One of the moments when I’m talking with a group of nonprofit executives or Board members and heads start nodding (in a good way, people!) is when I talk about levels of engagement.
We often fall into thinking that all of our advocates have to act a certain way, or be at a certain ‘level’, when, really, we should be building campaigns such that there is room (and need) for all types of engagement. Indeed, when we get really sophisticated, we can incorporate explicit strategies for moving people along our ladders of engagement, such that we have a clear understanding of where someone is today and what it might take to get them to ‘step it up’ a bit. That’s far more successful than using the same pitch to everyone, or expecting everyone to engage in the same actions, and then throwing our hands up, despairing about ‘apathy’, when we don’t get an enthusiastic response to all of our appeals.
Community Organizer 2.0 had a post about levels of community leadership and what metrics we might look for to define that continuum in today’s online world. She stresses the importance of understanding how relationships and network centrality fit into leadership, and what that looks like in an increasingly networked world (sort of the ‘who you know’ variable, operationalized). And she has a ladder of engagement, so to speak, for online communities, from Lurkers to Opportunists to Contributors to Creators.
There are established models of ladders of campaign engagement in the offline world, but I have been thinking about how Debra’s translation of ‘community engagement’ to the online world would look in an advocacy context. Because we can really only move people to the extent to which we understand both where they are today and what it would look like if they moved to where we want them to be, we have to know how to recognize both of those ‘states’, and what indicators to look for.
So, this is my attempt to make that connection.
- Lurkers: These are folks who are reading what you put out, reaping the benefits of what is happening in the campaign, but they may also be willing to make a minimal investment, especially if you structure it as a transaction. They sign up for your lists but may never take action. Certainly, if you don’t ask a lurker to do anything, he/she won’t, so I think that explicit asks are essential with this group, even though your uptake rate will probably be low. Lurkers can be thought of, I think, as ‘Coasters’, in advocacy, so if we can switch the default so that advocacy is nearly effortless, they may find themselves capable of being mobilized, after all. It’s tempting just to broadcast to these folks, but we need to try to find hooks that will bring them out of the woodwork, because that can become habit-forming too. Think: petition signatures, urgent calls to action that can break through the barrier, long-term attitude change, goals of seeding new ways of thinking
- Opportunists: These folks may have stumbled on your effort, or may be lurkers who just happen to be moved by something you put out, at the particular time when they encountered it. They stay on your lists, occasionally ‘like’ blog posts, might check in at an event. Again, making things easy is key, but, so, too, I think, is creating the appearance of momentum, since opportunists want to go along for the ride. To the extent to which you can make it seem like others are already on board, these folks may hop on too, hence their ‘Tag-a-long’ title. Think: email letters, forwards, petitions
- Contributors: I think one of our greatest failings as nonprofit advocates is not being quick enough to recognize those really ready to build something with us. Maybe it’s because we encounter so many more lurkers and opportunists (Debra puts them, collectively, at up to 80-90% of your community), or maybe because, inside, we have a hard time ceding control, but nothing turns a would-be contributor off like getting the implied message “your input really isn’t welcome here”. These folks want to contribute, after all, so we need to be asking for their feedback and really using it. They are already engaged, providing comments and responding to alerts and probably taking other action that we aren’t even capturing. These are your ‘Allies’, in that they are ready to stand with your cause, even if they don’t yet really see it as their own. Think: surveys, contests, opportunities to share
- Creators: These are the folks who have really achieved ‘free agent’ status; while you might see them as still a part of your movement (and they may even be OK with that), you’re somewhat irrelevant to them at this point. This is their cause now. They are talking about it–which we’d know, if we listened to their online presence–and they want to be empowered to own the work. These are your ‘Champions’, off and running, if we don’t get in their way. Which, unfortunately, we do, all too often. These folks want to create video testimonies, recruit other leaders, merge their personal online presence with that of your organization, compose key messages, help design campaigns. We need to let them.
Building a ladder of engagement in your campaigns, then, means ensuring that we have ways for folks to join in, and move up, at any point along the continuum. Our online appeals, in particular, need to speak to all of these folks, variously, in targeted ways. The beautiful thing, of course, is that you don’t need a team of 100% champions, so that doesn’t need to be your goal. Instead, we need to think about how we are going to move our issue, who is positioned to carry the work forward, and who we need to bring on or push up, in order to get to our goals.
When you think about your advocacy work according to this framework, how are you reaching out to people at various points on the ladder? Are you setting the bar low enough, sometimes, that you can bring coasters and tag-a-longs with you? Are you unintentionally alienating your allies and champions, because they don’t see that their dedication is really valued or needed?
PS. I am TOTALLY open to different characterizations of these ‘levels’, different names, different ideas about how to approach people at each level. Basically, to critique and addition and dialogue about any and all of it. I appreciate you in advance.