How to get the most out of social media

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Social media is a fast-expanding landscape. New sites and tools are popping up each week, and more and more people are using social network sites than ever. Social networking is now the most popular online activity and is growing in every country on earth. Over 1.2 billion people can now access social networks — that’s one in seven people.

Facebook is predicted to hit 1 billion users this year; if it were a country, Facebook would be the third largest in the world (behind China and India). Soon it will overtake India’s population.

Clearly, social media is not a fad. Recent research by Dr Panos Panagiotopoulos, lecturer at Brunel University, London, found that social media is increasingly considered important by union leadership. Indeed, a majority of unions are now planning to use social media and making it a priority in terms of budget and resource allocation (becoming “social media active”).

The potential for unions to use social media is enormous — if they can get beyond the beginner levels and into the “Big Data” scale. Some unions, particularly major international unions like the SEIU and peak bodies like the AFL-CIO are already investing in integrating social media as both a communications channel and a data source for more effective targeting.

I want to look at some of the lessons we can learn from how we have used social media and how we might improve on this.

Lesson One: We are still not getting the basics right

Many unions are still not getting the basics right before jumping into the social media pool. Dr Panagiotopoulos’s research showed that a major hurdle faced by unions is a lack of IT literacy, skills and resources to do social media properly. There’s no point in spending the time and energy into setting up those Facebook and Twitter accounts if you don’t have a plan, and you’re not supported by adequate resources.

The union movement needs to ensure we have the communications and technical infrastructure to do social media (and digital campaigning) well in order to meet our members’ expectations.

Lesson Two: We are not consistent in communicating to our audiences across multiple channels 

Consistency is an important trait in communications, and especially so for online communications. If you are talking to members or potential members with one style and tone in print, and a different tone online, then you are eroding trust and making it harder for people to want to join.

Most unions I’ve dealt with want to move to a more consistent approach in communicating across all channels — traditional and online.

The inconsistency is mainly due to lack of resources and technical skills, and also because only a few unions have digital or social media style and content guides. The other inconsistency is irregular updating, and inconsistent visual design. As unions start to invest more in online campaigning and social media communications, this situation should change.

A growing area where I am aware of only a few unions tackling at the moment is mobile (this is noted in Dr Panagiotopoulos’s research where he notes that his research found mobile applications hardly mentioned. Mobile phones are now almost ubiquitous — with over 5.2 million mobile phone accounts world-wide. However, unions would be wise to ignore for now the allure of apps (for iPhone or Android) and concentrate on mobile-capable websites.

A quick glance at the Facebook investor prospectus shows how important mobile is becoming — than it is expected that mobile web browsing will overtake desktop browsing in many countries, especially in developing nations.

Being able to deliver a consistent web experience to visitors to your union’s website on a mobile device will be a growing challenge for unions. It also means that you should start to consider how mobile impacts on your social media planning. For example, how does your Facebook Timeline header image appear on mobile devices?

(There is also a massive growth in the use of SMS communications currently underway in the USA, with many unions using SMS during election campaigns to communicate during Get Out The Vote efforts).

Lesson Three: We are not setting clear goals

One of the take-aways from Dr Panagiotopoulos’s research is that unions are still trying to discover what their objectives are when starting up a social media project. Without knowing where we’re trying to get to, it becomes hard to get there! There is a mixed view on the benefits and risks of using social media, and a lot of it appears to be that social media is a broadcast tool to promote the union’s positions.

Using social media is about forming and developing relationships — about communicating with the right people, at the right time, with the right message, on the right channel. Dr Panagiotopoulos’s research suggests that unions are often muddled about who the audience really is for online and social media communications.

Unions need to establish first who we want to form relationships with, then how we want those relationships to change.

Social media is a waste of time and money for unions with scarce resources if there is no clear strategy, and if social media is not incorporated into the union’s main organising and communications plans. A clear social media strategy addresses your objectives and goals, who your audiences are, and what messages you want to get across to them. You will be more successful if you know who your audience’s influences are, what social platform they prefer. Only then can you determine what measurements you will use to determine success, and what policies and procedures you should put in place.

Most social media projects fail because they have not established a clear strategy. A clear strategy addresses your objectives and goals, who your audiences are and what messages you need to get across to them, who are their influencers, what platform and tool you will use, what measurements you will use and what policy and procedures will you have in place.

Lesson Four: No accountability

Unions have limited resources and an obligation to members to spend money wisely and effectively. Social media is one of those “fuzzy” areas where it can be difficult to measure impact and value. How many members does social media recruit or retain? How does social media concretely impact on industrial or public policy campaigns that the union is running?

Dr Panagiotopoulos’s research suggests that unions want to get into the social media space, but aren’t really able to measure the concrete benefits of doing so.

To address this, unions need to define specific, measurable criteria for social media communications — the same standards that traditional union organising and industrial campaigns have.

One of the important strengths of social media is its ability to help with listening — what are members and potential members saying? What is the community attitude towards a prominent union campaign? Deciding what to listen for and who to listen to is important — recent research into social media conversations demonstrated that the pareto effect is clearly in operation, where 80 percent of conversations are from 10 percent of participants.

Social Mention is a good free listening tool, and there are lots of very good paid ones if your union decides to invest.

These kinds of tools also let unions track their impact — but only if you know what to measure. This comes down to having a clear idea of what success looks like. Without knowing this, there’s no accountability for the time and resources spent on social media.


More and more unions are heading down the “social media active” path, but unions will need to pick up their game. We need to pick up our game because unions operate in an online civic space where competition for members’ and non-members’ attention is fierce. Large corporations, publishers, sports clubs and mainstream entertainment are all working to monopolise the time people spend thinking about things. Unions aren’t compared to other unions, they’re compared to large corporations and massive brands.

This is why unions need to start thinking about social media and concrete outcomes for campaigns. There’s only so much time our members have in a day, and only so much money unions have to promote our message and run campaigns.

The unions that most quickly adapt to changing circumstances caused by social media and digital campaigning will thrive.

2 responses to “How to get the most out of social media”

  1. Alex Avatar

    The title of this post is a little misleading. I thought you would explain how to get the most out of social media but instead you highlight what not to do. I wish I had more insight into things I should be doing.

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