Action Network Puts the Ladder of Engagement on Autopilot

With a new tool called Ladders, Action Network hopes to bring the efficiency of for-profit marketing campaigns to the progressive digital organizing space.


Action Network, the progressive technology non-profit described as the “backbone” of the Resistance, launched a new feature today that automates many of the discreet components of digital organizing. Called “Ladders” in a nod to the “ladder of engagement” organizing model, the tool lets digital organizers design a campaign, set certain conditions—like signing a petition—which trigger certain responses—like emailing an invitation to contact your congressperson—and then sit back and relax. Although for-profits in the commercial space have long used similar tools to poke and prod consumers into buying things, Action Network says Ladders is the most sophisticated example in the online organizing space.

With Ladders, many tedious steps of digital organizing can be set and forgotten, like list curation or list hygiene. For example, if someone signs a petition for a specific campaign, organizers can set a welcome series of emails tailored to that campaign. They can set a follow-up email to go out exactly two (or three, or seven) days after the petition was first signed, inviting the individual to write their congressperson about the petition issue. Some set number of days after that they can invite the individual to donate to the cause, or to share the petition with their friends, or any number of other actions. This is what is meant by moving supporters up the ladder of engagement.

A sample Ladder, courtesy of Action Network

Communication Workers of America (CWA) has altogether more than a half million active emails on its various lists, and for the past few weeks CWA’s director of online communications Beth Allen has been beta-testing Ladders. She described the tool as a series of “if this, then that” conditions.

To test the tool, she is having it auto-sort new emails that come in as part of a petition on call center legislation based on where the signer lives and whether or not they work in customer service. Once they are auto-sorted into the appropriate groups they’ll get follow-up messaging tailored to those identifiers.

Scroll to the end of the article to see a Ladder that automates list hygiene.

“[With Ladders] we don’t have to manually query to make sure we’re catching the right folks,” Allen said. “It allows it to happen automatically.” She pointed out that this isn’t a big deal if you have a small list but when your reach is in the hundreds of thousands, it accumulates.

“Often [technology companies] work on things that sound good to sell to someone but doesn’t actually make their work better,” Allen said. “Behind the scenes, [Ladders] will save us so much work.”

Although Ladders does not yet have A/B testing capabilities, that is one of several possible improvements that Action Network would like to build out in the coming months.

Ladders was developed as part of a unique collaboration between Action Network and one of its largest partners, AFL-CIO. In June 2013, the two partners formalized a body called the Platform Development Committee, which sets yearly roadmaps that guide Action Network’s technology development cycle. Each partner gets one vote and they need to unanimously agree on development priorities before setting the roadmap in action. But once a tool or feature is developed, all of Action Network’s progressive partners—including the many Indivisible groups that have sprung up around the country since the election—have access to it.

Jason Rosenbaum, Action Network’s director of technology, describes the partnership as an “unbeatable happy medium between buy-make.” The Platform Development Committee allows AFL-CIO, the largest federation of unions in the United States, to essentially commission technology tailored to its needs without having to develop, test, iterate and—perhaps the biggest challenge of custom technology—maintain it in-house. Action Network takes on that burden, and in exchange AFL-CIO supports Action Network’s work building technology to support the progressive movement. The partnership formalizes the design methodology of co-creation; it institutionalizes “build with, not for.”

“This isn’t [just] a highfalutin user-centric feedback method,” said Brian Young, Action Network’s executive director, explaining why they set this partnership in stone. “Our philosophy is that we want to build structures that reflect our values but also hold us to our values. We’re a startup and we’re the people who started it but eventually there will be other people in our jobs.”

“Action Network’s willingness to engage in this process and be forward-thinking in the tools that they’re building, and creating this partnership, a real partnership between the vendor and clients, that’s something I’ve never seen before,” Jeff Mann, a web developer on AFL-CIO’s digital strategies team, told Civicist.

Young said that Action Network will be announcing an addition to the Platform Development Committee in the coming weeks.

With Ladders, Action Network and AFL-CIO are striving for digital organizing efficiency, but it’s worth noting that the “ladder of engagement” model has been criticized for its limitations. Austen Levihn-Coon, a consultant for progressive organizations and the former chief innovation officer at Fission Strategy, wrote about this issue in 2016.

“A common mistake that is made in designing a ladder of engagement is that ascending the ladder is passive,” he wrote in November. “The ladder of engagement is in fact often invisible for supporters. While going up the ladder, supporters aren’t consciously increasing their commitment to the organization, they aren’t building a greater knowledge of the organization or the cause, they aren’t becoming more skilled in how they can support the cause.”

When reached for comment on the value of a tool that automates the ladder of engagement for digital organizers, Levihn-Coon said, “My gut reaction is that there’s a lot of value in finding ways to nudge supporters to take action more often, and that if your goal is to increase petition signatures or donations that could be a real value add, but automated reminders need to be situated within deeper organizing work to mobilize supporters.”

“In part this reflects a divide within the progressive advocacy community on how digital and field interact with each other and the extent to which organizations are investing in building volunteer and grassroots power versus focusing on optimizing online actions,” he said. “I hope that organizations will use these tools to do more than increase petition signatures.”

“These tools can help scale digital efforts, but at the same time there needs to be that strategic lens applied: What are you actually trying to achieve?” Levihn-Coon added. “In order to get the most out of these tools it will be important to take a step back and think big picture about overarching organizational goals.”

Still, efficiency can go a long way, especially for understaffed and underfunded organizations. If petitions, donations, and even letters or phone calls to representatives are low-hanging fruit, then automating the digital nudges that encourage supporters to take those actions in theory frees up that much more time for sustained, impactful organizing.