Photo: John M Lund Photography Inc

Optimising digital engagement with union comms

Alex Lloyd-Hunter of digital agency Forward Action was one of the judges in this year’s TUC Communications Awards. And before the ceremony, he talked to a group of union communicators about his particular specialism – optimising results from digital engagement with supporters. Here’s a run through of some of the points he made that could be useful to unions.

Alex works on a “Movement Building” model of digital engagement, and this explains a lot of Forward Action’s approach.

He defines a Movement as being “People organised around a common narrative to achieve a common goal.”

In this, it’s important to see the common goal as a wider societal shift, not an immediate campaign win. The common narrative helps bind people together to keep them engaged with this longer-term journey.

Alex made the point that unions are some of the oldest and most successful mass movements in history. In many ways, this is about keeping the principles of what unions have always done, but updated to the opportunities of a digital first environment.

As gold standards in this approach, Alex cited the Bernie Sanders campaign – noting how the Labour party took this to new levels for the UK in 2015 (and have beaten those records again under Jeremy Corbyn), in building a wider supporter movement to raise record sums of money and inspire deeper action from volunteers. Greenpeace UK are also a good example to follow, having built up one of the biggest supporter email lists in the UK and being very good at using it to drive action online and higher bar engagements.

How to do it:

1 – Set your organising principles. 

  • Define your movement story. Having a clear story is important to keep coherence to the movement online. It needs to get across the basics of your position in as clear and compelling a way as possible. A typical format will run: “What’s the problem we face? > What’s the solution to it? > What’s our plan to get to the solution? > Who or what is standing in our way?”
  • Plan supporter engagement horizontally not vertically. The vertical approach is common to centrally driven campaigns (“We are going to change the world, give us money to do it”). But a horizontal approach (“We can only solve this by loads of us working together. Here’s how you can have impact”) gives people more incentive to stay engaged and contribute more regularly. As an example, in this approach emails to supporters tend to be written from an individual, pitching themselves as a fellow member, rather than from the organisation in a corporate sense.
  • Set movement goals and stick to them. Define what you want your programme to achieve and how you will measure it (eg “Grow a list of non-members in affected industries and convert them to members” / “Recruit more low engagement members to take activist roles”). Keep these goals limited to as few as you can, and work out metrics to measure each of them. These metrics should then guide decisions – such as which email to send, what action to pursue – if something doesn’t address a goal, it doesn’t go out.

2. Build your email list with low barrier entry points. 

Email is still king in this. Even though younger supporters now use email less than older ones, it’s still by far the most cost-effective channel to repeatedly mobilising large numbers. Other tools like messaging are especially good for organising groups, but nothing gets the scale for cost of email. 

Petitions still work (if they are done well – engagingly written and values-driven). Forward Action recently worked with the TUC to investigate ways unions could frame campaigns to optimise petition results. We’ll have more on the results to show soon, but we did identify an opportunity here. Union issues aren’t being talked about by so many other campaign groups – and there is real scope to build and grow. Recruiting new supporters from paid social was amongst the cheapest Alex had seen recently.

“Handraisers” are a similar low bar entry point – signing up to a value statement if you agree. Values and emotion are important to drive people to join, and a call to sign up makes a good first thing to see on your site.

Interactive experiences – like quizzes or information apps. Alex has had a lot of experience with this, from working on Labour’s milestone “NHS baby number” viral, to campaigns like ONE’s African education campaign. A compelling initial interaction introduces people to the issues behind the campaign, and if done well can lead straight on to a low bar signup.

Facebook ads. These should be used to get people OFF facebook and sign them up (this is still the most cost effective way to drive general supporters to email lists). Much more effective than using ads to grow your Facebook organic reach, as Facebook so heavily limits what you can show to your followers unless you pay every time.

3 – Keep giving people valuable things to do in every communication. 

The most effective way to keep people engaged is to give them actions not just content. Unions’ USP is that they can make a change in society and are structured for people to have a role in it. 

Alex made the point that “You can send people more email than you think you can”. Organisations who send 2 emails a week on average have far better open/click and retention rates that those who only send once a month (this is correlation not causation of course, with many other factors, but it shows that greater frequency certainly will not hurt engagement).

Even your keenest supporters miss occasional emails from you, so you are probably noticing your email volume more than your supporters are. Of course, don’t send email for the sake of it – this is all assuming it’s good content with appropriate activity behind it.

Send only 1 action per email – keep them very short, with a mix of high and low bar actions. Longer newsletters are still valuable to stakeholder groups, but aren’t a good format for less engaged supporters. You will get a lower open and click rate, and hurt your engagement over time. Set goals and metrics to measure your email performance and adapt based on what you see.

4 – Create a ladder of engagement

Once supporters have done one action, ask them for a more difficult one. Try moving them up the ladder to a deeper activist involvement with you.

This can even be done immediately. When people have done an action with you, they’re at a high point in their interest on your issue and are more likely to do something else. 

It’s also worth bearing mind that the ladder shows direction, not exact steps. People may jump up several levels at once, so don’t feel you can’t occasionally show a high bar action to an audience until they have taken others. 

Putting all this together increases your engagement rates and retention rates. Alex recommended signing up to one of Greenpeace UK’s actions to see an example of how an organisation does this effectively.

What makes a good email? 

  • Don’t make it really long – get to the point as soon as you can.
  • Motivate, don’t persuade. People on your list are likely already mostly convinced. Don’t waste time convincing them again of your argument. Instead motivate them to activity.
  • Use a compelling narrative. Personal stories are great where you can get them. Can an email come “from” an affected member or activist, telling their own story?
  • Offer a tangible impact – Give recipients a sense of involvement in the issue.
  • Show supporters how they are participating in something bigger. Social proof helps to get people on board.
  • Make it urgent or timely. Explain why they should do it now. That helps drive action rather than just reading, or people putting something off for now and never coming back to it.

What makes a good action page? 

  • Your join page is the most important page on your site. Alex found UNISON’s one is a great example in improving user experience (UX) and conversion rate – it was highly commended in the awards. Work done in optimising your join pages could repay a union hundreds of times over.
  • Make it easy. The easier it appears to take an action with you, the less you need to motivate people to take that action. Think about the user and where are they coming from. If an email has already motivated them already, them you should focus on making the action easy. For a user from a Facebook ad (who may be new to you), you will need more motivation.
  • Break it into bitesize steps. The more you ask for up front, the less people do something. Alex gave the example of optimising Labour’s donation forms. Splitting the interaction over three steps, rather than having one long form, increased completion of the form significantly. All unnecessary fields reduce conversion. Work out what is core to hit your goals, and what you can get later or elsewhere. Strip out anything that doesn’t hit a core goal.
  • Strip out unnecessary copy. It can be motivational but it can also make things feel difficult. Use copy to focus on values and impact, not just policy arguments (which can take a lot of detail). People are more motivated to do stuff by emotion, than by extra stats and information. A/B testing a page can help you work out whether copy is holding back your results.
  • Have compelling opt-in asks. In getting consent to comply with GDPR, try to test what yields best results. For example, you can ask people if they want to subscribe using a yes/no field that they have to tick either way, not an optional tickbox. That alone can give a 40% increase in opt-in (people typically never like to choose ‘no’, but are happier to not make a choice).

There were some good wins in the awards for union work that is following these kind of approaches. The School Cuts campaign started by NEU has been hugely effective in mobilising large numbers of parents to become active supporters of a union campaign. UNISON’s joining journey optimisation work was commended, and Prospect’s innovative Moxie campaign reaching out to non-members at Sky won a recruitment award for its focus on the users’ perspective.

The panel of judges had a note of caution though on the union digital membership comms category in general, feeling that many entries weren’t making as much of the potential of digital formats as current approaches allowed. Good design and copy are still important as they have been in traditional formats, but focusing also on optimising the user’s digital interaction with a communication could really boost the impact of our campaigns.