Campaigners' summit meeting at Congress House

Preparing for major union campaigns online

The need for unions to mount and sustain large scale campaigns has grown in recent years. We’ve seen major national industrial disputes for many unions. Fundamental challenges such as government attempts to curtail the right to strike. And for those unions who are politically affiliated, an upcoming general election campaign.

Digital technologies increase our options in a major campaign. It’s more viable than ever before to reach out to members and potential supporters at scale, and to mobilise them in new ways.

But to make effective use of these new tactics, unions need to ensure they’re prepared in advance. Once a campaign is decided on, it’s often too late to develop the channels, tools and data that the union needs to see it through.

Campaigners from across the TUC’s affiliated unions came together for a summit at Congress House last month to explore issues around how we might make unions better prepared to mount effective campaigns when they need to. We heard from union communicators and external experts on four big areas of work we could do to improve campaign readiness.

1. Getting our data ready

Campaigns in the digital era rely on the union having access to accurate data and getting it to the people who need it as effectively as possible.

Data accuracy

Member data must be kept up to date, or messages simply won’t get through to the members who need to see them. Every year members move house, change mobile or landline suppliers, or get a new email address. And very few will instinctively remember to update that information with the union.

Establishing a regular data hygiene routine could make a big difference here. Running regular projects to help members to volunteer data in the smoothest way possible for them (rather than just suggesting they log in to the union website), could be coupled with tools for reps to use when visiting members, and potentially greater use of commercial data checking services to improve data accuracy, or enhance with matching local data like constituency or nation.

A Digital Lab pilot project in 2021 found potential for a 4% improvement in email accuracy. When you consider a 4% boost to every communication and action going forward, it can really deliver on the cost of such work.

Our summit heard from RCM on their plans for a summer data cleanse, with tactics such as blast and peer to peer text involving membership teams and activists in a protracted project. And we looked with consultancy Agenda at which tactics were working for unions in improving data accuracy.

Access to data

To understand how well a campaign is going, and where effort should be placed next for best effect, a wider range of campaign staff need access to regular data on interactions. Preferably real-time and flexible reporting can be built into CRM systems to reduce the need for staff to run one-off reports.

Many current union membership databases don’t allow reps access to usable data about their branches. Developing tools that link in with the CRM, such as PCS’ branch app, can help reps play a more active role in communicating to their members, and in feeding live campaign data back into the union.

Thematic data

The summit heard from NEU and consultancies the Small Axe and Outlandish about how they developed the School Cuts campaign – making local data on school funding a central part of the public campaign. This made the campaign much more compelling to parents, who would be far more interested in the effects of funding cuts on their own children’s school than they would be in the national situation. Ensuring the data was credible and genuinely differentiated at the level parents cared about took a lot of research as well as technical development. But it meant that the issue became talked about heavily in local parents’ networks, and it helped the union reach a far greater audience to mobilise for the campaign than their members alone.

2. Building our infrastructure

Many unions are currently investigating a move to modern platform CRM systems. This is a project that could easily take two years to accomplish, but could then unlock much greater potential for sharing data around the organisation and for integration with more powerful digital marketing tools, such as personalised email. Making the union more agile when it comes to delivering a key campaign will be a strong element of the business case for this kind of project.

Social media channels are also important to focus on and it can take a long time to build up an audience who will want to read and share your content. Our summit heard from the TUC social media team about how they had started and built up our TikTok channel. This has taken a significant investment in time and resource for creative expertise and resources. But now that the account has built up more than 175,000 followers it is much easier to make content about major priorities cut through to millions of viewers without needing to pay to promote it from cold.

3. Growing our campaign engagement

For many unions, most engagement with campaigns comes from the more committed activists. Regular members are often much less likely to open emails or take part in actions online or offline.

There are ways to increase the number of regular members who get involved in the union’s campaigning via digital. This can add impact to campaigns but also build the member’s relationship with the union, and potential journey towards deeper activism.

Research more with members

Digital allows unions to connect more regularly with members, to understand the issues they see as important, and how they feel about the union’s priority issues.

Our summit heard from the ACTU on work they did to understand how members felt about key campaign messages, during their recent election campaign. They broadly supported the ACTU’s key priorities around winning better pay, but didn’t feel like they had much agency over them, or that the outcomes could actually be changed through politics. So they weren’t likely to be issues that could shift votes. The ACTU led instead with issues that members were more likely to change their vote over when polled on them.

Raising expectations

Activism is like a muscle, that has to be exercised to be built up. If a union is offering members ways to get directly involved in campaigns year-round, and giving feedback on how it’s going, then it builds an expectation amongst members that campaigning is easy and effective. This all means they’re more likely to turn out when you need them for a major campaign.

Personalising the ask

Once unions know more about members, and you have the infrastructure to define and message different interest groups amongst the membership, they can make campaign communications that much more effective.

Delivering the kind of messages and asks that are more likely to resonate with certain groups will mean more people from that group take action. It will also save you sending it to people who are much less interested, which will only serve to depress future engagement with that group, if they believe union emails are less likely to be relevant enough to open.

Optimising communications

Another opportunity in modern CRM and marketing systems is the ability to A/B test your messages. This means running slightly different versions to small segments of a list, so you can compare which variation has a greater response rate. This is powerful in testing out different approaches to subject lines, sender names, or layouts for your message text. But it can also be used to test which key points or tone of message are the most effective in getting a response.

Our summit heard from optimisation consultancy Forward Action on suggestions for improving email and action response rates and building a virtuous circle, which builds up action levels amongst a membership.

4. Dealing with the chilling effect of regulations

Lobbying and campaigning are affected by a number of different pieces of regulation, from GDPR to the Lobbying Act and Trade Union Act. It is completely possible (if progressively harder over recent years) to run effective campaigns in compliance, but the complexity of inter-related rules can have a chilling effect, where campaigners self-censor excessively, so as to stay clear of potential problems.  

We heard from colleagues at international human rights campaign group Avaaz, on the principles they use to avoid regulatory and legal threats to their campaigning across all their jurisdictions.

And for those unions who are focused on electoral campaigning, it’s worth getting in touch with the dedicated organisation TULO (Labour Unions) to look at specific rules on Labour affiliated campaigns, and on tactics for mobilising members as voters.

Challenges for unions in building campaign capacity:

We held a workshop session to uncover where unions faced challenges in adapting their campaign approach. Here is a list of what we heard, ranked by the number of mentions each challenge received in our group exercise.

  1. Capacity, resource and workload
    • The campaign environment is busier than we can remember – with many unions managing multiple ballots and strikes and responding to key policy concerns on different fronts. Finding the space for planning and preparation is hard.
    • This can be particularly acute for smaller unions, who will have fewer staff to specialise in particular areas of campaigning or digital comms.
    • Resources are stretched in unions as we try to keep costs down for members. This can make investment hard to justify.
  2. Personalisation to members with diverse views and interests
    • Larger unions in particular can have a very diverse membership. Managing many different strands of comms in order to make them more relevant to different members can have a heavy overhead.
  3. Simplifying complex stories through case studies
    • Members are understandably often unwilling to speak about their experiences on camera, so building up powerful case studies and finding effective media spokespeople for a campaign can be difficult.
  4. Understanding regulations
    • GDPR implications for campaigning and digital comms.
    • Electoral regulations and spending limits.
  5. Finding data to build campaigns
    • Often the evidence underpinning big campaigns can be anecdotal, or on too large a scale for potential supporters to grasp the implications of in their lives. How can we break data down into personalised views that make people more invested in the issues?
  6. Ability to manipulate member data
    • Many unions suspect they have a significant amount of inaccurate member contact data.
    • It is also hard to augment member data to make it more actionable for campaigns – eg segmenting based on interests or constituencies.
    • Union CRM systems are not always available to campaigners to understand what member data is telling them in a campaign context.
  7. Building engagement levels in general
    • Encouraging low-engagement members to take actions, maybe for the first time.
  8. Tackling negative messaging
    • How can the union rebut misinformation and disinformation, without amplifying the original frames?
  9. Understanding members’ views
    • How can we make better use of insight from polling in our campaigns?
    • How can we touch in more regularly with members to help us anticipate what will be convincing for them?
  10. Sharing resources and learning
    • Can unions share campaign assets such as branding, photos or social media graphics?
    • Who can help? Can unions share details of good agencies and suppliers?
  11. Engaging senior leaders in communications strategy
    • Can we improve sign off processes to allow more agility in campaigns?
    • Can internal preparation help us be less risk-averse?

What’s next?

Over the coming months, we’ll be working on events for unions that address some of these needs. Keep an eye on our events page and newsletter.

If there’s something you would like to bump up the list, or a challenge that your union has a good example story to share, please do get in touch.