Motivating your activists online

Australia is experiencing record low levels of traditional political engagement, as evidenced by continuing low turn out at polling booths. Membership organisations have crashing levels of members, and even large activist organisations like Amnesty, Greenpeace and Get Up would be happy to have “click through” rates in the high teens. With clicktivism and apathy on the rise, and cynicism that activism can change anything, many organisations may feel that it is next to impossible to motivate supporters to do anything at all.

For unions, this has been a perennial problem. Our unions delegates are increasingly skeptical, savvy, busy and distracted, with less and less time to devote to union work. Even supporters of progressive causes, like the environment, human rights or poverty alleviation struggle to find time in their lives to be active.

For online campaigners, motivating activists is essential. Clear messages, consistent organising and engaging causes are necessary to motivate people. Engagement is essential for activist success — especially for union campaigns. We know that the more people who are actively involved with and supporting our collective efforts, the stronger unions are. Engagement — active members — is at the core of unionism.

How do we get our union members’ attention and motivate them to actively do something to participate in our great campaign?

  • Make it fun: Activism should be fun — and as unions we should be helping people feel good about their union activism. While many issues and campaigns can be tense and fraught with conflict, we should aim to ensure that people still enjoy themselves. This doesn’t mean investing a fortune in an online game; it could just involve sharing funny anecdotes from the campaign trail, or other light-hearted stories from the campaign.
  • Make it a game: Encourage the latent (and good-humoured) competitive drive in our members, by sharing numbers, such as number of petitions signed, or members recruited — or if you’re involved with sustainability campaigns, kilograms of carbon saved. A section on your campaign website, or in e-bulletins to your activists, with the relevant scores can be a one-stop-shop for your activists from one part of your union to see how well they’re doing compared to their fellow members.
  • Praise your activists: Everyone likes praise, and increasingly online recognition can be a powerful motivator. Putting the names of your activists in print or on a special section of your website can be a great motivator for your activists, and helps foster an activist culture. (Obviously seek permission before doing this.) If you have a members-only section of the site, having a regular “super-star activist” feature or profile can also be a great reward for activists.
  • Create opportunities for activists to be leaders: Give delegates the opportunity to take the lead — ask them to author an email to the membership or speak to members at a rally. If you can, see if you can get them seconded to the union as a member-organiser for a few weeks so they can learn the craft.
  • Show them what happens behind the scenes: People love to know what goes on to make campaigns happen, especially the juicy strategy stuff. One of the most interesting campaign emails from Obama in 2008 was when his campaign laid out his strategy to the people on the campaign email list. It went to millions of people but it still felt like inside information.
  • Show the bigger picture: Unions are collectives and sometimes it helps to remind your activists that there are people like them in other work sites around Australia fighting for the same things they are. Helping those people link and share stories is also a way to invigorate and enthuse those members, and develop knowledge sharing.

Digital strategy is based on engagement. Quite simply, the way to have real impact in digital campaigning is to motivate those committed supporters to take action — in the real world. Engagement is the first step to winning campaigns. Having a strong strategy and knowing your message will ensure you can formulate effect ways to engage your supporters.


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