It's been awhile since the ASAE Annual Meeting, but I recently came across an Associations Now re-hash of a few sessions, including the one by friends Ben Martin and John Chen that sparked so much commentary about the value - or lack thereof - of lurkers in online communities.
Just to clarify, a "lurker" is a common term for someone who consumes content but does not create content, i.e. they read but don't create. I have to say that I totally disagree with the idea that lurkers are of no value in online communities. I see every lurker as both an asset to the community just by virtue of lurking, after all, if your members didn't read/consume/lurk, then it'd be much more unlikely that other members would create. Also, keep in mind that every lurker is a potential future contributor.
At the launch of any community, every potential user is a defacto lurker, especially when an organization auto-subscribes all or some members to the new community. When a community is just launching and before there's much activity, everyone who logs in, checks out the community and takes the further steps of completing their profile with a bio and/or a photo, connecting with other members via "friending" or subscribes to various groups provides current and potentially future value. Current in that their non-discussion activity is still counted as activity and can thus be counted as a win when it comes time to reporting key community metrics: logins, pageviews, profile completions, connections made, discussions subscribed to, etc, and future in terms of their likelihood to become, at some point or another, active contributors.
I think that the notion that only vocal community members - aka "posters" - are valuable community members, sets the stage for calling a community a failure when, in reality, it's actually a success. There are both things an organization can do to encourage lurkers to become posters, and also ways to quantify the value of lurkers as content consumers instead of contributors.
The bottom line is that, just by their merely showing up - whether it be in the form of opening daily digest emails of community activity or actually visiting the community on a daily or weekly basis - lurkers are ripe for conversion to active posters. Just as at a cocktail party or any social scenario, there will always be the types who are the life of the party and do most of the talking, lurkers are, by their nature, listeners more than they are contributors. But given the chance to speak up - either eventually once they're comfortable participating or given the right opportunity when a subject they're passionate enough about eventually arises - they will usually do so. Until that time, though, they are active, although maybe silent, participants in the community and may well be contributing in other ways - maybe telling a friend or colleague about a discussion in the community or sharing a link on their blog or other social networks.
This is one area where an experienced community manager can have a big impact - the Community Roundtable's 2013 State of Community Management Report demonstrated this when survey respondents reported that, instead of the 90-9-1 rule that has long been thought to be the standard rate of participation in online communities (90% lurkers, 9% editors and 1% contributors), with active community management, communities are seeing rates of participation of up to 17-57-26 (that's 26% contributors). Clearly, there's a lot that can, and is, being done to convert lurkers to contributors, if you know what you're doing.
In a similar way that introverts are just as valuable as extroverts in terms of how relationships are nurtured, the same is true with online communities i.e. lurkers (synonymous with introverts) are just as valuable as contributors (extroverts). In terms of monetization of an online community, the value lies in consumption, not contribution - that's to say, email open rates and page views.
Advertisers and sponsors don't care how many people are weighing in on discussions; they care about how many people are opening the emails or visiting the pages where the content is distributed and in which their ads are displayed. Lurkers fit that bill just as well as contributors do. If a contributor rate of just 1% plus org-generated content are enough to sustain high open and visit rates, than lurkers who remain lurkers aren't an issue.
Notwithstanding all the above, it is often thought that the more contributors, the better. This really isn't the case. Can you imagine if every single member of your community created content, the amount of information would be overwhelming at best. Many people simply don't want to create. The goal should be to develop the right level of contributors for your community, not necessarily the maximum level of contributors.