Engagement Hierarchy: Core Actions

Sarah Tavel
3 min readMar 29, 2016

I want to elaborate on a few concepts I introduced in my Hierarchy of Engagement.

The first, and the foundation of the hierarchy, is what I call the “core action”.

Growing users without growing users completing the core action is the empty calories of growth. It feels good, but it’s not good for you. To build a solid foundation, your focus needs to be on growing users completing the core action.

What is a core action? The action that is the very foundation and essence of your product. Pinterest would not exist without pinning. Twitter would not exist without tweeting. What’s YouTube if people didn’t upload videos? True networks like Facebook and LinkedIn would not exist if their users weren’t friending or connecting.

There are a lot of supporting actions that need to happen to get someone to complete the core action. For example, on Twitter, most people wouldn’t tweet if there weren’t other people who read and engaged with their tweets. So you need people to be following other people, liking, replying; you need a good new user experience so they understand what a tweet is and how to write it; etc.

These features work in concert to motivate the core action, and every product has them. Understanding the relationship between them and your core action is critical.

So: What is your core action, and is it simple enough with enough of a reason to do it to get a large number of users to complete it?

As soon as you can, start tracking the weekly number of users completing your core action, and the percentage of weekly users who are doing so. As I mentioned in my presentation, you’d ideally do this on a cohort basis, assuming the cohorts are large enough to be useful (you don’t want a handful of users to throw off an entire cohort).

To me, tracking the number of users completing a core action is better than both tracking top-level growth numbers like WAU or MAU, or total number of core actions taken. Both are useful to track, but optimizing for either can lead you down a bad path. Optimizing for total number of users will feel good for a while, but will quickly start to feel empty if in the meantime, the number of users completing the core action isn’t growing. And optimizing just for actions can actually degrade the value of your core action. We’ve all had the experience of too many Facebook or LinkedIn requests, or followed a user on Twitter who writes one-too-many tweets... Imagine what would happen if either company optimized for that!

Just like an engine won’t start if there isn’t a little gas in the fuel line, your product can’t start if people aren’t completing the core action. And if a growing number of people don’t continue to complete the core action, your product’s momentum will quickly peter out. On the other hand, when you do have a growing base of users completing your core action, exciting things can happen.



Sarah Tavel

native new yorker, SF-resident. general partner @benchmark. formerly product @Pinterest. originally blogging at www.adventurista.com.