The nonprofit world’s “ladder of engagement”

When we talk about “engagement” in the news, often that includes the desire to motivate users to action of some variety.

  • We want to take the casual readers and increase their loyalty and commitment.
  • We want the loyal readers to start sharing our content with their friends.
  • We want the sharers to take our polls and comment on our content.
  • We want those easy actions to lead to more involved contributions of content.

Grant Barrett at the Voice of San Diego just told me this week that one of his jobs is to move people along a similar spectrum. And the goal isn’t a revolutionary one: Nonprofits have worked for years to motivate interested observers to get more and more involved. I’ve heard the concept referred to as the “ladder of engagement.” I set out to find the origins of the term, and I struck out. (If you have info on this, will you let me know?)

So I emailed Beth Kanter, who has been writing for and about the nonprofit sector for a decade. She said she has also had trouble nailing down where the idea began, but she’s written about it in general here, and specifically for Twitter and Facebook. She says it’s a commonly used concept in her world.

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Some of the terminology is meant for the fundraising crowd, but the idea of a spectrum that ranges from “listen” to “create” sure makes sense for those working at building community and sharing information. I also love the idea of “happy bystanders” and “instigators” in our communities, and can certainly identify some examples of those characters in my own town.

Not everyone is going to be a creating instigator, of course. There’s a concept widely held to be true in Internet culture called the 90-9-1 principle. It basically holds that if you have 100 people in an online community, 1 of them will contribute content, 9 of them will edit or modify that content, and 90 percent will be passive lurkers. Think Wikipedia. David Cohn and Jay Rosen brought this up at a discussion on community engagement at last week’s Block by Block workshop, in the context of having realistic expectations. As we work to build community, it’s dangerous to get too ambitious about how many active users we hope to cultivate, or to put too much emphasis on quantity. (For another take, see Clay Shirky’s similarly themed TED talk, on institutions and collaboration. The most relevant part starts at 7:40.)

The idea resonates offline, too. When a news organization hosts a roundtable discussion on a community issue, a healthy chunk of the participants are often the usual suspects. One of the organizers’ goals is usually to bring in regular old people who otherwise might not join the conversation.

If conversation is the goal, how do you encourage the listeners to speak up?

This was originally posted on the blog of the Reynolds Journalism Institute, where I am a 2010-2011 fellow.


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