The Online Community Engagement Ladder
Creating engagement opportunities for every community member
For communities that are just getting started, building a base of engaged members is a primary focus. As a community builder, you'll figure out what engagement tactics are most effective with your community through trial and error. And, you may find yourself wondering why certain engagement efforts flopped, while others soared.
I often hear first-time community builders saying something to the effect of: “I’ve been trying to start conversations in my community, and trying to engage every day, but all I’m getting is crickets.” And, while there can be a number of reasons why engagement tactics don’t work—from choosing topics that don’t resonate with your audience, to tone, and more—I often find the culprit lies with how high you’re setting the bar for your community members. In other words: how hard are you making it for them to engage?
I’ve zeroed in on a concept I call the community engagement ladder that has helped me be more effective in planning community content. This idea is designed to help you become more aware of the “barrier to engagement” you create with your engagement efforts, to start to see this as a key component of your content planning, and to vary your barriers strategically to bring out the best in your community members.
Before we go further—I created a template that goes along with this post. It’s a fillable Google doc that will let you visualize this concept and use it to plan your engagement strategies. You can access that here:
And, as a note if you’re new here: engagement for engagement’s sake is never the ideal. As you strive toward creating a community that is active and indispensable for your members, always bear in mind the “why” behind your desire to build engagement. I’ve written a bit about engagement and setting effective goals in the past, and I’ll include some recommended posts that go deeper into this at the end of the post.
What is "the community engagement ladder"?
The community engagement ladder is a framework that acknowledges that members interact with your community in different ways, and creates opportunities for them to interact, regardless of how engaged they're able to be at any given time. It aims to create engagement opportunities that surmount different types of barriers to engagement, like lack of time, vulnerability, or level of understanding of the topic at hand.
"The community engagement ladder is a framework that acknowledges that members interact with your community in different ways, and creates opportunities for them to interact, regardless of how engaged they're able to be at any given time."
If you visualize your “lurkers” (the people who open your community, but never or rarely post) at the bottom of the ladder, and your super-members (the people who interact with everything in the community) at the top, you can start to see why some of your engagement efforts feel inconsistent: they’re working well with some members, but completely missing others. And, you may notice that some engagement efforts, like posting a poll or a simple question that can be answered in one sentence, bring out more new faces than others, like hosting a live Q&A session or asking members to share an opinion in-depth.
The engagement ladder is about placing the engagement opportunities you provide most often along a continuum and making sure that you are creating as cohesive of a community experience as possible—one that allows members to engage at varying levels and gives them opportunities to grow their comfort with engaging more deeply, if they want to. It’s about identifying holes in your ladder and choosing engagement strategies with an eye toward filling those holes.
A note: I had the chance to speak about this idea with the creator Jay Clouse, who pointed out that what I was calling a “ladder” could easily be tipped on its side and seen as more of a horizontal continuum. This framework works that way as well—but I kept the metaphor of a ladder because it’s easy to visualize and communicate. Jay’s commitment to reframing and thinking about community as member-centered continuously pushes me to be a better community leader, and the kernel of wisdom about viewing these methods of engagement less hierarchically informed how I thought about this piece.
Varying barriers to engagement
As you plan your community content calendar and engagement strategies, the most effective way to ensure you create engagement opportunities across the engagement ladder is to think not just about creating content that’s relevant to your members, but to think about the barrier to engagement your content poses to your members. When I say barrier to engagement, I really just mean all the things that could keep them from engaging, even if they want to—things like not having enough time, vulnerability or fear your contribution won't be valued, or not having enough prerequisite knowledge to join the conversation. While I sometimes hear first-time community builders being advised on the whole to lower or raise their barrier to engagement, I think it’s most important to strategically vary the level of effort required for members to engage. So, for example, if you know you post content geared at sparking engagement three times a week, perhaps you would plan for one of those posts to have a low barrier to engagement, one to have a medium barrier to engagement, and one to have a high barrier to engagement. Doing this can also take some of the pressure off of worrying that some of your content is flopping and put your expectations of engagement into context—you know you’ll get lower engagement on more high-barrier posts, but that doesn’t mean they don’t play a role.
You may be thinking: why don’t you just make everything easy to engage with? Because, there’s value in nuanced, niche conversations. While not an exact correlation, often there’s an inverse relationship between how easy it is to engage with something and how impactful the results of that engagement are. For example, when members are willing to take the time to write out a few paragraphs about a topic, odds are you just got some source material for a blog post, or an incredible insight about your members. Score! When members just need to chime in with a one word answer or a picture of their dog, it might not lead to much else (even though I love pictures of dogs!). But, these low-barrier-to-engagement posts serve a purpose, too: they allow members who don’t have a ton of time or who are still warming up to the community to have a voice and build a sense of belonging.
You can easily spot a community that’s not filling in their engagement ladder by varying barriers to engagement. You’ll notice that communities who rely too heavily on simple rituals (i.e., jobs posts, welcoming new members, self promo posts, requests to fill in research forms) are rarely home to insightful conversations. On the flip-side, communities who constantly ask their members to share in-depth strategies or debate best practices will struggle to attract and activate new members.
Planning your community content calendar with the ladder
To help you put this framework into action, I created a resource to visualize the community engagement ladder. It’s a Google doc template that you can copy and fill in yourself—you can use it to evaluate your community strategy as a whole, or to plan for a week or a month’s worth of content that’s balanced along the ladder. I’ve included a bunch of examples of engagement tactics that work for different parts of the ladder. You can access that resource below:
Moving members along the ladder
Perhaps as you’ve been reading this, you’ve noticed a lack of discussion about something usually so essential to ladders: climbing. And while the primary focus of this post has been on making sure that no matter where you’re standing as a community member, there’s a way to engage that’s within reach, it’s also worth mentioning that as a community manager, you may wish to see people progress up the ladder over time. In other words, you might want to transform someone from lurker to regular contributor. And, there’s a good reason for that: it may be fair to assume that members who contribute more to the community get more out of it, too. Members who contribute at a higher level may be more likely to get really high-impact results from a community, like real 1:1 connections, feedback on their work, or an opportunity to build their authority in your niche—so it makes sense that you as a community builder might want to see a larger share of members climbing toward the top of the ladder over time. But, others may get everything they're looking for from a community just by reading posts—and that's okay, too.
The great thing about the community engagement ladder is that it’s there for you whether you’re trying to climb to the top or just trying to lean over and grab something that’s in reach. If you have appropriate engagement opportunities within reach of each rung of the ladder, you’ll have a healthy distribution of folks who start out rare contributors and happily remain that way forever, and folks who start off only ever responding to surveys and end up giving presentations in front of your whole community. The engagement ladder is there to make sure that moving around is easy, so for members who do want to become more involved, you don’t lose them by leaving massive chasms between the ease of “introduce yourself” posts and the difficulty of becoming a community mentor.
Want to take all this a step further?
There are a few more posts on my blog that you might like if you enjoyed this one:
How to Use an Online Community as a Content Marketing Pipeline
How to Elevate the Quality of Engagement in Your Online Community
If you’re looking for more hands-on help, I work with clients 1:1 doing coaching to help you reach new heights as a community builder. I also work on select community project-based work (like launches or community strategies). If you’re a founder launching a community project that you could use a hand on, or a first-time community manager looking for an experienced coach, check out ways we can work together here. I’d love to hear from you. Thank you for reading!