For the second TUC Digital Lab workshop, we brought together colleagues from 14 union organisations to help us identify good practice in union digital campaigning.
Case Study: Level Up!
First, we heard a series of campaigns presented by Carys Afoko of Level Up!, who discussed how they’ve built a community of feminists working to end sexism in the UK using a digital-first approach to campaigning and a healthy dose of media-savviness.
Over the last two years, this community has grown to over 50,000 members, with 35,000 of them having experienced ‘winning’ a campaign with the organisation. They’ve raised over £100,000 through their campaigns.
Carys’ lessons behind their success so far are simple and clear:
- Digital mobilisation is powerful – Level Up! has built an organisation and won campaigns using 100% digital techniques and well-placed media stories.
- Lead with personal stories and experiences – Make campaigns people can see themselves in and relate to. If someone suggests a campaign, and has a story to tell, run with it.
- Focus on making activism fun – It doesn’t have to feel like work. Level Up! Embraces a cheekier, visual side to its campaigning (for example, asking men to submit cleavage selfies to The Sun’s highly sexist Bust in Britain competition)
As a digital first start-up, Carys and her colleagues approach campaigning differently to traditional campaigning organisations. In the discussion, we drew out some ways that unions might improve our ability to develop some of the start-up behaviours that work well for them:
- Digital is not an extra that they bolt on to a developed campaign, it’s the default setting and is factored in to planning from the start. How can unions ensure they have digital expertise in the room at the strategic stages, as well as the tactical ones?
- They’re extremely nimble, and can pick up an issue and build a popular campaign around it before it’s out of the news cycle. Unions often have complicated chains of expertise and sign-off, depending on sectoral or regional priorities, and it’s easy for us to miss the moment. How can we work on sign-off protocols ahead of time, so we’re able to move faster when we need to?
- Many LevelUp! campaigns come from their membership, and make use of their talents and interests. They have rapid ways to bring new people and ideas into their collaborations. Unions also have a great strength in a wide activist base, but what could we do to help support more of them to take on less traditional leadership roles in campaigns?
- They don’t let lack of resources stop them from trying something. Carys’ colleagues don’t have the budgets for big systems, so don’t feel the need for completeness before starting something. Third party tools like free online surveys, have let them get good-enough campaign activities out in public quickly. Could unions learn from them in how we test things in the smallest ways, and focus our effort on iteratively growing the things that work?
- The concept of feeling a win has become very important to them. Many of their members are new to activism. Ensuring they all feel the sense of empowerment that comes with being involved in a winning cause early in their activism with LevelUp! has helped to generate a high degree of positivity and energy around their causes. How can unions improve supporter journeys to help more people recognise the value of their actions before they’re asked to mobilise for something else? That could be particularly useful in building less-engaged members into becoming more active.
Challenge: Think about how you might run a campaign like a startup. If a smaller, nimbler organisation were fighting on the same issues, what would they do? If they were competing with you for the campaign victory, how might they win?
Case Study: #MeetWithMargarita
TUC Digital Campaigner Anthony Hayes talked the group through a case study from his previous life as an organiser in Australia. The campaign was focused on the story of Margarita, a hotel cleaner, whose pay would be reduced as part of Coalition (Liberal + National Parties) plan cut to legally mandated double and time-and-a-half rates for the lowest paid.
The campaign used some key digital techniques:
- It used a variety of digital media to give supporters a real insight into the personal story of a central figure for the campaign.
- It coordinated a loose, flexible network of organisations working together on a single problem, sharing the different stages of activity and boosting each others’ work.
- It steadily built supporters and activity, to a level where it got and sustained national media attention – helping in their aim to make it part of a major party’s (Labor) policy platform.
- The campaign was built using Megaphone, a decentralised campaigning platform operated by Australian unions (and now available via the TUC in the UK).
- Once the network had started to build up, a sense of regular communications and mobilisation for supporters helped the unions add new tactics like fundraising, generating small donations via email to keep the campaign properly resourced. An innovative ‘call the PM’ action automatically patched campaign supporters through to the Prime Minister’s private office.
Anthony talked about how the campaign never let great be the enemy of good. Generating more regular activity helped build the network better than waiting for a small number of big actions. Devolving power to the network of affiliated organisations was also hugely important in keeping things moving.
One of the biggest lessons we discussed was the need for unions to put stories at the centre of their campaign work. The movement often lacks quick access to the case studies it needs to humanise the impact that a negative change could bring. There are obvious difficulties in persuading people to use their own names and stories in union activism, but the difference that can be made by this increased authenticity is clear to see.
Challenge: How might you find 100 people willing to tell their story, act as case studies of the types of problems workers face, and agree to participate as the central figure in a future campaign on the issue?
Workshop: Styles of campaigning
We then talked through some areas to think about as you plan your digital campaigning – both the traditional ‘must-haves’ in running any campaign, along with some of the ways of campaigning differently that digital makes possible.
We looked at Mobilisation Lab’s (who provide a range of excellent campaign resources and templates) definition of ‘open campaigning’ and discussed the implications for unions.
It was obvious to all that a truly ‘digital-first’ campaign is a very different beast to a highly planned, centralised way of working towards change. The main opportunity identified was trying to match the speed at which digital organisations can move, launching campaigns in hours rather than days and weeks, with minimal technical needs and a speedy approvals process.
It was also obvious though that unions and their members face some different challenges when campaigning when compared to other organisations – namely, the split between public, member-led campaigning and the need for private negotiation to reach agreement and the risk of discrimination faced by workers when leading campaigns. All agreed these add distinctive issues for unions, but that they shouldn’t prevent them approaching campaigns in a more open and dynamic way.
Given the luxury of having over a dozen unions represented in the room, we discussed opportunities for collaboration. Although some unions can be very competitive with each other, most agreed that there are ways to work together, even if it’s only to share lessons from tactics and approaches.
Two concrete suggestions were made:
- Setting up Slack or WhatsApp groups to help share the lessons of campaigning and be more effective.
- Likewise, everyone agreed that members do like to see joint union campaigns and we can do plenty to celebrate and amplify each others’ work (e.g. by using common campaign themes such as #heartunions).
Opportunity: Do you run union campaigns? Join the Slack/WhatsApp groups. Contact us and we’ll get you set up.
Workshop: Planning a campaign
We borrowed another excellent tool from Mobilisation Lab – their campaign canvass – to help us think about how to put together an open, digital-first campaign.
Canvasses are very common in lots of digital work, ranging from developing business models, to ethics, to understanding and meeting user needs. The advantages of using one are twofold – first, they provide a quite comprehensive checklist of questions to ask yourself as you develop your ideas. Second, they summarise the plan into a single sheet of paper that’s easy to share with others and communicate the plans.
Finally, we looked at five areas where digital can really help campaigning.
1. Research and Understanding
We talked about how you might use tools such as Google Alerts and social listening tools such as Hootsuite or Tweetdeck to monitor issues in a workplace or industry. Also discussed were Bellingcat (an investigative journalism organisation) who maintain a vast list of tools for conducting investigations and research. Any of these can be used to track the views of a campaign target (e.g. a minister or the CEO of a large employer) and build up a picture of what they’re thinking about the issues that matter to the campaign.
On the flipside of that, unions often need to get a solid picture of what members are thinking.
Challenge: Are you surveying a proportion of your membership to find out any issues they’re facing at work? You could test this with something as simple as a Google Form or Typeform.
2. Building a platform
We discussed this at two levels – simple and more complex.
The simplest way of building a campaign barely requires any technical knowledge at all. Website building tools such as WordPress, Squarespace and Wix provide templates and visual layout tools to make setting up a campaign microsite a doddle. Integrating these with petition tools such as Megaphone (or Change.org or 38 Degrees) is straightforward, and most include plugins to make it easy to connect up your social accounts or mailing software such as Mailchimp or Campaign Monitor to make keeping campaign supporters up to date straightforward.
The key lesson here is to think about the supporter journey and experience and how you maximise the action people will take, as they participate.
The two frameworks discussed to understand this journey were the ‘ladder of engagement’ – in other words, what are the ways people can get involved, ordered by difficulty of doing them. This might start with an ‘observing’ or ‘following’ type action, and escalate up to joining events, lobbying MPs or supporting the campaign financially. The second framework is the ‘daisy chain’, which puts the ladder of engagement to work, asking people to take progressively more challenging and complex actions in a single visit. The goal here is to never leave participants’ enthusiasm on the table.
Beyond this, we discussed more complex ways of building a campaign platform, either by using specialist, integrated tools such as NationBuilder, Engaging Networks or Blue State Digital (a good list of these is maintained by ECF. All of these platforms give you an integrated picture of a campaign, from the people signing up, to the emails they receive actions they take, and allow you to build customised landing pages for the most common activities campaigns need (signing petitions, writing to MPs and other targets, sharing content, attending events and giving money).
The final aspect of the campaign platform discussed was the creation of customised websites to help give people
Challenge: How might we personalise a campaign for one of our members? Could we use a calculator, a map, or other interactive element to help them feel like a campaign is about them?
3. Amplifying your campaign
With a platform in place, the conversation moved to how to reach potential supporters and amplify the campaign.
We looked at three elements – owned communications (your website, email list, social channels), earned (media hits, advocates and influencers) and paid (for example, social media ads).
Writing great email is an important part of any digital campaign. Yes, people get too much email. Yes, the open and response rates aren’t what they once were, but it’s still an enormously reliable channel for generating action and, most importantly, you own the channel of communication with members. Emails should be personal, timely and relevant, with a catchy subject line and clear, often repeated calls to action.
With email, you can usually tell who opened or clicked your message. Don’t let non-openers and non-clickers get away with it – send them a follow up within a couple of days to show them you really meant what you said. For the people who did, thank them – be grateful. Taking this approach to treating supporters based on the action they’ve previously taken (or not) can result in a significant increase in engagement.
For earned media, think about who can spread the word about the campaign. Members, staff, even family and friends can have significant reach in the digital age – and that’s before you start to use local and national media, and start looking for celebrity endorsements. Many digital campaigns use Whatsapp or Signal groups to coordinate action and try and ensure that when a campaign is going through a key moment, everyone possible is amplifying that message.
Challenge: Can you build a list of influencers for your campaign?
Lastly, we discussed paid media and how different networks help you find different audiences for the campaign. Facebook offers lots of ways to take the campaign to a mass audience using Custom and Lookalike Audiences and other optimisation techniques. This can help you expand the number of people participating. Search advertising (aka Google) is good for capturing support around in issue that has existing interest (e.g. a common workplace problem). Twitter can help you get your message infront of people with the power to make change happen, whereas LinkedIn can be useful for targeting particular employers and employees.
In each case, the point of advertising is to cut through. Boring ads won’t generate much of a response and you’ll end up spending money inefficiently, so focus on making something with eye catching visuals and copy, and a clear, direct call to action.
Challenge: Write the ad for your campaign as the very first thing you do. It’ll help you sharpen your message and call to action.
4. Keeping supporters updated
Email (either through single-action focused messages or newsletters) is the best way of keeping engaged campaign supporters up to date.
A campaign (usually) doesn’t succeed immediately after launching. You have to work at it, and supporters need to come with you on that journey.
We talked about how you can use digital to show people how their participation is making a difference – again, playing back the story of their participation through the campaign and thanking them for their work in making it happen.
This can be done with emails (remember to make them action-focused) and newsletters (which can act as a broader update on the campaign and issues, but at the cost of reduced urgency). Social media posts are useful for developing a constant drumbeat of activity, and recognising individual efforts.
All this needs to be done in the spirit of openness wherever possible, so don’t be afraid to talk about the number of people who have signed a petition, the events and meetings that have taken place, and what the path to victory looks like. To help you plan it, maintain a grid (a simple spreadsheet is fine, ideally shared with the entire team) laying out all of your activity by channel. Remember not to let the grid override a tactical opportunity though – if something happens, tell people quickly so they get the news in real time.
Don’t forget your ladder of engagement here. If people have already signed a petition, don’t ask them to do it again. If they’re attending your protests, recognise that effort. Keep them engaged and motivated.
Lastly, it’s worth remembering that not every campaign is successful. Sometimes you lose. When you do, don’t shy away from explaining what happened. Too many campaigns, particularly digital ones, build up support on a petition, then never update people on what happened next. Don’t be one of those, as it breaks a bond of trust that can be useful in future campaigns.
Challenge: How might you celebrate the people involved in a campaign, before you win? How might you let them know if you ultimately lose?
5. Optimising the campaign
One of the big advantages digital campaigning has over offline is the ability to test and improve almost every aspect of your activity.
You might test an email and petition with 10% of your audience to see how they respond, then expand its audience if the reaction is positive. You can try different senders and subject lines, landing page layouts, You can test multiple versions of ads – headlines, copy, images, targeting, spending.
The key thing is to start to learn what good looks like for you by asking questions of your data.
What’s a good conversion rate for us? Are our email open rates holding up? Which senders perform well? What types of message to people share on social? Are the ads getting good click through rates?
Challenge: Create a simple dashboard for your campaign so you can monitor the acquisition of supporters and their ongoing engagement? A more advanced version of this would be to build a dashboard around your ‘ladder of engagement’.
What next? Participant pledges
To finish up, we asked attendees to pledge practical actions on post-its that they would have a go at in the coming weeks. Here are the suggestions we came up with as a group.
Would any of these steps be useful to implement in your own union?
- Doing more audience research – who are our supporters? Who has the power to make change? Are our members interested in related issues?
- Targeted social promotion. Try Facebook ads and Promoted Tweets to recruit supporters to campaigns
- Experiment with different campaign platforms.
- Engage more closely with the marketing team, to help link member comms more directly into mobilising for campaign activity.
- A/B test the next email message – to see what formats and styles will work best for supporters.
- Follow up with people who don’t take action – Changing the story a bit and resending after a week to people who didn’t open or didn’t act the first time.
- Use one of the digital planning canvasses for the next campaign
- Ask supporters to take it to the next level – by volunteering, or offering them other high-bar asks, not just basic ‘clicktivism’ activities.
- Start to build up a list of potential case studies – Gather good individual stories and willing spokespeople for future use.
- Pay more attention to following up on a campaign – Celebrate wins or explain outcomes and supporters’ impact, rather than just moving on the next thing.
- Review the actions that make up a ‘daisy chain’ – Are we making enough use of people’s willingness to act?
- Improve how we assess success – What measurements can we plan and gather to find out how our campaign is doing?
- Engage with the resources provided by the TUC.
You can access all the slides from this workshop here.
- As previously mentioned, Mobilisation Lab from Greenpeace, is full of fantastic advice (their newsletter is good too – sign up).
- Megaphone is the TUC’s online campaigning platform. Affiliates can use it for free to start and run campaign actions. Find out more here.
- Contact us if you’d like to join a new Whatsapp or Slack network for union digital campaigners to collaborate.
- ECampaigning Forum is a mailing list where lots of European campaigners spend their time helping one another. They also run an excellent unconference in Oxford each spring.
- Campaign Bootcamp is an excellent organisation and resource.
Read, watch and listen:
- The recent ‘Reasons To Be Cheerful’ (Ed Miliband and Geoff Lloyd) podcast on winning campaigns was very good.
- The Alexandria Ocasio Cortez film on Netflix – “Knock Down The House” – is well worth a watch, showing a grassroots, people-led approach to campaigning in great detail.
- ‘New Power’ by Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms, explains a lot of the concepts described above in great detail.
The next workshops will follow on from this theme, looking at how we can use digital in our campaigns to win union ballots, and how unions can develop their organising strategies online. Sign up for these on our events page.
Workshop write up by Sam Jeffers (The Shop) and John Wood, TUC Digital Lab.