Digital organizing 101: What is a ladder of engagement and why do I need one?

The most successful organizations and campaigns are driven by motivated volunteers and surrounded by engaged supporters.

But the difference between blast style campaigning, and deep organizing for sustained action is all in the follow up.

The best organizations are using a ladder of engagement. Using a ladder of engagement you can develop supporters into volunteers, and volunteers into donors, leaders and champions.

One step at a time

A ladder of engagement is a framework designed to deepen engagement. It works by asking someone to take increasingly important actions, leading up to an ultimate goal.

A great example of a ladder of engagement in action is one used by the Obama campaign in 2012. The Obama campaign wanted a couple of simple things from people — votes, donations, and volunteer time. They built a ladder of engagement to take people from observer to engaged.

The Obama ladder of engagement looked like this:

  • First step, people were encouraged to take an easy action: ‘like’ Barack Obama’s Facebook page.
  • Second step, the campaign posted a link to Facebook asking people to “sign a birthday card” to Obama in the lead up to his birthday. When people took this step they filled in their name and email address. Now the campaign had the most valuable piece of information in their database: an email address.
  • Third step, the campaign sent an email to supporters asking them to fill out a survey, or share a personal story. This is a new step, it encourages people to become more committed to the campaign and builds a profile for the supporter so the campaign can better target them in the future.
  • Notice at this point the Obama campaign has made only easy asks of people. They haven’t asked anyone to give up any money or time. But they have built a relationship with people and gathered some useful data, like an email address and location.
  • Fourth step, people get a fundraising email. But instead of a direct request for money they are asked to contribute to the campaign in return for a bumper sticker or t-shirt. Never under-estimate the power of swag!

This is a much simplified version of a ladder of engagement by the Obama campaign in 2012 (you can find a great analysis of this strategy here, on the New Media Campaigns blog).

But it shows the fundamentals of the ladder of engagement strategy:

  • Start with easy actions and escalate.
  • Increase your collection of key data as people move up the ladder — from name, to email, location, interests etc. This will allow you to target your communications more effectively.
  • Don’t hit people with your ultimate ask too soon — in this example the Obama campaign wanted donations, but it wasn’t until step four on the ladder that they made the ask, and even then it was softened with free swag in return.
  • Think about how high the ladder can go. In this example the ladder stopped at the first donation, but it doesn’t have to. Ask for a bigger donation, ask for the person to sign up for recurring monthly donations. Ask them to come to a fundraising event. Keep walking people up the ladder of engagement.

The challenge in building an effective ladder of engagement is keeping track of hundreds or thousands (or millions!) of people. You’ll need a CRM for this, an email program on it’s own wont do the trick.