As the digital landscape around us blooms exponentially, every lay person is a digital pioneer. We are each given the tools to shape our own digital ecosystems, making daily decisions about which organizations reach our news feeds and how tightly to restrict our privacy borders. In this wild west of digital public relations, every person has a readymade platform to communicate their experiences and feelings to a global audience. And each individual and organization is competing for the same limited currency — attention.

Nearly 15 years after the founding of Facebook, it should be clear that social media is here to stay. Early adopters of these platforms have already reaped the first round of fame and fortune awarded to those smart enough to take them seriously. Some sort of social presence is now a business requirement, allowing organizations to drive targeted sales, track real-time sentiment, and cultivate a bit of branded personality.

What’s more: The audience at large is getting harder to please. Kids today aren’t impressed by your ability to post frequent content. Is your content authentic? Is it relevant? Is it politically correct? Does it respect everyone’s growing concerns about privacy?

The answers to these questions can and must start with the same basic framework political campaigns have been using for a decade: the ladder of engagement.

Popularized by the Obama 2008 and 2012 campaigns, the ladder of engagement is a transcription of community organizing tactics onto digital platforms. It is a framework for deepening public engagement with an organization’s mission. It works by asking someone to take increasingly meaningful actions, leading toward a clearly defined highest-value ask.


For example:

Start with easy actions and escalate.

  1. Follow us on Facebook — The foundational expression of alignment with an organization.

Increase your collection of key data points as people move up the ladder — from name, to email, location, interests etc. This will allow you to target your communications more effectively.

  1. Sign a simple petition, default opt-in to an email list — Expresses willingness to get involved.
  2. Fill out a survey, sent via email — Expresses a deepening trust of organization’s communications.

Don’t hit people with your ultimate ask too soon. Soften the first appearance of that ask.

  1. Volunteer in exchange for swag or other reward — Initiates significant time commitment to the organization’s mission.
  2. Become a regular volunteer — Solidifies commitment to sustain organization’s mission.


This framework has the dual benefit of giving the public a clean pathway to get involved and providing meaning to each individual action taken. It also addresses some of those scary questions being asked by the public.


Is your content authentic?

By treating your interactions with potential funders and volunteers like individual relationships, your organization will feel more personal. Handing over some of your brand’s public image over to individual staff members will go a long way toward revealing the heart and soul behind your efforts.


Is your content relevant?

A ladder of engagement is all about cultivating an individual’s self-motivated interest in learning more about your organization. It’s much cheaper and more effective to structure your tactics around finding the people who actively want to follow your work and find your content relevant.


Is it politically correct?

The fringe benefit of intentional engagement is less vitriol. People who feel actively tied and invested in your organization are more likely to hold you accountable in a civil way. That means fewer random trolls and a built-in defense system against them.


Does it respect everyone’s growing concerns about privacy?

A ‘ladder’ actively asks for permission to learn more about people. These structures go awry when organizations try to trick people into signing up for an email list, or don’t follow through on making the investment worthwhile by providing incentives. It’s more important than ever to be transparent about what information you want and why. You shouldn’t have to be sketchy to build your list.


The ladder of engagement should be an exciting thing. It can provide a solid foundation for ad campaigns and email programs that are strategically adrift. The framework is simple enough to be understood by non-digital folks and remembered by digital staffers looking for a north star.

But it must be said that this is Digital 101. Your organization probably needs multiple ladders of engagement toward different goals. You’ll need to think through how they interact with each other as well as your existing email program. More questions arise: Is your website optimized for each level of the ladder? Is your organizational leadership ready to hand over meaningful incentives for digital distribution? How can we establish genuine one-on-one relationships with each self-identified member who shows up on a form?

Tunheim can help you think through these difficult questions. We’ve been pioneers of digital strategy from day one, identifying ways to graft traditional PR and marketing tactics onto platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat. We build landing pages, ad campaigns, and revitalize email programs. We develop campaigns to engage your audiences to reach your goals. You can learn more about our digital strategy capabilities here.

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