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Understanding our digital-only union members

Over the last 20 months, many unions have seen a spike in new members joining. But with a reduced physical presence in workplaces, and with fewer opportunities to network, we’ve been unable to offer them a “normal” experience of membership. 

Indeed, a great many members, suddenly told to work from home yet fearful of the impact of the pandemic on their jobs, joined up looking for support, despite being unsure of what they were going to find.

Last week, we hosted the final TUC Digital Lab session of the year, on the topic of “digital-only Members”. We want to better understand these recent joiners’ experiences and needs, to make our unions as relevant to their lives as we are to those of our traditional members.

Who are our new members?

We started by discussing who the new members were. Given the breadth of unions at the session, they came from a wide range of jobs – from unemployed workers, to students, school staff, younger doctors and tech workers. While some unions reported “no real change” in the profile of those joining, others saw “more women and younger people” signing up.

As for why they joined, beyond the obvious concerns about working life during the pandemic – fear of losing a job, health and safety issues, some reported seeing members joining because of the increased accessibility that came from moving everything online, either as the result of an online campaign, or because they found Zoom-based branch meetings easier to participate in.

We took a snap poll from participants on their views on a number of “hypotheses” about online-only members. 

As you can see from the votes, unions are largely optimistic about the prospects of being able to offer a meaningful union experience to online-only members. There was a clear majority opinion that it should be possible to retain online-only members in the long term. Participants shared encouraging  stories of new members participating fully and proactively organising at work. 

Interestingly, there was a narrow majority for the statement “digital-only members are happier with their unions”. We discussed  a number of possible reasons for this. One of which being their newness and the urgency of the circumstances facing them, but it’s equally possible to imagine people “choosing” to participate in this way forever, just as they do with their banking – moving online to better fit interaction around their lives and expectations. This would support the idea that unions need to think much harder, and invest much more, in sustaining the digital experience to meet the needs of members.

Case study: What the FDA did for online members

The FDA, like many unions where members largely work in offices, saw a significant increase in membership – 21% growth in the year – mostly driven by media coverage and joining online.

To best serve these new members, the majority of whom were working at home, the union made some choices about how best to focus their resources:

  • Keep digital interaction simple, so it can be run in-house
  • Maximise use of the communication channels that members already engage with
  • Tell members about things they want to hear about
  • Think about how to replicate face-to-face contact online

They decided to focus on the core digital communications channel, email, reverting to a weekly newsletter format. The need for timely information saw open rates surge, particularly when the messages came from named officers.

The FDA also looked at how they could switch training to a webinar format, working with TUC Education to devise a major webinar programme. A year on, more people access these than was the case for the previous, in-person model.

Similarly, the union’s annual conference was delivered over Zoom. To make this more manageable, they expanded the schedule from a couple of intensive days, to one where more varied sessions were distributed across an entire week. 

Finally, the team invested effort in improving their SEO (search engine optimisation) in order to reach more Civil Service Fast Streamers. By identifying popular search terms, they increased traffic to a new Fast Stream landing page by over 300%, and doubled the number of members who joined after visiting it.

What “online-only” members gain and lose 

The group ran through an exercise that asked them to consider what “online-only” members gain and lose versus the traditional experience of membership.

The gains were many:

  • More time
  • Instant access to the resources needed
  • Out of house access
  • Lower costs (e.g. for travel to meetings)
  • More participation 
  • Greater breadth of participants
  • Ability to build networks across geography and time
  • Better accessibility – e.g. closed captioning and signing
  • Environmental benefits

But there were many losses too:

  • A loss of human contact and comradeship, particularly with less digitally savvy fellow members
  • Virtual meetings make it harder to ‘read the room’ and build consensus
  • Less access to reps
  • Potentially less likely to find (or be steered on) a path towards greater activism
  • A sense that it’s harder to keep focus on the tasks at hand, because the internet is just so distracting!

How can we better meet our online-only members’ needs?

The groups then audited the “needs” of members, trying to think about which were currently being met or left unmet. In the majority of cases, the member need most unions felt they’d improved at meeting was ‘responsiveness’, by providing timely and topical information. Additionally, many unions felt they had expanded their ability to deliver more training and specific expertise to their members.

On the flipside, unmet needs were a longer list, albeit with a common theme centred around the idea of access – to reps, to out of hours services, to the right contacts and to mentors and experienced campaigners who can help new members.

Stepping back from all this, a picture emerges of unions being highly (and potentially rightly) focused on being able to push out volumes of information to as many people as possible, in the spirit of meeting the need for information in a time of uncertainty. But there is a cost to this choice, particularly when it comes to being able to deliver on more complex, personalised digital services. The final activity of the session looked to identify opportunities for achieving this.

Though we only had a few minutes, the following were suggested:

  • Offering digital skills sessions for anyone who wants them
  • Creating digital social events to broaden the ways in which people can engage with each other
  • Really thinking hard about the new member journey, to ensure that interests and enthusiasm are identified and opportunities signposted
  • Lastly, and most popularly, to really invest in the process and technology needed to make for a really good hybrid meeting.

Over the coming months, with working from home guidance extended once again, the Digital Lab will be working on a number of these themes. We’re particularly keen to do more around hybrid meetings, given the appetite in this group for developing good practice in this area. If you have specific experience in what works (or doesn’t) for your union, or you’re interested in getting involved in finding out more, please get in touch. 

User research masterclass: How do we understand what new members really want?

Working with new groups of users is always tricky, and greater focus needs to be given to understanding their particular needs and behaviours. Luckily digital design offers us some helpful conventions in how we can go about gathering the insights we need, direct from the members, before we start to make decisions.

Skipping the research stage in digital change projects greatly increases the likelihood that members won’t understand what you’ve built for them, or see a need to interact with it. Union people often have long experience, and it’s tempting to fall back on this to get a job done quickly, rather than go back to basics. We’re also naturally pretty good at consultation, but this can mean we risk hearing what members want us to think of them, not what their actual behaviours are likely to be in a new situation. 

We turned to experienced digital design consultant Audree Fletcher to give a masterclass on user research for non-researchers as part of this workshop. Even without a dedicated user research team in your union, there is still a lot that can be done to ensure you get a more accurate understanding from users. 

You can hear what Audree had to tell us here.

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