Getting more out of your union’s content: TUC Digital Lab workshop report

Just what do we mean by ‘content’?

Content is the lifeblood of websites, emails, social media posts, text messages, apps and more. If unions don’t have good content, where will our members find the help and advice they need? (The answer is, of course, somewhere else on the internet).

Good content should therefore be a factor in everyone’s job, but too often, it’s an afterthought, it doesn’t serve an audience or an action, it doesn’t read or watch well, or it’s made then left to wither.

So what do we mean by good? And isn’t ‘content’ a bit broad as an idea? When we have too much on our plates, where should we start?

The latest session of the TUC Digital Lab set out to answer these questions by looking at how unions might develop a content strategy along with the process of content delivery. In other words, when it comes to content, what should we do, and how should we do it?

Content is a broad topic. It means different things to different people. Let’s just take some examples to see what it can encompass.

The most striking piece of web content I’ve ever seen was ’Snowfall’ by the New York Times. It’s a longform piece about an avalanche, unfolds beautifully, includes specifically shot audio and video and is rumoured to have cost upwards of $100k to produce. Technically, it’s been surpassed (it was made in 2012), but it was the first time I felt the web stir me in a way that was different to writing, or video, or photography alone.

Other content can be even more expensive, but appear to do almost nothing at the same time. Take the example of the main Netflix new customer sign up screen. It carries 13 words that likely cost millions of dollars to get right. To find them was likely a highly complex process of testing thousands of variations. The answer was only a few words and a simple design, but that’s the entry point for new users and has helped the company make billions.

Good content is deceptively simple. Gov.UK is able to deliver incredible consistency of experience and value to its users because it’s done the hard work to make things simple. The styles, tone, writing and layout all work together to convey important information with authority, despite making almost no play for ‘visual flair’ at all. 

And other organisations are following a similar path – if you look at Citizen’s Advice, who have something of an overlap with the work of unions in that they provide advice for people with problems at work – you can see the effort they’re making into producing the same sort of simple, easy-to-follow, user-first content.

Each example creates something valuable to the user. Which begs the question – how can we, as unions, create more user value with our content?

In this TUC Digital Lab session, we heard two different perspectives – one, seeing the content challenge from the foothills of redesigning the way a union approaches content, the other from an organisation with deep experience of helping organisations on that journey.

Starting with culture change

The first perspective was presented by Stuart Hill, Digital Manager at Prospect, who recently joined the organisation and is leading the digital team through the union’s transition to a new brand.

This is big and complex piece of work, but it’s also a great opportunity to reconsider some fundamental things about the way the union interacts with its current and prospective members. It goes beyond a new logo and updates to the website’s look and feel, into considering more fundamental business issues, such as the growth and health of the union, its relationship with members and the thorny issue of evaluating and prioritising the rewrite of thousands of pages of content.

The work is at an early stage, but Stuart and his colleagues have developed some guiding principles to help them stay on track. Unsurprisingly, for a change project, they’re primarily cultural. Work like this requires patience, as you take the organisation from working one way (less digitally and more internally) to another (digital-first and thinking externally). This leads them to focusing on recruitment for the union and storytelling through content, as well as working on the ease of navigation and how complex and divergent topics fit together.

Any union reapproaching its website is also, in part, reapproaching itself, learning how it helps and affects the lives of members and the world around it. We’ll revisit the Prospect rebrand and website project in a few months when it’s further along, but it was refreshing to hear culture being a priority (it’s also a topic we’ll be focusing on over the next digital lab sessions, as we look at ways to continue to build digital ways of working in and among unions).

Content strategy and content delivery

The second perspective came from Laura Robertson and Julius Honnor of Contentious, a content strategy agency who have been around the block more than a few times when it comes to working with non-profits and membership organisations.

They took us through a few of their content strategy and development exercises they use with clients, which the remainder of this blog post shares, and that you may find useful.

The pain points

To loosen us up, Laura and Julius asked the group to share their ‘content pain’, and what they heard was deeply familiar:

  • “We make content by committee” (i.e. not for the user)
  • “I went to a meeting and here is my blog post” (who is this for?)
  • “Can you turn this PDF into a web page?” (the dump and run. Also: why?)
  • “We need to be on Instagram?” (who are we trying to reach with that and why?)
  • “We need a video” (perhaps, but how are we going to get people to watch it?)
  • “Underpants on the outside” (our website looks like our organisational structure, which no-one understands unless you work here)

The conclusion was a simple but vital point: Don’t do things unless they support your strategy.

What is a content strategy?

When asked most unions in the room had no explicit content strategy. For digital teams charged with looking after websites and the wider digital programme of work, that can make it hard to defend their time and priorities from the types of painful requests above.

Before starting to discuss how to create a content strategy, Laura and Julius helped us define one:

A content strategy is… working out how content can help you achieve your mission and then creating, delivering and managing that content in an effective and sustainable way.

One way of encapsulating that is to complete the following statement:

Produce < content >
that < verb >
< users > to < goal >.

It’s an easy format to complete. For example:

Produce <webpages>
That <helps>
<Young workers> to <understand their rights at work>

How might you create a comparable statement for an important group of workers for your union?

How do we make it valuable to users?

Another challenge many organisations face is working out just what ‘good’ actually means. Again, working from their own experience and those of the unions present at the session, a non-exhaustive list was put together. Content should:

  1. Answers users’ needs.
  2. Be adaptable.
  3. Pique people’s interest.
  4. Be rich in media.
  5. Be sustainably tended.
  6. Be smoothly and efficiently created.
  7. Be consistent, coherent and intelligible.
  8. Be accessible.
  9. Be readable and well designed.
  10. Be findable.

Yes, but how do we make it valuable to users?

By defining ‘good’ we have a fine list to aim at, but no organisation has the resources to solve all their problems in a day. You have to prioritise, so Laura and Julius proposed a useful method for thinking strategically and doing the most important things first.

Their six-step method is as follows:

  1. Map your landscape
  2. Look at your aims
  3. Think about your users
  4. Find the sweet spot
  5. Plan your delivery
  6. Measure your success

Mapping the landscape can be thought of as having three separate levels – the global, the organisational and the content itself.

Globally, you need to consider your circumstances and where you sit relative to other organisations. Performing a PESTLE or SWOT analysis can help here, but it also helps to look at comparators as well as competitors. Who do you aspire to be like? Which organisations do what you want to do, well? (We all stand on the shoulders of giants sometimes).

At the organisational level, you need to look at your content ecosystem. What are your channels? How are they used and by whom? Document it (a simple spreadsheet will do) and ask your colleagues to help ensure you’ve captured all of their knowledge too.

Finally, looking at your content – is it healthy? How much of it is of a ‘good’ standard (as described above)? Which areas are unhealthy? Why do you think that is?  There’s time for some self-reflection here.

Looking at your aims is about understanding what your union wants to do. What’s your mission, objectives and approach? For most unions, that’ll look something like ‘organising workers, helping them do better at work by helping them use their collective voice’. 

Next, you need to think about your users. Who are they? What are their needs? What are the similarities between types of user and what are the differences? How can they be reached? How will we test our new content work with them?

There are lots of methods and exercises for understanding users, spanning research (interviews, small groups, questionnaires, analytics), synthesis (pen portraits, personas and audience segments), and translating that into tasks (e.g. through user stories). This research is important (we’ve said that enough times over the last 9 months of the Digital Lab). Building things for users without trying to understand them risks imposing enormous bias into your content. Even if you think you know what people need, don’t be so presumptuous as to press on without checking – you may head off in exactly the wrong direction. Do your research! 

Having established your organisational objectives and understood better the needs of your users, you’ll be able to find the sweet spot where the two things overlap. This is where you need to put in the most effort. And it’s also the area where you should start.

But how to work out the first thing to do? Contentious shared with us another exercise to help with prioritisation – a decision-making matrix where by you list out your approximate content priorities, give each a score in terms of how well they serve the organisation and how well they serve users, and use the combined scores to rank them. 

Topic or content ideaHelps achieve organisational aims (0-5)Meets users’ needs (0-5)Total(0-10)

The penultimate step in the process, having decided what to do and in what order, is to consider how to deliver it – and how to do so repeatably. This can be broken into four complementary pieces – the substance of the content, its structure, the workflow to create it and the governance of it. The easiest way to think of it is using another matrix:

Topic (e.g. explaining what trade unions do)
SubstanceWhat stuff?
StructureMade up of what elements?
How does it relate to other things?
WorkflowStages of production and maintenance.
GovernanceGuidelines and parameters, roles, responsibilities and decision making powers.

An example might be, for a simple blog post like this one, is that the substance is how you present the topic of content strategy to a group of union practitioners (such as you dear reader). The structure is thinking about the elements that form it, in this case the words and pictures of the blog post, but also the place it sits (the TUC Digital blog) and is distributed (via email newsletter and social media). The workflow in this case is quite linear – we wrote a draft, we edited and improved it, we posted it via the blogging platform and created the communications content that sits alongside it. Lastly, the governance of it was relatively straightforward too – it’s signed off and set live on the TUC Digital Blog. (More extensive, and strategically valuable pieces of content may require dramatically more process and oversight before they see the light of day.)

With all this in mind, you have a plan to follow, some criteria to ensure good quality. You’re now in a much better place to create the content and start letting people see and use it.

The last question is one of evaluation and improvement. How well did you do? Answering it will help you make better content in future. At this stage measurement comes in. What metrics should we use to help us understand how this content is achieving the goal we set for it? 

Some of these measures can be qualitative:

  • Do representative users find it useful?
  • Does it help them solve their problem?
  • Are there any areas they think could be improved?

While others are quantitative:

  • How many people are using this content? 
  • Are they the types of people we designed it for?
  • What do people do once they’ve consumed the content? Is that desirable?

The point being that, unlike some of the ‘content pain’ examples set out earlier in this post, your content becomes a living thing, which can grow and improve over time.

We’ll leave it there for now, suffice to say two things:

  1. The TUC is looking for opportunities to help unions collaborate on content projects. One risk across the movement is that we waste resources doing the same work over and over. Think about the areas of overlap that you see and we may be able to help match you to a partner (and some financial support) to work on it together.
  2. The common threads of the Digital Lab are starting to come together. The next few sessions, leading up to the end of the year will focus on building the culture and ways of working that make digital change possible. If you have examples of how you’re doing (or starting to do) this at your union, send us an email as we’d love to have you share your experience. All unions great and small welcome!

Actually, as a final word, over 80 people from 24 unions have taken part in the five Digital Lab monthly workshops so far (with quite a few coming to several workshops each). If you have a colleague you think would benefit from attending one or more of the sessions, please encourage them to come along. We’d be delighted to see new faces (along with our committed regulars) in the remaining four meetups.

Now you’ve reached the bottom, here’s a link to the full presentation for the session. See you next time.

Sam Jeffers (of The Shop) is a consultant to the TUC Digital Lab, and facilitator for the workshop series.