Six mistakes for your union to avoid when using social media

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Social media campaigning is very popular with unions at the moment. A number of high profile, successful campaigns (both union and other civil society organisations) are driving this rise. On the whole, these campaigns are well-run, innovative, focused and (more or less) planned.

Unfortunately, I’m also seeing some social media campaigns that are making some mistakes, and they’re generally the same mistakes over and over. Here’s a list of six common mistakes and some notes on how to address them.

1. The Wrong Metrics

The most common mistake is measuring the wrong things or measuring inconsequential things. This is a symptom of a broader problem: seeing social media as just a tool to push out messages, like one-way mass media advertising. In this conception of social media, it’s easy to be preoccupied with vanity metrics, like number of likes or followers, which ultimately tell you nothing real.

Social media is useful to unions as a gateway to identify, encourage, and engage supporters to become active with your union and its campaigns. If you can’t directly link the number of likes or the “reach” of a Facebook post to this, then you’re measuring the wrong metrics.

More important are engagement and action-based metrics — the number of people taking action. Ideally, your social media accounts are directing your social media supporters to your union’s website, where you can capture their contact information or ask them to take action that starts them on the online-offline journey.

2. No Focus

It is better to do fewer things well than lots of things half-arsed. It’s also important to do the most impactful things, rather than just the easy things. Setting up a Facebook page is easy, but not necessarily impactful, if you want to grow your union or raise awareness about an issue.

While I am a definite advocate of unions using social media, there must be a plan and there must be focus.

In terms of social media focus, this means choosing the most effective social network. In Australia, this almost always means Facebook and Twitter, but if your membership or potential membership includes a lot of non-English speakers or people from Asian or South American backgrounds, there may be better social networks, such as Weibo or Orkut.

The other element of social media focus is that it is OK to have more than one Facebook page or Twitter account, so long as each focuses on something specific. For example, a union that covers very disparate sectors or geographies would be well advised to consider separate accounts for each sector.

3. Treating Social Media Like an Online Brochure

Social media is fundamentally an interactive medium. Unfortunately many unions see it as an online brochure where all they do is talk about themselves — basically another broadcast tool. This is a mistake. It is the social equivalent of going up to someone you barely know at a restaurant when they’re having dinner with friends and interrupting them to talk about your latest petition. You’re unlikely to get a lot of sympathy.

Unions that take social media seriously invest in it, both through specific staff to monitor and manage it, and also training organisers, industrial officers and delegates. At a basic level, it means responding to comments, initiating and participating in conversations, and asking questions of your members and supporters.

4. Social Media Silos

The biggest challenge, not just for social media but digital campaigning, is integrating digital and social across the union’s activities. This is from the member rights call centre, to organising and campaigns, and industrial. Your dedicated social media officer should be involved in a wide range of planning and discussion meetings, so that social elements can be interwoven throughout the union’s activities, including organising, media and communications, advertising (if your campaign has the budget for print or TV ads), web and online, and member servicing.

It’s heartening to see that more and more unions are investing in social, and dedicating staff to it. But these digital or social media staff shouldn’t be separated from the core organising and industrial activities of the union; they should be in the thick of it.

5. No Plan

If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there. Most unions have adopted social media elements without a clear road map of what their social campaigning vision is. What role does social media play in helping you achieve your union’s objectives?

You should only invest in social media with a plan that links online action to real world action. A clear blue print should be determined before you invest in social, or really, before you even set up your Facebook page or Twitter account. Before you get started, think about things such as how you will deal with member complaints on Facebook or in the comments, what your social media content calendar looks like, how issues get escalated through the union and so on.

6. Not Mobile

According to an Adobe survey, around 71% of mobile phone users access social media. Yet most social media management is done on desktop computers, probably using an app like Hootsuite or Tweetdeck. This means that images and content is being produced that may not be accessible for an increasing number of your union’s social media audience.

Mobile use has been growing massively, in Australia, the USA, Canada, the UK and elsewhere. Soon, the number of mobile users accessing the internet will outnumber the number of people using desktops or laptops. When you’re looking at your social media and digital plans, don’t forget that mobile is a fast growing.


Social media can reach people that ordinary organising or communications activities cannot. It can also significantly amplify your traditional activities. Encourage your organisers, industrial officers and delegates to engage on social media (of course, making them aware and training them in the legal consequences first).

In terms of campaigning and communications, ensure your traditional plans always incorporate your social media platforms and social media message. Measure the right things, have a plan, and integrate it throughout your union.

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