|
|Needed to find out about the group|
|(29.7) Still learning about the group|
|Thought I was being helpful|
|(22.8) Nothing to offer|
|(18.7) Others have said it|
|Couldn’t make the software work|
|(9.1) Not enough time to post|
|(7.8) Do not know how to post to this group|
|(4.6) There are too many messages already|
|Didn’t like the group (poor dynamics/fit)|
|(28.3) Shy about posting|
|(15.1) Want to remain anonymous|
|(11.0) Of no value to me|
|(7.8) Poor quality of messages or group/community|
|(7.3) Wrong group|
|(6.8) [Observed] long delay in response to postings|
|(5.9) Concern about aggressive responses|
|(4.1) If I post, I am making a commitment|
|(1.4) Group treats new members badly|
Two aspects should be highlighted:
- Only 13.2 % of those questioned had no intention to post from the outset.
From this, we can infer that there is a considerable number of users who lose interest in contributing while lurking—even though they may have originally intended to participate.
- Not every reason for lurking can be solved through community management (e.g. not enough time to post).
And many reasons that can be influenced (e.g. long delay in response to postings) are certainly already on the agenda of most committed community manager.
2. Can community management convert lurkers to posters?
According to social learning theory (which proposes that people learn from one another via observation, imitation, and modeling) a new community member will always start as a lurker or with relatively few contributions. Over time, they gain knowledge, competence and confidence—and contributions increase.
One such “evolutionary path” could be described in this way: A new member would start as a visitor (lurker). He/she eventually learns the norms of the community, builds an identity and, later on, becomes a regular who participates reliably in community life or even becomes a leader who keeps the community running. The highest achievable position would be an “elder,” a long-time regular and/or leader who is esteemed for sharing his/her knowledge.
Although this sounds very promising, to my knowledge—and unfortunately—the prerequisites for a successful conversion of lurkers to contributors have not yet been examined.
In my opinion, once again the person’s overall engagement and his/her attitude toward the topic/community/task are the decisive factors.
3. So, what’s the upshot?
Lurkers gonna lurk. But our efforts to “delurk” them aren’t outright useless. It seems that much lurking can be prevented (or corrected) by setting the right framework for participation, like:
- an easy-to-use website/forum
- intuitively structured community sites
- an open-minded ambiance
- motivating posts for newbies
- community members who are tolerant in their dealings with one another, etc.
And for those who prefer to remain lurkers in your community, well, give them interesting content—and they might at least attract others to your community. A lurker in one community may be an active member in another.
This is what some of the academic research has to say about lurkers in a community. In your actual day-to-day practice, what have you discovered is the most effective way to turn lurkers into contributors?
 Nonnecke, B., Andrews, D., Preece, J. (2006). “Non-public and public online community participation: Needs, attitudes and behaviour.” Electronic Commerce Res (2006) 6, p. 7-20. Google Scholar
 Muller, M. (2012). “Lurking as Personal Trait or Situational Disposition? Lurking and Contributing in Enterprise Social Media.” CSCW 2012, February 11-15, Seattle, Washington. Google Scholar