It is said that 90% of any online social readership are lurkers. Lurkers are those who consume the content but don’t respond to it. Nine percent are contributors and only one percent create content, forming the 90-9-1 rule. This is not a new marketing rule and it seems to apply only in spaces for online communities, such as Twitter, Reddit, interest-based forums, Twitch, etc.

Maybe it’s admiration from afar or you’re interested in the content but don’t feel a need to engage with it. I’m there with you. I lurk on all the digital platforms. Sometimes I eventually come out of the lurking cave and engage with the person (I’ve been trying to do this more often). I’ll go from consuming their posts to cautiously hitting like. Then maybe a repost and maybe a reply. Maaaaaybe. If I’m not feeling socially anxious, that is.

Lurking is a tough business. You don’t want to appear as a stalker. So you bide your time, waiting for the moment to reveal yourself. It has to be the perfect moment, though. Because you can’t unlurk (some would argue that you are still a lurker if you rarely interact). So you lurk until there’s something that resonates with you so deeply that you feel compelled to respond. At least this is my lurking playbook. I don’t know how others like to lurk.

There is a great benefit to being a lurker. You take no risks by hanging out on the sidelines. You read, learn, and move on.

In an aptly named research study called “Why Lurkers Lurk,” the participants cited 79 (!) reasons for lurking and seven lurkers’ needs. Some of their reasons are below.

  • wanted to be anonymous, and preserve privacy and safety
  • were shy about public posting
  • had too many or too few messages to deal with, i.e., too many messages were burdensome, and it was easy to forget low-traffic groups

A more recent study on Twitter lurkers found that they were more likely than active users to use the platform to see different points of view.

But okay, now we’ve admitted that we’re all lurkers somewhere; what does one do with this information? As Jakob Nielsen wrote, “The first step to dealing with participation inequality is to recognize that it will always be with us. It’s existed in every online community and multi-user service that has ever been studied.” There are a few ways you can deal with it:

  • Examine user interaction data like click-through rates and opens to track lurker activity
  • Make user feedback super simple (e.g. those bathroom cleanliness feedback buttons in airports, Netflix’s thumbs up for ratings) and then use the information to offer recommendations.
  • Repeat after me: The loudest voices are not always representative of the whole. Sometimes they are!
  • Acknowledge your fans (but not excessively) in the hopes that lurkers will be enticed to come out of the cave.