Member recruitment or retention: what’s more important for growth?

Without recruiting members, you don’t have a union. Without retaining existing members, you don’t have a union for very long.

Here’s the challenge: signing up new members is easier to understand and to act upon. It’s easy for the union leadership (and in fact, anyone) to see the direct link between organisers visiting a workplace, and new signed membership forms.

And obviously, without recruiting new members, you can’t perform retention activities.

The longer a person is a member of a union, the more the cost to the union to service him or her decreases, and the more likely it is that the person will remain a member.

Membership churn is inevitable.

In fact, it is embedded into the nature of many industries. Service work for example, in call centres, hospitality, cleaning and many community services is highly casualised. Workers come into the sector and leave very easily.

Because organising is synonymous with recruitment, and is the most visible activity of a union, for most unions, it means that it is easy for retention to take a back seat, or to be done at only a most basic level.

However, a focus on recruitment at the expense of retention will lead to long-term problems, both in membership size and the health of your union (including financial health).

The corporate sector knows this. They know that selling a product or service to existing customers is more profitable than acquiring a new customer (it’s called increasing “wallet share”). And Silicon Valley is turning customer retention into a data-driven science with the explosion of “software as a service” apps and platforms.

Research into union membership suggests that membership retention is also linked to the member’s uncertainty about their future (job security) and the presence of a local union organisation in the workplace (e.g. a delegate or member organising committee). In my experience as an organiser, the highest member churn rates were in areas where there was low job security and where we did not have a union delegate. Churn is therefore affected by both external factors and internal ones.

So, why is retention normally less of a priority for unions compared to recruitment?

You have to have members before you can retain them

Obviously, the first and main reason that new member recruitment is more important is that without new members, you can’t retain them.

And over decades, the entire infrastructure and culture of unions have been built on this notion. Our movement has built a recruitment culture, and it’s difficult to shift from that to a retention culture.

Even if your union has developed a new “member journey”, that is only one (small) part of the retention challenge — a new member journey is typically fairly short, a few months at most. Retention for unions happens over years.

It’s hard to get good data on retention

Recruitment is easy to capture data on. You get new membership forms through the door, and there’s generally a direct link between an organiser putting the ask on a new member and the sign-up.

However, retention is full of counter-factuals and long lead times.

Because you’re keeping a member from resigning, you don’t see what you stopped (the off).

Most retention programs happen over months and years. It can be difficult to properly track what specific retention activity “stopped the off”. Was it an event, a call, a letter, an email?

Even if your union does have a focused retention program, waiting for the results takes time… a lot of time.

And only a few unions track metrics that let them make sense of retention in a “best practice” sense.

I’ve personally seen a lot of resistance to the idea of developing concepts like “member lifetime value” (the equivalent to “customer lifetime value used in the corporate sector). But even developing a good definition of member lifetime value is hard, and the exact parametres are unique to each union.

Finally, retention is also the sum total of the daily organising (non-recruitment), industrial and communications activities of your union. It’s affected by your messaging, your campaigns, the density of your workplaces, and also “involuntary churn” (expired credit cards and the like).

So where to start with all that?

One of the interesting new developments from the ACTU is that they’re building a data team. I hope that one of the things they can do for the union movement is think about some of the core metrics we should use to better measure retention and recruitment. (Here’s four metrics I think every union leader should know.)

Most churn is due to passive reasons, not active resignations

Around half of member churn is passive, rather than an active resignation (it may even be higher for many unions). By passive, I mostly mean that the member has had a failed payment, typically a credit card payment failure or other billing issue.

This is simultaneously one of the easiest types of churn to fix, but it is also one of the most difficult for a union trying to grapple with building a retention program. Fixing it is normally tied up with your membership database and financial system, dealing with the bank.

In around 20% of cases, retrying the card a few times will solve the problem. Unfortunately, declined payments can quickly result in a union making a member unfinancial and then turning them into an off.

For the remainder, removing the friction points for a member updating their credit card or bank details can start to get technically difficult, especially if your website and membership/finance databases are old and clunky.

And without proper support from the finance/membership team, IT and the union’s leadership, actually implementing improvements to address passive churn can be hard.

Retention isn’t quick

As I noted earlier, whereas recruitment can be quick, retention isn’t. Often, the most impactful things you can do (boring stuff like changing how you reprocess credit cards) can take months or longer to see results.

This is a problem, because for union leaders, it’s easy to see if your new induction program is working, or if your organising blitz is bringing members, or changes to your online membership form is seeing a higher conversion rate.

But it’ll take months to see results (if any) from your retention campaigns. And it’ll take months more to see results of any changes to make to your retention campaigns.

This means to truly tackle retention, you need to take a long-term approach.

We need to build retention culture

As I noted earlier, our movement has (mostly) adopted a recruitment culture. Bringing in new members is core business. And it’s often what organisers and leaders get praised and rewarded for.

While the movement has been grappling with the issue of retention for a long time (as long as I can remember), it’s only come to the forefront as a discrete challenge in recent times.

Whereas organising happens publicly (in worksites, inductions, online), retention happens in the depths of the union, out of sight. A lot of unions have retention that occurs in the administrative part of the union — the finance or membership team, and often this is out of sight of a large part of the leadership and organisers.

And whereas most unions either have or are hiring organising directors and growth teams, few unions have a dedicated senior staff member with retention duties as their sole priority, or a dedicated retention team.

If churn is your union’s major growth challenge, it may be worth the investment to set up a retention team, or at the very least empower a staff member with sole responsibilities (and the necessary authority) to implement a retention program.

Retention is rarely scalable

The face-to-face recruitment model built into the union movement is not really scalable either, but more and more unions are adopting digital recruitment tactics which are.

Higher ad spends on Facebook can directly lead to new sign-ups, recruitment blitzes and inductions… these are all some of the “scalable” ways of signing up new members.

But most effective retention methods are not scalable. They’re often personalised and high cost.

The charity sector knows a lot about this for donor retention. Some of the highly effective (non-scalable) techniques they use are sending donors hand-written notes, one-on-one phone calls or meetings with staff or even the CEO, intimate donor events with fewer than a dozen people.

In short, the best (non-technical, billing/credit card) techniques are manual — they can’t be automated and they can’t be easily scaled up. And even a great retention program will generally only have an impact on the margins — a few percentage points here or there.

However, if your union has a good measure of your “member lifetime value”, and the cost of specific retention techniques, then you’ll be in a strong position to see the benefits.

Retention as a priority

A few newsletters ago, I wrote about union strategy. My point of that newsletter was that unions need to care less about strategy and more about establishing clear, easily understood priorities.

That’s the heart of retention. Making it a priority and dedicating resources (both staffing and cash). It’s about looking at your union’s culture to see if it is “retention-friendly”. Does your union have internal, structural barriers to properly tackling retention?

Your union probably spends many hundreds of dollars to sign up each new member… but it can be hard to structurally build-in retention.