Friday, September 25, 2009

The Virtues of Lurking

Lurking has a slightly disreputable air to it. For the eggheads out there this may have to do with the word’s Scandinavian origin. It comes from the Norwegian lurka – to sneak away. So what sort of self-respecting communications person would want to use ‘sneaky’ means to gain audience insight? Lots, actually.

Be like Fossey

More virtuously, lurking just means passively and unobtrusively observing. Some of the best lurkers come from the sciences – Diane Fossey was a lurker par excellence and thanks to her skulking about we hav
e plenty of insights about gorilla social behaviour.

All we are trying to do is what Fossey did - see what folks do and say in their natural environments. Humans, gorillas... same difference... we're all primates.

The 1% rule

Researchers have found that most Internet users are lurkers of one sort or another. Call it 'participation inequality' or the one per cent rule, what we're talking about is how only a very small fraction of visitors to social networks, discussion groups, review sites etc. actually contribute anything. The rest of us are just spectators. For those of you who want the math, here it is:

This has implications for the value of your observations. If only 10 per cent ever actually say anything then the stuff you're observing is representative of only a narrow slice of your audience. So the findings you generate by lurking should be seen as directional or confirmed through other research tools.

3 Rules of Lurking

While there are many practical (but not insurmountable) barriers to lurking in the real world, online it has quite a pedigree. In fact, many of the principles of online lurking can be adapted to real world lurking.

I am assuming that, as a communications person, you probably have limited programming skills. I am assuming too that you have at least a rudimentary ethical backbone. And I am assuming this is a DIY project and you haven't farmed it out to some analytics firm that's billing you hundreds of thousands of dollars. So I'll start with what I feel are the essential rules for successful lurking:

1. Sit down and shut up

Harsh as that sounds you need to remember that this is a passive exercise. You're like the crew of the USS Dallas, patiently listening to undersea noises in the hope of picking up the trail of the Soviet Red October submarine. Just listen, swallow down any righteous indignation that arise
s from particularly moronic posts, and take notes. Your analysis will come later. Right now you are a spectator.

2. Establish a neutral identity

Lurking as 'WhiteHousePresSec99' is not going to do you any good. You need a neutral identity that does not directly point to your rationale for lurking and equally does not attempt to deliberately ob
scure or deceive. As a private citizen you have every right to join a forum or drop into a review site. So if you need to create an identity to log into a group, establish a personal, bland, neutral one with sparsely populated information fields. You should be as interesting as the colour grey or oatmeal. Or borrow a friend's identity if necessary. And of course you can always shed your skin, dump the old identity and create a new one. Remember, you can always have an official identity that can post and comment on behalf of your organization.

3. know where to lurk and why

There are as many reasons for lurking as there are online venues to do so. You might lurk to gain customer insight, to monitor critics, gain competitive intelligence or measure the success of your communications efforts. You need to be certain why you're lurking at a particular venue so that you don't get a skewed view of what you're seeing. Example - Apple cultists like me have already drunk the koolaid so our comments reflect that, as opposed to this guy who claims "Mac killed my inner child" (look at the number of views and comments).

Where to lurk? Some venues are obvious - Inside CRM published a list of customer review sites here a few years back for pretty much every product imaginable. There's also BlogCatalog to help you locate relevant blogs (tip: always read the comments). Some you will come to know by word of mouth or patient trawling.

Start making sense

By now you should have sheets o
f information and no one is the wiser. You feel a little like this guy except perhaps without all the killing and sleeping around (or not, it's your life):

How cool is that? But what do all these data mean? Again it depends on what you hope to find out in the first place. Did you lurk to get early reactions from audiences to a high profile communications campaign? Did you want to know what people thought of your services? Here are some things to watch out for:

  1. Measure for volume and tone - are they flippant and desperately trying to be witty? Could be a deliberate rebel who revels in stirring up shit and not reflective of broader opinion.
  2. Gain as much demographic information as you can from profiles and such (mine deep - is the spelling atrocious? Could be someone with little education or a teen). Linking perspectives and comments to any clue about someone's real world persona is useful.
  3. Be creative - this is not a scientific process. I am asking you to get a little bit of information and hypothesize about its significance. Sometimes your insights will be obvious, sometimes the links will be more tenuous.

The bad news is that lurking takes time and effort. And it's an imprecise exercise in many cases. The good news is that it is a great way to put your finger on the pulse of important audiences. And the skills you practice online can be applied in the real world. For example, next time you're waiting in line at Home Depot/WalMart/Starbucks (circle one), open your ears to what the folks ahead of you are saying. Sometimes it's just chatter but often there's an insight to be found in all that dross.

Stay tuned... next time I'll be talking to an anthropologist about how those folks get insights into their subjects. As always, feel free to comment or request a topic.

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