Designing for Active Lurkers

Instead of treating people as either taking some important action (the one we want them to) or not taking it, there is a spectrum in between.

Fred Wilson makes a good point about how to think about relationships online. Instead of treating people as either taking some important action (the one we want them to) or not taking it, Fred reminds us there is a spectrum in between.

“looking at your user base as either non-active or transactors is the wrong way to think online (and maybe offline too). Just like bookstores use cafes to bring potential purchasers in the store, online retailers should intentionally cultivate an active non-transactor user base.”

Indeed, the vast majority of users (even valuable ones) are passive most of the time. The spectrum of activity is wide and is filled with people who are contemplating action, observing the scene, browsing, searching, reading, lurking, or otherwise passively hanging out. The majority of use is silent.

There is ample evidence for this. Remember Bradley Horowitz’ data on Yahoo Groups from way back when? He found that across all Yahoo Groups you could basically cut up the population into 3 types: Creators (1%), Synthesizers (10%), and Lurkers (100%).

Horowitz made several interesting points about this. One, you might not even want everyone to be a creator since this spectrum naturally keeps the signal to noise ratio in check. If everyone were creators, then things might get very noisy very quickly. Second, each of these groups is inclusive…the lurkers includes the creators, as creators aren’t always creating. They lurk, too.

In general, the vast majority of activity online is passive. Just because people are passive doesn’t mean they’re not valuable. For activities people are passionate about, they’ll move up the ladder of engagement and begin participating more. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t design to try to get people participating more. It just means after the population reaches equilibrium you’ll probably see a broad spectrum of use.

Back to Fred. I think he’s right about adding value specifically for people to get comfortable with your product/service. This is what relationship building is all about. From my own experience, almost every one of my clients has been a reader/lurker for months (sometimes years!) before they contact me. When I first started realizing this it startled me because I would wonder…why are they waiting so long to even say “hello”? But now that I’ve seen it over and over again, I realize that this isn’t science fiction…this is real life, real people, and real relationships. I’m actually glad now when someone says “long time reader, first time caller”. I know that we’ll have a good conversation because they already know where I stand on things.

This is all permission marketing at its core. You have to design for an active, lurking population, to build relationships over time, whether you’re meeting people face to face or designing an online application for people you never see. It may be adding archival content that people can browse or learn from. It may be creating a newsletter that people can subscribe to. It might be writing a blog. It may be like Fred’s example of Etsy forums. Etc.

Or, it may be as I’ve done this morning: designing a landing page for a book I’m writing and allowing people to sign up to be notified when I launch. People can lurk all they want to…if they give me permission to shoot them a reminder email that’s a great first step in what may or may not be a long-term relationship.

Published: July 16th, 2009