Growth hacking your union

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I’ve written before that there are two ways to grow your union: sign up new members, and retain existing members. You need both to successfully grow and build power.

Most unions are familiar with the tried and true ways to grow: organising and recruitment blitzes, training delegates, attending inductions — even advertising online.

But there’s another way: “growth hacking”. Growth hacking is a term used in the tech and start-up sector for techniques based on rapid, low-cost, experimental growth. The startups and tech companies that use are are typically “bootstrapped” (i.e. not venture-capital funded), with limited resources. Growth hacking allows them to grow rapidly without millions to spend on digital advertising.

But before you read on, let me be clear: growth hacking is not necessarily a silver bullet: it is a methodology that, while cheap, is difficult, because it requires you to adopt a scientific experimentation method.

Just Googling “growth hacks” may let you find a bunch of tactics to try to boost your growth. But without the process, you’re just throwing darts and hoping one hits the bullseye.

What is growth hacking for unions?

In short, it is about a process to implement low-cost and creative techniques and tactics to bring in new members and keep them. It’s a form of recruitment that relies on data and on-going analysis of member (and potential member) behaviour.

To successfully growth hack your union, you must spend the time to deeply know your target audience beyond just anecdotes, by implementing the process described below. 

The growth hacking process

At the core of growth hacking for unions is a process based on scientific experimentation:

  1. Make an observation (Study the behavior of your target audience.)
  2. Ask a question (What’s the problem?)
  3. Research existing solutions (What are other unions or membership organisations already doing to solve this problem? Don’t forget to also look at commercial subscription companies like The Guardian or Dollar Shave Club for ideas.)
  4. Formulate a hypothesis (Make an educated guess.)
  5. Experiment (Implement your growth hacks.)
  6. Test your hypothesis (Should you accept your hypothesis or ask more questions?)
  7. Draw a conclusion (Base this conclusion on your hypothesis.)
  8. Start the process again (Don’t stop experimenting.)

(Do you need help with this process? The ACTU has recently established a Behavioural Insights Unit to assist unions in this process. The Unit has also developed several comprehensive guides on implementing this experimentation methodology. Email me about how to contact the ABIU.)

In short: all growth hacks are experiments that follow this process. Some will work, some will fail. That’s why you follow a process, rather than implement tactics without a process.

Implementing specific “growth” tactics from Google or from other unions, without following this process, can be a waste of time and possibly a waste of money.

It’s also important, if you decide to adopt a growth hacking methodology, that you really stick to it. Growth hacking may be inexpensive, but it is difficult. You need to have buy-in from a leadership level, but also adoption throughout your union, especially at the implementation level.

The reason it can be hard is because unions very often need to respond and react to circumstances very quickly. Especially during the coronavirus recession, daily or weekly news of mass-sackings or assaults on workers’ rights puts a lot of pressure on organisers and communications/campaign officers to jettison the experimental steps and just focus on tactics without a process.

A growth hacking approach for your union requires a long-term commitment to constant testing, experimentation — and importantly — learning.

That’s part of the scientific approach: by writing down your hypothesis (your educated guess) about an outcome of a particular tactic, then recording the results, you ensure that your union starts to learn what approaches and tactics actually work.

If you only implement tactics without the process, you’ll only see marginal (or probably no) success.

Growth hacking tactics to start experimenting with

So having said that growth hacking is not about tactics, I do want to suggest some specific approaches for your union.

1. Build your list

As I emphasise in my Guide to Online Campaigning, there is absolutely no shame in list building.

Building your email list (and mobile phone list) is absolutely essential to growing.

Many unions already do this: your list of potential members is one of your most important growth assets.

  • Sign up sheets: Sign up or sign-in sheets are a staple of union organising. Does the design of the sheet have an impact on the number of people who complete it? What about the size of the page (A4 vs A3)? How many columns (i.e. how much information are you asking for)? Are you filling out the first row? Each of these questions could be an experiment.
  • Petitions (hardcopy and digital): Petitions are a staple of union organising and campaigning, and remain excellent ways to grow your list. You should ensure that for list-building petitions, you are promoting it to new audiences, not just members. For hardcopy petitions, this could mean distributing it at a workplace to non-members (or having organisers/delegates ask non-members to sign as they enter a workplace if Right of Entry is an issue). For digital petitions, it means promoting it via Facebook (i.e. paid advertising) and excluding members, while still targeting people in your coverage-areas.
  • Email capture forms on your website: Most people (non-members) who visit your website will leave without joining. If you don’t capture their email address, website traffic is basically worthless. There’s a number of tactics and tools to boost email capture on your website. The most basic is a popup (you’ll be familiar with this if you visit almost any e-commerce website).

Email capture is so important that it is foundational for growth. If you can’t communicate with non-members, then you’re only talking to existing members.

Define your growth goals

Get specific. Write them down.

In the commercial/corporate sector, there is a calculation for growth that neatly steps out the three main areas you can grow and experiment on:

Traffic x Conversion Rate x Life-time Value

Traffic means the volume/number of people you talk to (face-to-face or on the phone) to have recruitment conversions, or traffic to your webpage and online join form. More traffic means more members.

Conversion Rate means the percentage of the visitors/people you talk to that actually sign up and join. A higher conversion rate means more members.

Life-time value means the dollar value to your union of a member over their expected/average duration of membership (this is your retention metric). Larger life-time value means greater income for your union. (Read about member life-time value and why it is so important here.)

You can see that with each of these metrics, there are specific tactics that can try to improve them.

To increase traffic, you could advertise on Facebook and Google, or create lots of content on your website for search-engine optimisation. Or you could run a membership blitz and talk face-to-face with loads more non-members.

To increase conversion rates, you could invest in advanced recruitment conversation training for organisers and delegates. Or you could implement A/B testing on your join form.

To increase member life-time value (retention), you could implement a 12-month member welcome journey. Or you could establish a member micro-credentialing (training) program.

Develop your experiments

I mentioned that growth hacking is inexpensive but difficult. Running experiments is the difficult bit.

Go back up to the growth hacking process. Before implementing any specific tactic you need to determine your problem and develop a hypothesis (a guess at what the results of your experiment will be). Write them down.

Only once you’ve done that should you actually implement a tactic.

For example, if your growth problem is that there is low/no organic growth coming from delegates, then your hypothesis could be something like “if we provide recruitment training to all our delegates, we’ll see an increase in organic (delegate-led) recruitment”. Your specific goal is a “conversion rate” goal.


There are countless “growth hacks” that your union can try to improve recruitment and growth. But before trying them, make sure you follow the growth hacking process.

And remember, if you want to get support on implementing this process, shoot me an email and I’ll put you in touch with the ACTU’s Behavioural Insights Unit.

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