Seafarer cadets in an engine room simulator. Photo: Monty Rakusen / Getty Images

A dedicated onboarding journey for young members – Nautilus International case study

At Nautilus International, we’ve been working on a digital engagement project to improve the on-boarding process for our cadet members.

The situation

Nautilus represents maritime professionals working at sea and ashore. We’re a transnational union with about 20,000 members in the UK, Netherlands and Switzerland. We cover people who are experienced in senior roles, through to cadets starting out in the maritime industry.

Cadet recruitment is particularly important in reaching out to seafarers at the start of their careers. Colleges invite us in to talk about the union, which is fantastic, and some employers let us come on board their vessels to speak to potential new members.

But what we’ve seen over the last ten years is that our membership density in this cohort has declined. Ten years ago, we had 90% of students in membership. Fast forward to today, and that’s more like 50%.

That was particularly a problem during Covid. We couldn’t go into classrooms or on board ships. We had to pivot to fully online recruitment very quickly. That was tough across the whole membership, but we particularly struggled in the student cohort.

We did try a number of things to turn this around again. We put together a really nice cadet hub on our website, with loads of information and support around their study, and finding a job, as well as extra support in the cost of living crisis.

We have also attempted to provide a financial incentive to membership for these students, with a six-month free membership offer. That has helped boost initial take-up, but many of those cadets who join will then choose to opt out of membership once the six month expires.

The pilot

This digital onboarding project is essentially a series of automated emails, which cadets receive when they first join.

The emails seek to communicate the value of our membership. They’re seeking to get those members involved as soon as they come on board with us, because we want to show to them the impact of their membership, we want to show them the value of the membership, and we want to share with them lots of really useful information.

As these members are on a reduced rate, Nautilus doesn’t gain a lot from recruiting them if they don’t stay in membership. So it was absolutely vital we produce a program that was low cost, efficient, and sustainable. That’s led us wherever possible to either reuse the tech we already had in the union, or to use low cost online platforms.

We’ve opted to use our CRM, Dynamics 365, our existing Click Dimensions account for our email communications, and SurveyMonkey for member feedback.

We worked with the TUC Digital Lab and the digital engagement agency Forward Action. The agency helped us conduct research with cadet members, generate insights, and put together a communication strategy.

The research

We convened a group from across Nautilus, bringing in organisers and campaigners, especially those with current understanding of cadet recruitment. We looked at how the project would work, making sure we had the same understanding of our objectives across the team. We explored the problem and assumptions we were making. And we brainstormed questions for the research that might give us useful insights.

We then held a number of interviews with very new cadet members, people who had only joined us in the last couple of months, plus some cadets who had been with us between one and two years. These were run on Zoom, with members offered giftcards as an incentive for taking part.

We wanted to know what was going on in their lives, and how they were thinking about their career and the potential role they saw for Nautilus. We asked them open questions around their drivers for going into education, why they wanted to become a merchant navy officer, what were the pain points in terms of their training. We also asked loads of information about their digital habits, and their communications preferences.


Three key themes emerged from this research phase.

The first is around “sea time”. Merchant Navy training cadets need a minimum of 12 months experience at sea whilst they’re in training. It’s a regulatory requirement. If they don’t do it, they can’t graduate.

We heard a huge amount of anxiety about getting enough sea time – there are too few places on offer and sponsor companies aren’t helping them. They hadn’t expected it to be so hard and this has come as a real shock to our members. They’ve just assumed it’s part of their degree.

So clearly, this is somewhere that we know that we can step in and help them.

The second theme really strongly coming out in research was that cadet members don’t know what to expect when they go sea.

These are very young people, as young as 17. They often haven’t travelled much, and certainly haven’t been away from home and at sea for three months at a time.

From this we found they want lots of practical information. They want to know what to pack, because they might only have one suitcase for three months. They want to know what their sleep versus work schedule will be – often doing split shifts, six hours working, six hours resting.

So again, that’s another opportunity for us, with our access to experienced members.

And the third key theme that came through really strongly was what comes after graduation?

Cadets are currently really struggling to find any information around this. They’re going to lots of unofficial sources – YouTube videos, online forums, Facebook groups.

What they really want is a dedicated source of information. Again, another opportunity for us.

The content

So based on these insights, we created a communication strategy that really seeks to show the impact of union membership, to build a sense of community, and to share useful information.

It’s really simple. Five pre-written emails run automatically over a period of three weeks until the series ends. The types of information that we share are:

  • a PDF download of emergency contact numbers whilst cadets are at sea.
  • A dedicated Q&A, where they can pose questions directly to our reps.
  • An invitation to join our Nautilus Young Maritime Professionals Group, where they can meet other cadets going through the same things, both online and in person.
  • And we also asked for feedback from them, with a really short survey that helps us find out why they had decided to join so far.

We adopted a number of email best practice in this program, to help our email cut through more effectively:

  • Single action emails for clearer messaging, rather than using multi-item newsletters.
  • Really simple and clear templates, just with our logo rather than other images.
  • Informal and friendly tone of voice.
  • Delivered spaced out, so as not to overload members with too much too soon.
  • We always try to use personalisation in the emails, using their name to make it seem more relevant to them.
  • We personalise in terms of signatories, so it comes from a named individual with cadet experience, who they can get in contact with.
  • We make sure we use segmentation. So we make the content specific to each trainee cadet cohort that we are speaking to.
  • We’re using really obvious buttons to drive action. Big, bright orange buttons, right in the middle. So your eyes go directly to that call to action.
  • And we also try to use a variety of voices. So it’s not just us speaking to our members, telling them what we can do for them, we are also sharing lots of case studies from other cadets who have been through similar experiences and who may be able to help.

First results

It’s very early days so far, but looks positive. We first launched in March, and the first series of emails were sent out on March 1 to all cadets who had joined in February and January. That initial cohort was 50 members.

We’re really pleased with the open rate, which is over 60%, particularly for the first in the series. This is higher than our newsletter content, which typically gets 40%-50%.

Engagement is proving good too. 25% of the group responded to that survey, with 100% of those finishing the whole survey.

What’s next?

It’s not been running long enough yet to see an impact on renewals after the 6 month introductory membership, but we have learned a lot to inform the next stages of our project.

We will introduce a review at the 6 month and the 12 month mark, and looking at responses to check the messages that we are giving to cadets are still relevant.

We are also already considering other member cohorts that we can launch this approach to. For example, we’ve got really strong organic growth in membership for people working in the superyacht industry. These are very young, very mobile workers. And they’re not really people who would have traditionally come into a trade union.

We’re also in discussing with our Netherlands branch to introduce a very similar program with their cadet cohort.

There’s much less union density in Dutch seafaring courses, so we think there is an opportunity to tie in organising to the introductory content, such as inviting a course colleague to join too.

Phase two really does depend on a lot of the feedback that we are getting from our members. But the types of things we’re hearing already are that they are really motivated by support around pay negotiations.

So we’re thinking we might be able to bring more of the cadet cohort into our bargaining events with specific employer groups, which would really strengthen our bargaining process.

Helen Kelly is Director of Communications, Campaigns and Digital for Nautilus International