Why Quiet Learners Matter in Online Communities Too

Whether you call them lurkers or learners, every online community has members who prefer to listen and read rather than post. While understanding this audience may sound daunting, it allows associations to gain a better sense of what members value and develop a stronger online community.

Lauren Kelly, director of membership and community at the International Society for Technology in Education, has been working to uncover a mystery within ISTE’s online community—members who log onto the platform, spend time reading questions and comments, but don’t post.

This group of online learners is often called “lurkers,” because they’re present in the community and consume information but don’t engage in a traditional way.

“This group gets value out of other members’ conversations because they have similar questions or want to learn more about hot topics,” Kelly said. “If you just had people making posts and not reading, that wouldn’t make for a healthy and lively community.”

Understanding this group of learners can help associations paint a clearer picture of how members value and engage with their online community.

Who They Are

Kelly began her investigation by tracking logins and comparing the number of unique individuals who logged into the community with the number of unique members who submitted posts.

“The difference between those numbers should reveal how many learners are in our online community,” she said. “It gets us closer to the people who took the step to login over a period of time.”

She also has anecdotal evidence of these members’ existence. All members are emailed a daily digest of the top posts from the online community. If there are any technical issues with the digest, the members who reach out to Kelly are not usually the ones actively posting.

“That tells me that there are plenty of members who enjoy and get value out of the online community,” she said. “Online learners are part of our benchmark of how much of our membership is aware of the online community.”

What They Value

Just like active posters, elevating strong content will keep passive learners coming back to the online community. Typically, online learners are looking for information from other community member posts. If they aren’t seeking something specific, they may be interested in expanding their knowledge by reading about the experiences of active posters.

“It’s valuable to hear from other people about these shared questions,” Kelly said. “You feel connected, and you’re benefiting from the expertise and knowledge of your peers.”

In addition, acknowledging these passive learners may encourage them to keep participating. Kelly recommends sending out an automated message, such as a short thank you, to members who frequently jump into the community.

“You can use that as an opportunity to ask the learner one or two questions about their experience in the online community or give them a short survey about what they find most useful,” she said. “Getting information directly from these folks will continue to improve the community that serves their needs.”

What They Offer

Online learners can play an important role in the health and depth of online communities. Adding like, upvote, or follow buttons on posts allow these learners to interact with content and, in turn, make the content more valuable for others in the online community.

“You’re essentially creating a positive feedback loop,” Kelly said. “Learners feel that the information is valuable, so they like or follow the post. Then the contributor can see that their post is making an impact with other members and will be encouraged to create new posts for the community.”

Upvotes or likes will also reveal which posts are most helpful, allowing associations to surface them in future newsletters, articles, or other types of content. In this way, online learners can help associations elevate valuable insights to the larger membership.

“I think it’s impossible to assume that you’ll encourage all these learners to post because that’s not everyone’s goal,” Kelly said. “But for a small portion, keeping them engaged and giving them the content that they want to see may help inspire them to contribute.”


Hannah Carvalho

By Hannah Carvalho

Hannah Carvalho is Senior Editor at Associations Now. MORE

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