Join Together - Digital tools for trade unions

Join Together – a new approach to joining unions online

Join Together is a new Software As A Service (SaaS) platform for unions, focused on supporting unions with online joining. They’ve been working with the TUC Digital Lab over the last two years to devise a product that works for unions, and to build it into a sustainable option for the longer term.

We talked to two of the team, Sam Jeffers and Tekin Süleyman, about the tools and their ambitions for them.

Join Together co-op members Tekin Süleyman and Sam Jeffers

How would you describe what you’re trying to do with Join Together?

Sam: All of us have worked in public interest technology for quite a long time, often with unions. And you see this constant bottleneck that the experience of joining a union is just not as straightforward as it could or should be. That’s a problem that we wanted to tackle.

Join Together is about trying to make joining a union a beautiful, simple, straightforward process. One that doesn’t require much effort from the prospective member, and that only takes a minute or two.

Unions need a constant supply of new members, replacing those who leave or retire, to find new energy and to have more impact on the world. But prospective members have expectations we’re not always currently meeting, about how they can interact with unions. The gap there is costing us.

We’re doing this because whilst the world has moved to a very digital-first way of thinking about these types of challenges, very few unions have the in house capacity and expertise to let them do this type of work effectively. That’s where we come in as a sort of outsourced digital team for issues around joining the union.

Why do you think the Software As A Service model is a good fit for the area of joining?

Tekin: Essentially we’re looking at providing a first-class joining experience for unions and members, without the need for unions to spend a fortune or have that specialism in house.

Unions tend to go a couple of different ways. They might have an existing CRM which has a web component that the provider customises for them with their branding and the specific information they need to capture. And that feeds directly into their CRM. This is great for getting applications directly into the CRM, but tends to fall down on the actual user experience for the member who is joining as they tend to be geared towards capturing the data in a way that suits the CRM and not necessarily the user who is applying to join. They’re rarely very performant or accessible either.

Or they’ll go another route and commission an agency to build an entirely bespoke joining system. That tends to be expensive, so it’s beyond the means of most unions. And now the union has this bespoke system that needs running and maintaining over the long term, which depending on the agency, may or may not get the focus it needs. The agency moves on to their next client and getting them to make changes and updates can also be difficult and costly.

With our Software as a Service model we’re looking to provide joining experiences as good – if not better than – bespoke custom built systems, but sustainably, with ongoing support and maintenance, and at a price that’s affordable to unions of all sizes.

We’ve developed tooling that enables us to design and build mobile-friendly, accessible modern join forms specifically for unions that are easy to use and convert well. And then we host it on our infrastructure that is scalable and can meet any performance needs. So for unions that get particular spikes of traffic during campaigning or particular times of the year. It can handle that.

And as part of that we’re monitoring and maintaining the system, making sure that it’s got the latest security patches, and continues to meet GDPR compliance, privacy and data sharing needs.

And being a framework, it’s not just a one and done. We’ve got the tooling to make adjustments as necessary. So if a union needs to ask different questions, or the membership rates are updated, we can very quickly respond and roll out those updates. And we continue to evolve the system, making general improvements to the way it works, adding new features, and all the unions on our platform get to benefit from them.

So you’re getting the benefits of a bespoke system, but for a much more affordable price and in a way that’s maintained and improved over the long term. And you know that there’s a team that’s dedicated to looking after this system and making sure it’s safe, secure and continues to work.

You opted for a coop model to set yourselves up longer term. Can tell say why you’ve done that?

Sam: We looked at various business models for doing this. And we have purposefully rejected the most common models for tech start up. By that I mean trying to find investment, running at a huge loss for years, being beholden to your investors, and potentially needing to abandon your mission.

We look at ourselves as people who’ve been around the block a bit with technology, but still are excited by big and interesting challenges. So we wanted to adopt a model that is not just about “how bright can this candle burn before it uses up all of its fuel?” – We want it to be a sustainable mission where we’re all committed to the idea, the model and to one another as a team, and that other people who join us – including the organisations we work with – are also in the same position.

That feels like a healthy way to be. We’re not at all motivated by the scale or die model. Instead, we want to work in a way that supports a movement that has a mission that’s decades long. We’re trying to have an open and transparent and honest product from the very beginning. We’re trying to avoid that classic “sell something cheap initially in order to make things more expensive later” approach. We think all of these things are something a coop model is well suited to.

So far you’ve worked with unions with some pretty different approaches. Have you picked up anything that helps make Join Together better suit our diverse movement?

Sam: Yes, obviously we do see that diversity and certainly unions have different styles given they’re working in different industries and sectors. Unions will have different approaches to interacting with members if they’re working in different situations – be it mass organised workplaces, minority membership across a company, or independent workers. They’ll all have different contexts that we need to take into account, so we have to design enough flexibility into our approach to account for it.

But we’re also focused on making the commonalities across unions work as well as possible. Where people join a union, they have to obviously share some information about who they are, where they work, where they live, those types of questions. We’re trying to solve those common problems as efficiently as possible, so that everyone can benefit from better and better practices there. That in a sense is the sort of rising tide that lifts all boats.

As we saw from our online joining report last year, whilst most unions have online join tools, many haven’t gone far down the road to optimising them yet. What would you tell them about the business case for improving joining?

Sam: The business case presents itself pretty clearly when you start looking at how incremental improvements to membership signups compound over time. I think that’s often easy to miss. You might look at your membership numbers and see it was up 5% this year, but down 3% the year before, and you can’t quite work out what’s going on when it comes to the rate at which people who want to join, actually do. If unions can look at how many people are getting through the door, and we can help improve those rates, even small improvements compound and make a big difference over time. 

Tekin: Yeah. This is something the commercial sector is very good at. You know, selling stuff online, conversion rates, looking at funnels of sales journeys. And the same techniques can be used for members joining a union! If you know the number of people that start a join form, the number of people that progress through each step, and then actually finish, you can look at incremental changes that can improve the overall result and increase the number of members you get.

But having the ability to measure that is key. If your system doesn’t show you what your percentage of conversion is, then you don’t know where in the journey you’re losing them. If you can’t measure that, it’s hard to measure the impact of any improvements you make. But if you can see that 50% of people don’t get past a certain question or a certain page in your join system, then you’ve got a pretty strong signal that something could probably be improved there to increase conversion. And that improvement may take you from 50% completion to 70%. So that’s one of the things that we think is key and we’ve made sure it’s built into the service so we can see exactly how well each union’s join form is performing and where potential blockages are.

But we also make sure we design the questions and the join flow to try and avoid any potential blockers. For example one union we’ve been working with has a part of their current online join which asks for a payroll number. Now they only actually need this information for people joining from recognised employers to set up deduction at source. But their current flow asks it of everyone. So in the version we’re building for them we’ve put the logic in so we only ask that question if the user is actually applying from a recognised employer.

But the question can still be a blocker because lots of people don’t actually know their payroll number off the top of their head! So unlike their current system we’ve designed the question such that they can still progress if they don’t know their payroll number. If they don’t, we ask for National Insurance number as a fallback, and even if they don’t know that they can still continue and finish their application. That way the union still gets their application. Now this will mean a bit of extra work for the membership team to get the member fully set up, but working with the union we’ve determined it’s better for them to get the application in and fill in any gaps in a follow-up with the new member.

So we sweat the details on the way questions are designed and asked to maximise completion, because even a small change can have a significant impact on the bottom line for a union.

And then we have features like application resumption where our system can automatically email people that started but didn’t complete their application with a link to resume. Our measurements show that this is really powerful way to move the needle and increase overall membership signups.

Sam: Join Together is also about making it much easier to administer new people who are joining, renewing or updating their information. We can help with all that, which means there should be less time spent wrangling data into the right shape by union staff.

If you can do that, you can create more resources for the union at both ends. First through having more members and second through improved efficiency in back office processes. Those resources are then things that you can deploy to other work, such as campaigning and organizing. And if you do that right, then you end up in a really cool virtuous cycle, where you’re driving more people into the top of the funnel because you’ve got more resources to find the people that you should be representing. They’re joining in a more efficient way. That’s creating more resources again and on and on it goes.

So far you’ve got a product that can work across different joining models, data requirements, and payment methods. Where do you see it going next?

Sam: We have a bunch of areas we’re really interested in. Our focus so far has been on the immediate online joining funnel. You’ve attracted someone to consider joining the union – how do we make sure that there are no barriers in front of them doing that?
But some of the other pieces that I think are interesting come before that point. Campaigns, advertising, marketing, individual landing pages – the persuasion piece. How do we make it so that people can understand what the proposition of an individual union is, roughly how much it’s gonna cost, how they can join, why it’ll be relevant to them? That’s a creative challenge, but also an opportunity for more testing and optimisation. So we want to work with unions to help them think about the ways to reach people effectively in the first place.
And then the second piece I think that’s really important is what’s happened when people have joined. That’s something that unions could and should be doing more on. Something we can build quite easily into our tools is a really good onboarding experience for people. What do we know already about the people who are joining? Have they been members before or are they totally new to unions? Are they enthusiastic about participating in campaigns from the offset or more interested in just getting a feel for what it’s like in the union? Are they going to want to be reps, do training or any of those sorts of things? There’s a lot in making the most of capturing the enthusiasm of brand new members, and helping guide them towards what they might do next.
And thirdly we also have ideas around member retention. Things like when people have dropped their direct debits or look like they’re cancelling. Many of the things we are building can be reapplied to those challenges as well. For example, where people have just dropped off the radar a bit, we can automate and optimise ways to bring them back into the fold more effectively, perhaps saving the need to re-recruit them.

Tekin: Yeah. I’d say that for the unions we’ve worked with renewals and retentions is definitely a major issue. Whether it’s updating a members subscription rate based on their changing circumstances, or dealing with changes to their bank details for direct debits, change of address, etc. Not only is it logistically painful for unions, but they often fail to retain the members because of these logistical and technical problems. We’re looking at building new tooling into the product that specifically deals with this issue so that unions on the platform can very easily request and receive updated information from existing members to help with retentions and renewals.

Sam: And then there are other tactics unions could be trying. For example referrals and member-get-member. We’re thinking hard about exactly how to incorporate that, but I think that’s a really important part in helping new members recruit and organize in their workplaces. We can build systems that will allow you to track that and find out who your good recruiters are. And that’ll give unions better intelligence about what’s going on in different workplaces.
Joining also opens up the analytics and alerts side of things, but more around who’s joining, rather than just the conversion rates. So where are we seeing trends in particular employers – have five people just joined up in one particular workplace and what does that mean? That’s obviously work that organizers and membership teams are doing already. But we think we can incorporate tools that will help there.

Tekin: And with our model as a Software As A Service platform, if we develop these features we can make them available to everybody on the platform. So everybody gets to benefit from the improvements we make.

One thing about the way that you’ve been building this stuff is that it’s pretty agnostic about the union’s core tech.

Sam: We say that you should be able to plug Join Together into any system you’re using. Or unplug it from one system and into another when you change. The idea is that you can retain the best in class joining tool no matter the back end. CRMs and membership systems are designed really as a back end tool to do the organisational work for you, not a user-facing piece of software, so this way you can get the best of both worlds, whether you’re on a specialised membership database product, or a platform CRM.

If any union wants to explore these ideas with you, what should they do?

Sam: They can email us or book a call any time via our site at – We have a Calendly and they can literally just set up some time with whenever it suits them.

We’re very happy to chat about Join Together and demo it to anyone, or just get some time to talk about a union’s individual challenges around their online recruitment and organising and see how we might help.