Why the Term "Lurkers" Shows Disrespect to (Potential) Customers

by Elja Daae

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To lurk: “To lie in wait, as in ambush”. “To move furtively; sneak”. “To lie in wait in concealment (especially for an evil purpose)”. “Remain in or around a place secretly of furtively”.

lurkingI’m not a native speaker of English but even I feel the negative connotation that word has. Not a word you would want to have someone apply to you, right? That’s why it shocks, no, baffles…no, shocks me that it is a term individuals and companies will use to describe how a group of their potential clients interacts with them.
When it comes to analyzing online visitors, there is always a percentage of visitors that is fairly passive. Especially when it comes to online communities, this poses a problem for those managing the online places these people are supposed to visit and the content they are supposed to ‘engage’ with. Because they don’t. They come, they hang out, they read. But they do not take any of the actions deemed desirable by the persons managing the community.
Obviously, this poses a problem for those having to report on the success of their communities to their management in terms of ‘engagement’, ‘logins’, comments, likes, shares, and forum questions answered (or whatever it is they need to report to prove the value of their online platforms).
Traditionally, we online community managers categorize these visitors as ‘lurkers’. And let’s be fair: it’s just not official community managers who feel a little miffed about inactive visitors. Countless times, I’ve heard bloggers complain about the visitors of their blog who read, but never leave a comment.
Taking, not giving, is typically how these people are stereotyped…these ‘lurkers’.

Showing Respect
Here’s why I think using that word to describe part of your community is wrong (although some will go as far as to say inactive members are not really community members at all). First of all, I believe that no one who visits a site, a blog, or a community platform, is under any obligation to take action. There is no obligation to leave a comment, participate in a forum, tweet, Facebook, respond, fill out questionnaires, let alone buy something. It’s a free world. You put your content out there and they consumed it. Just like you wished.
Hopefully, you made your content shareable, you made sure it evoked a response and you wrote clever copy to convince visitors to take action. But perhaps they didn’t.Personally, when it comes to sharing content, I consider the fact that you read this far a compliment. After all, you invested precious minutes of your precious time in reading this post. Which is more than I can expect. And I thank you for it. You don’t need to leave a comment. Really, you don’t. It’s always appreciated. But if you don’t, I do not consider you a less valuable reader.The problem with that word ‘lurker’ however is bigger than the fact that is sounds a little, well, Calimero-esque (I am small and they are big and it’s just not fair! *mope*). The problem is that it represents a mindset. It shows us how you feel about your potential customers. And I believe that mindset will keep you from reaching your goals.
If you describe your potential customers as ‘lurkers’, you show that 1) you disrespect them 2) you think they owe you and 3) you don’t care about them.
It’s All About the Mindset
As readers of this blog will undoubtedly know, caring about your (potential) customers, is essential for long time success. Caring translates itself to a product or service that stands out. A brand that people will want to come back to time and time again.I firmly believe that the way you think and feel about your customers or, in this case, your online visitors, transposes itself to the way your communicate. I believe that in a very subtle way, by thinking of these ungrateful, inactive, taking-not-giving ‘lurkers’ you will convey how you feel, and they will know.

It may not be a conscious ‘knowing’ but something about your online place of residence, your blog, your posts, your email updates will not ring true to them. They will know. And they will vote with their feet (I love that phrase). In fact, it may infect your active members. They can see how inactive members are treated, after all. I know, I know, you want to tell me it’s just how we call these community members and site visitors. It’s jargon. That’s how it’s done. This is how we officially talk about this particular group. Everybody’s doing it.

Perhaps. But here’s a Dutch saying, commonly used by parents in the Netherlands: “if your friend jumps in the canal, does that mean you should, too?” By caring about all your visitors, or all your participants, all your community members active or inactive, you will be able to devise strategies that engage all these different groups. By showing respect you will create commitment.Calling people ‘lurkers’ does not equal ‘showing respect’.


Besides just because you can’t measure certain actions does not mean they are not taking place. Not everything happens online, remember? Just because these people did not click a couple of buttons or opened the link in your email or did not visit your community platform for a couple of weeks, does not mean they did not do something that is valuable to you.

Perhaps they purchased your product without you knowing (this can happen, I think, regardless of all our neat tracing techniques). Perhaps they mentioned your website to someone who became an active member of your community.Perhaps they talked about your community at a family party.

They may be in a position to influence key decision makers in their companies and have done so. I know this is a hard truth for anyone needing to report online activity to confirm success, but there is no way to tell how your community members behave when you don’t ‘see’ them. Life is hard that way… 😉
Mindset is everything, in communication. And calling people that take the time to visit you ‘lurkers’ will not be beneficial to your goals.
So please! Stop using that word……

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Elja Daae

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