Four harsh truths about union websites

There’s been a lot said about union websites – here’s four things we all know but are worth saying again.

You’re not engaging anyone

Your website doesn’t engage your members. Even if you allow comments. Even if you create a union “blog”. Even if you add a “share” or “tweet this” button to the bottom of each page. Your media releases aren’t of interest to the majority of your members – nor are your tweets or Facebook updates that are just links to your media releases.

Your website shouldn’t be solely a broadcast tool. You shouldn’t just use it as an opportunity to tell your members (or potential members) how good you are, how great your campaigns are or how bad employers are.

If you do enable comments, don’t be affraid of negative comments – welcome them. If your dissaffected members aren’t bagging you out on your website, they are doing it somewhere else (like one of a million forums, or on Facebook, or on Twitter) where you won’t get the opportunity to respond and give your side of the story.

You won’t get a million hits

If you build it, they won’t come. Your members aren’t waiting at their computers for your latest site update. Just uploading your latest media release or a PDF copy of the union newsletter won’t result in large numbers (or even small numbers) of people swarming to your website to read the latest editorial from the union secretary.

Just because you are on the web doesn’t mean that everyone gets told when you’ve updated it. Just because you’ve put a link out on Facebook, Twitter or on email, doesn’t mean that anyone will visit your site. Just because you’ve discovered Search Engine Optimisation (SEO), doesn’t mean that loads of people will visit your site from Google.

The long and the short of it is, most people will only visit your site to find contact details on how to call or email someone in the union. You will have to work very hard to get people to visit the site on a regular basis, such as having a union blog that is updated daily (or more often). Even then, it’s unlikely your union website will be getting loads of hits.

(Quick tip: if you want 1000s of hits per day by “cheating”, set your union’s staff’s home pages to the union website.)

Your union secretary isn’t a web expert (unless he/she is)

Your union secretary should have an opinion about the website, but unless he or she is a design and useability expert, he or she should stay out of decisions relating to functionality, design and useability. You don’t get a layperson to advise a rocket scientist about the aerodynamics of the spaceshuttle, or a brain surgeon about brain surgery. The union secretary shouldn’t get bogged down in the minutiae of the website. They should be involved at a strategic level.

The bosses will read it – get over it

And so will other unions. Seriously.

Be careful about what you put on the site, but don’t live in fear that your every word will cause a libel courtcase. The last thing you want happening is that your website never gets updated or has no content because you’re affraid that the bosses will read it and “uncover” your strategy, download special “delegate only” material or read training manuals for activists. Most employers don’t give a damn, and those that do are unlikely to use what they find on your site effectively.

3 responses to “Four harsh truths about union websites”

  1. @atosha Avatar

    That's not to say give up on your websites though. But unions need to make contact details easy to find, joining online a breeze and start engaging with their visitors.

  2. alexjpwhite Avatar

    Hi Stefan,

    Thanks for the comment. Good point about the purpose of union websites. I doubt that most unions have thought seriously about what they want their website to do and achieve.

    I'm not convinced that union websites should be a platform to share info – I think most people already have sites that they do this (e.g. Facebook, MumsNet, etc) and are unlikely to turn to the union for this purpose. Unions should engage with members where they already congregate online, rather than try to get members to visit the union's website.

    In my view, a good union website would have two or three clear calls to action (join, become an activist, get advice), a blog, a Facebook page and a Twitter account.

    The blog would contain all the news and allow comments. Ideally there would be "corporate blogging" as well as posts from elected officials and certain staff.

    The Facebook and Twitter would seek to engage the members, and create an online space for members to talk about work issues, best practice, research, rights, etc. Since most Australian workers are online and millions are on Facebook, why try to recreate a service that already exists? Look at UnionBook – a woeful "social network" that engages only around 3000 people (and probably only a hundred on a weekly basis). Why would unions try to enter that space, only to set themselves up to fail.

    Good point about involvement being "cool". A big challenge facing unions is to appear and behave in a contemporary manner, rather than look like industrial dinosaurs.


  3. @szo Avatar

    My view is that union websites need to provide utility to members as workers – not as proto-organisers. A tiny minority of people want to know the mechanics of industrial organising. It seems unions often regard the ladder of engagement as: Potential Member -> Member -> Activist -> Delegate -> Organiser when most are more focused on their lives and perhaps, if we are lucky, their work.

    A truly great union website will be a platform for Members to share info about best practise; organisational culture; safety; disciplinary news; innovation; research; rights; tips & tricks etc etc. Whilst the new non-member in a workplace is trying to find the water-cooler, a member can be connecting with others, understanding the topology of the workplace & it's power relations and building out their personal network.

    The model from Hayagreeva Rao of the hot cause & cool mobilisation is SO important on the web. Nothing's hotter than something I care about (me and my career/income/advancement etc) and the way to get involved has to be not just easy – but COOL. Pedestrian is simply not enough if we are to attract the next generation of participants in what we are prying out of the cooling hands of orthodox unionism…

    Stefan Szo

%d bloggers like this: