Three reasons lurkers matter in health communities

Yesterday, while reading Richard Millington’s great post on how most online communities are designed for lurkers, I felt a familiar impulse: the knee-jerk reaction to come to the defense of lurkers.

I’m sure you all read Richard’s post too, and I think he makes a fantastic points—it’s easy, especially for new communities, to prioritize new members over active contributors. Most communities are optimized to get folks signed up. After that, it’s all up to your community team, and their strategy, for getting people truly involved.

Still, I’m a fan of lurkers. Here’s why I think they matter, particularly for health communities:

Lurkers read

Vanessa DiMaura wrote a great article about this last January—lurkers are often “active readers”, and they see themselves as a part of the community even if you haven’t been counting them. They’re loyal members of your site, have a stake in what you do, and see your content as relevant and valuable to their every day lives. In a community of patients or practitioners, providing information and conversation that helps members find support and solutions is often an important goal in and of itself, and lurkers help your community accomplish that.

Lurkers share

Whether they share your community’s content online in trackable ways, or they mention it in person, they’re spreading awareness of the topics your community is most passionate about. When you’re writing about a misunderstood illness, or important new research for your disease, more eyes is a good thing—even if they don’t jump into the conversation right away (or at all).

Given the right opportunity, lurkers will engage

They’ve been reading your blog, or following your conversations, for a while now. They’re the long-time listeners who become first time callers. In online health communities, the ability to remain anonymous is often important. But if you add community polls, ways to like or vote up content that isn’t tied to a login, or other “low barrier” engagement tools to your site—more of your lurkers will be able to speak up.

Maybe I’m a fan of lurkers because it feels like rooting for the underdog, but I believe that lurkers are an important part of any online community. Not everyone is ready to share their story right away, and many in the online health community describe the process of revealing their diagnosis and identity online as a coming out process—it’s a challenging decision, and there are very real risks. But when lurkers become contributors, they can become some of strongest advocates for the community and it’s mission—they understand where their whole audience is coming from, not just the section of the crowd that speaks the loudest.