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Creative Commons License photo credit: dotpolka

Back in July, when I asked what you’d like me to write about, Ben asked about lurkers. Specifically, how to convert lurkers to active contributors without changing the forum platform in use.

In Ben’s case, his forum is for a browser based game. 50% of the people who play the game have a forum account and 2% of those members are active on a daily basis. Are those numbers poor? It depends. But, not necessarily. Lurkers will represent a large percentage, usually a big majority, of the traffic for most publicly viewable, successful online communities. Still, it never hurts to consider how you can improve.

Lurkers are a common concern for community managers and a persistent topic when it comes to growing an online community. When it comes to converting lurkers, there are two big areas that you should focus on.

Highlight Great Content

“People make their first impressions quickly and hold them forever,” Derek Powazek wrote recently. “This is no surprise and there’s all kinds of social science to back it up. What this means for a virtual community space is that the first “content” the user sees will form the user’s definition of the place forevermore. This first-viewed content will do more to drive future behavior than any interface decision, any set of rules. Starting off with excellent example content is the single biggest factor in predicting the quality of future contributions (at least, that you can control).”

This can mean different things to different audiences, but spend some time thinking about what your visitors see when they first visit the community. First and foremost, this means activity – people posting, contributing and being active.

But, it can also mean that you use visible spaces to spotlight great content, interesting discussions, helpful members and more. That might be in your header and/or in your homepage. It can sometimes be challenging for members to find cool stuff that is going on right now, in a sea of discussions. Your mission is to help them do so. Activity streams are one way to do it (I feel like Quora is good at this), but highlighting things manually works, too.

Clear, Simple Calls to Action

There is a very good chance that, when someone first finds your community, they will not have accessed it through your homepage. An individual discussion is a good bet, but other areas are possible. The point is, as nice as your homepage is, they might not see it. That is one of the reasons that it can be very powerful to have clear, simple calls to action.

If all you have is a register link in your header, that isn’t an effective call to action. You want to tell people they can register in a bolder way, sometimes with a concise list of benefits for doing so. You can also apply the same methodology to a new thread or reply button. You can fine-tune what is shown to people who are not logged in and what is shown to people who are logged in.

Dibakar Kana at Six Revisions and Corey Eridon at Hubspot both have examples that should get you thinking. My friend Brandon Eley has some tips on how to test your call to action and increase your conversion rates. If you are planning to really maximize your calls to action, then you should be doing this.

You might not have the time to do as much as you would like, but that is no reason not to do what you can. Even a small change can have very positive results.

What have you tried to do to convert lurkers on your community? What has worked well? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.