(The following post is an excerpt from a Global Innovation 50-page report I wrote for the University of San Francisco. It focuses on engagement in social networks, but I believe that these same exact principles apply when building innovation networks).
Before any company attempts to leverage an existing network (or create a new one), they must understand the various levels of engagement found in online networks. This is important knowledge that will help a company develop the right tactics to get the most out of a network strategy. When launching a new network (internal or external) opportunities for participation should be focused and maximized. By understanding that there is more than one way to participate (and contribute) in these networks, an appropriate strategy that utilizes all levels of contribution can be implemented. In addition, it is important to select platforms and tools that are designed to make it easy for people to understand what is being asked of them. Simplicity and clarity are key to entry participation at any level. Too often companies will shut down what they consider to be an unproductive network without setting appropriate goals for engagement and contribution from the network participants at all levels.
These levels of participation are often described as a ladder of contribution (Forrester) or a pyramid of participation (Altimeter Group) as illustrated in Figures 1 and 2 below. Both models describe the various steps and stages of participation. It is important to recognize that valuable contributions take place at every level of the ladder or pyramid. Too often in social networks, organizations focus on the very top level of contribution. But because these kinds of contributors represent a small percentage of the overall number of participants, many social networks are prematurely deemed failures because the majority of participants did not edit a Wiki, publish a blog, or write an article. Regardless of whether it’s a ladder or a pyramid, the percentage of users who actually create this kind of content is smaller than anyone thinks. Take this example: using the engagement pyramid to assess Wikipedia, less than 1% of the user community is considered active contributors. The actual ratio is 85,000 (out of over 11 million registered users) who create content. Even with this tiny group of active contributors, Wikipedia remains an explosive example of an open innovation community.
In addition to nurturing participation at all levels, the other lesson here is that companies need to understand how their target audience wants to interact with social media. It is important to consider that the media your audience interacts with also determines their level of engagement. Some people may be active readers and may occasionally comment on what they read while others prefer to upload videos on video sharing sites (e.g. YouTube) or pictures on photo sharing sites (such as Flickr). While value can be derived from all of these forms of engagement, it is important to understand who is in the community and what their social media interests are before assessing the “success” of the levels of network engagement.
Figure 1. Forrester Ladder of Engagement
Figure 2. Engagement Pyramid in Social Networks
 Most companies tend to focus only on one level of contribution, such as a blog post or wiki entry.