Three ways to get the best out of your union’s communications

On Sunday 26 May I will be giving a presentation at the Our Communities conference, Communities in Control, as part of their Marketing & Social Media bootcamp. I was asked to speak about six “brave ideas” for membership and advocacy.

Our Communities - Communities in Control - Alex WhiteI thought I’d give my blog readers a taste of my presentation by focusing on three areas of communications that unions can really focus on to get the most impact.

This is especially related to recruitment of members. Signing up new members is essential for unions. I can’t think of a single union that has as many members as it would want, and even those few unions with densities above 90% still have to replace members who retire from the workforce or leave the industry.

For non-profits, charities and NGOs, signing up new supporters, donors and volunteers is equally important, and in my experience there is a lot that unions and NGOs could learn from each other.

The three areas that I think unions should focus on are: strongly targeting your communications, ensuring your messages have the best context, and be willing to spend a bit of money.

Know your audience and target them

Most NGOs and unions have limited resources, so it is important that they use them wisely and effectively. This means that your communications should be targeted and customised for your audience.

It’s important for unions to know their membership and know their potential member. Ideally, unions and union organisers and communicators should know their membership better than the employers do. Understanding your membership is not just an anecdotal exercise and you should not rely on gut feeling.

Here are some important things to think about:

  • Geography: where do your members live? Where do they work? 
  • Demographically: are your members mostly men or women (or equally split), what age ranges do they fall into? What are their income ranges?
  • Culturally: are a large number of your members from a particular ethnic background, or have specific languages?

These may seem basic, but they should dramatically influence how you communicate with your members. If most of your members come from a particular neighbourhood, or are mostly over fifty, or there are large numbers of non-English speakers, then your communication choices should reflect that. Should you consider translating your leaflets or website? Should you advertise in a local newspaper rather than the major daily newspaper? Should you be looking at Facebook and email, or direct mail?

A lot of recruiters and sales people use the fishing analogy when talking about recruitment. They say that sales people or recruiters should “think like a fish”. A fisher-person doesn’t sit on the riverbank and expect the fish to leap out of the water. Instead, he or she goes to where the fish are, in the reeds or the rapids, or wades right in. What’s more, most fisher-people will use bait that is most attractive to the kind of fish they want to catch. You don’t catch fish with an empty hook — you need a nice juicy worm, or a lure that looks like a fly.

A barrier to recruitment, and to effective communication, is that organisers, communicators, marketers, and recruiters for unions or NGOs often spend most of their time with like-minded people. This is natural of course, but it can hinder effective communication or recruitment. If everyone you associate with cares deeply about the same causes and issues as you, it’s easy to be trapped in the mindset that everyone cares about your issue — or should care.

The problem is that it is very hard to unknow something — and equally hard to think like a non-member.

Doing the research into your membership and your prospective membership helps you think like a non-member.

While unions may scorn at market research and focus groups, they can bring out important insights into how non-members view the union or what their barriers are for joining.

This kind of research can also help you anticipate common objections to joining.

Give your messages context

George Lakoff calls this framing, but a simpler way to think about it is context. What are the circumstances that can influence how your message is perceived, either clarifying it or confusing it? Context establishes a message’s value to the audience, gives it impact and makes it relevant.

Obviously, the more relevant and personal the context for the audience, the higher the interest. This means that before you can give your communications proper context, you need to understand your audience.

When developing the context of your message, it’s useful to think about “why” before you get to the “how” and the “what”. Why should your audience care? If you don’t know why they should care, it’s hard to develop a compelling message about your solution (join, donate, volunteer).

I’ve written about this before, but while working at the NTEU, I developed (with my colleague) the state-wide bargaining campaign message for university staff around the proposition that what academics and professional staff wanted was respect at work. The “Respect at Work” provided an umbrella context for our bargaining campaign and recruitment.

“Why” is so important that I suggest you go and watch Simon Sinek’s TED video, and even check out his book, Start With Why.

In a political context, we can easily see the power of context in a message. The competing ideas of “illegal boat people” versus “asylum seekers” are based around how the words influence how people think about the issue. For unions, even the small difference of “the union” rather than “your union” can change how people think about unions.

Spend a bit of money

With digital and social media relatively cheap compared to mass media, it’s easy to think that good communications can be achieved for free. A lot can be done for free.

Developing the positioning, understanding your members and audience and thinking carefully about context are all inexpensive or no cost. But there are limits.

As I mentioned, to better understand your audience, consider investing in some proper market research. This could be desk research, but it could also include polling or focus groups. It is incredible that so many organisations are willing to spend money trying to communicate with people, almost entirely guided by gut feeling. Spending that money on research can ensure that any money you do spend is going to be effective.

What’s more, especially for small unions or NGOs, spending some money to get your message widely distributed amongst your target audience can be a wise investment. The important thing is that your money should be spent on targeted channels.

A constant challenge for small organisations is awareness. Most people in the target audience simply don’t know that the organisation exists. Paid advertising can help with this.

Money spent on recruitment (or to attract donors or volunteers) is never an expense. It is an investment.

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