Understanding the Ladder of Engagement

Learn the tried-and-true method of converting followers into supporters and supporters into activists and donors.

Photo Credit: Austin Distel / Unsplash
Photo Credit: Austin Distel / Unsplash

In the last two decades of online campaigning, there hasn’t been a more consistently useful and universal strategic framework for organizing than the “ladder of engagement.”

Join 506 leaders who already have a head start.

Learn how to get the most out of NationBuilder with articles, case studies, how-to guides, and interviews.

If that’s a new term to you, or if you’ve heard it but aren’t sure you understand it fully, and you’re using NationBuilder, then this post is for you. I’ll walk you through the top-level concepts of engagement ladder organizing, and then take you through each step of the ladder with concrete examples. 

What is an Engagement Ladder?

The Engagement Ladder is a way of conceptualizing and charting your organization’s relationship with its supporters.

Imagine your supporters’ journey as a ladder: in the beginning, they’re at the bottom — interested in climbing on, but not totally committed to the journey — but over time, as they climb higher, the become more and more invested in your cause.

Each rung on the ladder marks a new level of commitment for your supporters and a new way to engage them in furthering your organization’s mission. And just like with a real ladder, the safest and most reliable way to reach the top is by climbing one step at a time.

Example Engagement Ladder

Every organization’s ladder of engagement is unique, and it’s important that you take the time to research and experiment with what works best for you. The following is an example

Step 1: Connect on Social Media

Facebook

The first, easiest, and least expensive way to connect with your community and build support is on social media. If you’re building a movement or running for office, maintaining an active social media presence is a must — and connecting with your community on a meaningful level will naturally grow your follower base on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc. 

It’s not enough to simply post or tweet, however. The essential step here is that you meaningfully engage your community in a two-way conversation. You’ll build loyal fans/supporters by being a loyal fan/supporter of your community. In practice, that means following back, replying to comments, and ensuring that people feel heard and not just talked-at. 

Step 2: Collect Email Consent With a Targeted Small Ask

Elizabeth Warren Card

In order to deepen your relationship with your supporter, and free yourself from the social networks’ pay-to-play walled gardens, you’ll want to move your conversation to their email inbox. No matter what anyone tells you, email is still king when it comes to digital engagement in advocacy, politics, and e-commerce. 

Under modern data privacy rules, like the European Union’s General Data Privacy Regulations or the California Consumer Privacy Act of 2018, that means obtaining their explicit consent to be emailed. And the best way to earn that consent is when it’s bundled with some sort of targeted small ask.

Note: You might be thinking “I don’t need explicit consent, because GDPR doesn't apply to me.” That may be true… for now. But you’d be well to comply with these new rules, anyway, because it won’t be long before similar requirements come to a nation near you. Be prepared and forward-thinking: obtain the consents now.

So, what’s a targeted small ask? It could be a lot of things: take a survey; complete a petition; sign a birthday card; etc. In the example above, Elizabeth Warren leveraged a simple “card” for her dog’s birthday to collect email addresses for her campaign. You may laugh, but this sort of thing can be tremendously effective.

The point is to design the action form with a low barrier to entry that’s on message and easy for your supporters to say “yes” to.

Step 3: Ask Questions to Learn More

Donald Trump Campaign Survey

Now that you have received consent to email your supporter, you’ll want to do so — often. But don’t get overeager and start asking for donations and volunteer support straight away. Instead, take the time to learn more about their interests, opinions, and reasons for backing your cause.

President Trump’s campaign, for example, frequently makes use of long-form strategy surveys both to motivate and learn from his supporters. Part push-poll and part listening device, these surveys collect important data from his supporters in the form of tags that can inform future advertising and content creation efforts. 

Step 4: Make a Transactional Donation Ask

Tom Steyer Sticker

Now you’ve been engaging your supporters on social media and via email for some time, you’re ready to start fundraising. But to begin, you’ll want to move slowly. While your supporters may be ready to contribute, asking them to donate at this stage might spook them off. 

That’s why the next step on your engagement ladder is to ask your supporters to make a nominal contribution in exchange for fun swag. In the example above, Tom Steyer’s presidential campaign is selling anti-Trump stickers for $1 apiece. If you’re a Democrat, these stickers are probably fun and — at just $1 — an easy impulse buy.

At that price, the campaign is likely just breaking even, but they’ve also successfully identified potential repeat donors for the future.

Step 5: Invite to Take Higher-Order Actions

At the fifth step in your engagement ladder, it’s time to start inviting your supporters to take higher-level actions, which may vary significantly depending on your organization’s needs and your supporter's interests and abilities. 

For example, this is the step on the ladder where it would be most appropriate to invite supporters to become paying members of your political party or recurring donors to your campaign. It would be the best step to recruit active volunteers, as well. Whatever the ask is, people at Step 5 (or higher) on your engagement ladder are the people who have demonstrated the greatest commitment to your campaign or cause. Treat them accordingly.

The Bottom Line

The ladder of engagement is the most consistently effective and broadly applicable approach to building an active and engaged grassroots community. The ladder illustrated above has been simplified in order to make a point. You’ll want to craft your own, with each step tailored to your organization, your supporters, and the meaningful actions that will help you to shape the future.

As you take steps to build your own ladder of engagement, consider the following:

  1. Remember that the core goal is to find meaningful actions and match them to the supporters (or potential supporters) who are most likely to take those actions. 
  2. Too many steps on the ladder and it’ll be too complicated to maintain. Too few, and the distance between steps will be too far to climb.
  3. Make sure that you have processes in place to measure and evaluate the effectiveness of your asks. You’ll want to iterate on and refine your ladder over time, and you can’t do that unless you can measure the efficacy of what you have in place. 
  4. Don’t forget that you’re communicating with real people who believe in your cause and want to help. Treat them with dignity and respect, and things will work out just fine.

Oh, and one final point: remember that this is not an exact science, and there’s no “right way” to do this (just a ton of wrong ways). If you’re authentic, creative, and results-oriented, things will work out fine.