Myths and misperceptions about marketing for unions

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Marketing is still widely disparaged as a term in the union movement, and progressive organisations generally. Partly this is a skepticism born from shows like Mad Men and The Pitch, and partly it is a misunderstanding drawn from the popular perception that marketing is just opinion polling, focus groups and TV advertising.

Despite this, every union markets itself every day, even if that marketing is not perceived as such. I think it’s time for unions and progressive advocacy organisations to reconsider what marketing is, what good marketing is, and what role it should play.

Broadly, marketing covers a whole range of activities that are external-facing for the union: the members, potential members and supporters. The table below covers the main areas that I refer to when I walk about “marketing”.

Union marketing model - Busting the marketing myths for unions

The general low esteem that marketing is held by unionists is preventing unions from more effectively promoting membership growth, campaigns and causes. This post looks at some of the myths about marketing that I’ve seen, and I hope it helps you more effectively promote your unions and campaigns in future.

1. Marketing is just about promotion

It’s easy to think of marketing as just about promotion (like a website, brochures or ads), because the advertising element of it is obviously the most visible and expensive outcome. Of course, promotion (“visibility” in my model above) is an important part of what marketing is, but it is the end point of a process. Without embracing the preceding and proceeding elements of marketing, you’re promotional activities won’t be as effective as they could be.

2. We already know what our members want, so we don’t need to do market research.

Your organisations and delegates who are in daily contact with members have a good anecdotal feeling of what your members want or need, but you shouldn’t make decisions based on that gut feeling alone. There is no substitute for an in-depth understanding of your members, and I’ve argued before that unions should understand their members better than employers do. The most valuable thing marketing can bring to your union is this member research (this of course covers potential members and supporters generally).

Market research like opinion polling, when done properly, is expensive, but for any major campaign, whether it is an industry campaign, major recruitment blitz or a public policy campaign, it is absolutely worth the expense to make sure you get the right information. For smaller campaigns, you can substitute small-sample surveys, including online surveys. It is worth asking for assistance from a professional, or from a peak body that may have (free or cheap) in-house expertise, to assist with getting your samples and questions right.

3. Unions don’t need marketing staff

The union short-hand for “marketing” is often “communications”, but this catch-all often means either “media relations” or “graphic design”. Again, marketing is not just promotions, and the communications element (covered under “visibility” in my model) is a specialist function of a broader task set. Regardless of whether you put marketing in the job title, you need someone at your union who thinks about and is responsible for the union’s brand, it’s promise, and the delivery.

Because delivery obviously bleeds into the organising and industrial functions of the union, arguably, an elected union official should have management responsibility. This also re-emphasises my point that all communications/marketing for a union must support the organising activities of the union.

4. Marketing can’t be measured

John Wanamaker said “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half”. This has set the scene for over eighty years, and contributed to a mindset that says that it is impossible or difficult to know what communications and marketing activities actually work.

This may have been more accurate in the analogue days of newspaper ads, but direct marketers and charities who regularly use direct mail know that it simply is wrong. In today’s digital age, where you can measure every click and scroll, it’s even more wrong.

The reason that this attitude is widespread is that, especially in many unions and progressive organisations, specific and measurable goals are not set before campaigns are started. It’s very hard to measure something if you don’t know what your objectives are.

Unions spend a lot of time and money on printing posters, leaftlets and newsletters, but I’ve only rarely seen discussions about what impact those activities should have.

5. Only the big numbers matter

With regular reporting in the mainstream media, and even at union conferences, focusing mostly on the big numbers, like tens of thousands of members, hundreds of thousands of supporters or millions of Youtube views, many smaller unions may simply tune out the importance of marketing. This is exacerbated by the trend of “big data”, and I’ve argued before that unions should concentrate on “medium data” before looking at “big data”.

The reality is that marketing impact is about achieving your objectives; if your union’s objective is to recruit 100 new members in a key sector, or build a targeted group of 50 or 500 supporters in a particular community, those numbers are still important and could still benefit from a marketing approach.

6. Cutting the marketing (or communications) budget will have no effect

Unions are under constant scrutiny, and in countries or industries experiencing contraction, your union may be struggling to sign up new members. This creates pressure to cut the budget for marketing in general and communications in particular. The most obvious place I see this is for unions’ web and digital presence.

The problem is that this is a false economy, and reducing your investment in your union’s major non-tangible assets can have serious implications in the long run.

7. Social media is only for broadcasting our messages

This is something I’ve seen for many years and have been writing about for as long. Social media is often seen almost entirely as a new-fangled kind of brochure, where the union’s message is shouted out. This fundamentally ignores the real strength of social media and social campaigning, which is that it empowers members and supporters to engage in conversations.

I believe that if unions could just get over the opprobrium it generally feels towards marketing, it could really help them transform into member-centred organisations, boost their profile (in a good way) and fuel membership growth.