Three strategies to improve your union’s member retention

The difference between a union that is growing, and one that is not, comes down to your member retention.

Retention is the real secret to true growth.

Most unions have no problems with recruitment, but end up signing up as many new members as the number of members who resign or retire.

A major and longstanding challenge for our movement to overcome therefore is retention.

In this article, I go through three key strategies for unions to use to increase your member retention.

How to define your member retention rate

The first step to improving your retention rate is to define how it should be calculated.

Most unions will already have a measure or way to calculate member retention, and it probably looks something like this:

% Retention = (# of members at the end of the previous year minus # of non-renewals at the end of the current year divided by (# of members at the end of the previous year multiplied by 100).

Sound familiar?

But there are other ways to look at retention metrics — in particular ones that help predict membership resignations or churn.

Evidence from a range of unions, as well as other membership organisations, show that there are critical “events” or actions that members take (or don’t take) that help predict whether they remain members.

(For unions, this is almost always experiencing some kind of “collective benefit” of membership” — e.g. participating in a members’ meeting, industrial action, or even using a union service like career development/training.)

As a union looking to increase retention therefore, you can look at how your members are “active” in participating in the union in some way. Just picking any/all kinds of “activity” is too broad, and just picking retention calculations for each year is too long a period for a union to take remedial retention actions. Each union will have your own specific “predictive” activities, where the data will reveal that when members participate in particular activities within a certain timeframe, they are more likely to remain a member.

So before diving into your retention numbers, make sure you define:

  • your critical events/activities, and
  • your measure interval.

The critical event/activity is a member action that signals true engagement with your union, and is also aligned with your union’s industrial or political (or other) goals.

For example, participation in a members’ meeting or using the union’s career development training service are examples of a “critical event”. It should be meaningful and reasonably (but not too) significant — a login to your union’s member portal probably isn’t what you’re looking for.

The measure interval is the length of time that your members take to complete the activity. This could be monthly, quarterly, annually, etc. (Although, ideally it shouldn’t be too long a time period… annual is likely too long.)

Why is all of this important, instead of just comparing the number of members last year to this year? Because the normal retention calculation is not actionable. You can’t look at the annual retention rate and decide what to do differently because of it. It’s simply too long a time-period and doesn’t tell you much.

Calculating member retention rates

There are a few different time-periods to measure retention rate:

  • N-day retention: how many members take that “critical action” on the Nth day (or week, or month)
  • Unbounded retention: % of members that are still members on the Nth day or after
  • Time-bound retention: a more generalised version of N-day retention, allowing you to define the custom intervals of multiple days, weeks, or months, such as active on Day 0, Day 1-30, and Day 31-90, etc.

For each of these, when I use the term “N-Day”, it may help to think of weeks or months. E.g. N-Day for a month would be retention after 30-days, 3 months would be 90 days etc.

Regardless of which time period or activity you choose, we can break down retention into three parts and discuss strategies in each:

  • New member retention
  • Current member retention
  • Resurrected member retention

New member retention

A huge amount of union member churn happens during the first few weeks and months of membership. This is for a whole range of reasons, but a key reason (i.e. one that is true for a large proportion of new member churn) is that the new member will not see the value of their new membership.

It’s rare that someone will join a union (or any organisation) and immediately understand the (full) value of membership. And we know that there are three key reasons why workers join unions (“support when they need it”, “better pay and conditions”, and “winning better laws for work and society”).

Your focus for new members therefore is to really emphasise the value of membership — i.e. the personal benefit that the new member gets from being part of a collective movement.

New member onboarding experience should focus on a collective experience “aha” moment

The start of a worker’s union membership is a crucial time. This is when they’re forming strong new attitudes towards the union, and it is also when they are most likely to pass judgement on any negative (or less than positive) experiences they have.

Improving this new member experience goes beyond just ensuring that your union provides positive member services via your call centre or online portal (although that is obviously very important).

Because unions are collective organisations, it is vitally important that you try to create an “aha” moment that centres on a collective experience. (Indeed, collective action through organising is one of the antidotes to right-wing ideology and the dangers of US-style individualism.) These collective experiences are extraordinarily powerful, and they are also one of the more unique parts of being part of the union movement.

By collective experience, I mean an experience where your new member connects emotionally to other workers in their workplace or industry. The most powerful example of this are mass rallies — but could include members’ meetings, industrial action or being part of a WHS stop-work. (Obviously, unions can’t just organise a bunch of mass rallies all the time, but rallies and strikes are crucial times to solidify your new members.)

The collective experience is one that makes the power (and value) of unionism immediately apparent. Think about what kind of collective experience your union can easily and regularly create in your unionised workplaces — what role can delegates and workplace leaders play? How can you demonstrate collective action and ensure new members can comfortably participate without needing to put themselves at some kind of job/career risk?

Current member retention

By “current” members, I mean members who have been a member for a few years (e.g. more than two or three and fewer than five or six). These members are likely to have become more politically/ideologically inclined towards collectivism and unionism, and will also have experienced the “collective experience” that is important for retention.

Focus on your “believers”

Not all members are created equal. Some (many) members are highly supportive and positive towards unions generally and their union specifically. (In fact, a significant proportion of the workforce are very supportive of unions.)

Focusing on retaining your believers means you are focusing on your “easiest” members first — the members most likely to remain. If what you’re doing can’t retain them, then you’ll struggle to retain members who are less supportive or positive towards your union. (Once you’ve nailed retaining your believers, then you can focus on the harder to retain members.)

Also — by believers, I don’t mean your delegates or activists.

I mean the members who are supportive of unions generally, but who may be fairly passive — they read the occasional union member, rarely attend meetings (if at all) and rarely use the union’s services — but their attitudes are highly positive towards unions generally and their union specifically.

You should, of course, have member insights to help identify these members. You can get specific, specialist assistance from the ACTU’s Insights Team on how to update your member surveys to ID your believers. (Email insights@actu.org.au or contact me for more info.) A simple way to get started finding your believers is to read my article about Net Promoter Scores.

For your believers, you need to double down on the core membership benefits that these members value, and make sure they’re aware of those benefits.

As I noted, the key drivers for most people (and especially believers) is “support at work when you need it”, “better pay and conditions”, and “changing laws to make work and society better”.

  • For example: Because many or most members will be covered by a union negotiated collective agreement, annual pay increase time is the perfect example of amplifying a collective membership benefit to your believers. This means that your communications and organising plan for the lead up to and immediately after the new EBA pay rise comes through is a crucial time that can contribute to retention. Ensure that the members get several communications (a letter, 2-3 emails, and 1-2 SMSs) about the union-won pay rise. Equip your delegates with information (talking points and flyers/posters) that they can use in the workplace. Run targeted social media/Facebook ads targeting only members in that workplace. Also: remember the one simple rule for effective union communications.

For those other members (the ones who aren’t “believers”), you likely want to think of them like new members — focus on getting them to use a union service or have a collective experience. It is hard to change peoples’ attitudes, and that’s not your goal (i.e. you’re not trying to persuade people who aren’t that positive towards unions to like us). Instead, you’re trying to demonstrate the value of membership through the member’s personal experience. Doing this can also help remind those members that there is a member service that they do value (i.e. the reason they joined in the first place).

Re-recruit resigned members

Unfortunately, there are about as many workers who are former members as there are current members.

This means that your union is likely to have a large pool of workers who are former union members — either of your union or another union. These former members are all targets for “re-recruitment”.

To do this, it is important to understand why members resign.

Most unions track this when a member resigns (a variation of retired, left industry, unhappy, etc). If you don’t, or if it hasn’t been updated or reviewed recently — then get in touch with the ACTU’s Insights Team, who can assist with updating it or setting it up.

In my experience, the majority of members resign because of involuntary reasons — by which I mean they wouldn’t have resigned unless they had to. The involuntary resignations are typically caused by changing jobs, changing employer, changing industry, etc. Only a relatively small proportion of members resign because they are unhappy with the union or unions generally.

Furthermore, a lot of involuntary churn are due to procedural or technical reasons, not related to the member’s decisions. The most common type in this instance is unfinanciality caused by multiple membership dues declines. (A simple way to address this of course is to increase the number of credit card or direct debit attempts your union makes.)

Let’s take this example of involuntary resignation caused by unfinanciality (multiple dues debit failures). Most unions will have a significant number of this kind of resigned member going back months or more.

In all likelihood, your union already has some kind of win-back or unfinanciality call campaign. But if you don’t, this is an immediate area for your union to start with: calling all of your resigned unfinancial members, going back a few months (I’d recommend not more than a year).

For the longer-term resigned/unfinancials (a year or more), you could run an online advertising re-engagement campaign. If your union’s rules allow for it, you could have a sign-on discount or other incentive for former members to re-join. Can you waive the unpaid dues to get the former member to re-join?

The key is to understand why your members resign — really understand why. What points of contact with the union did they have (or could have had) that could have caught them before their resignation? Could you have made them re-experience the “aha” moment? How can you get your at-risk members to experience that “aha” moment, or re-engage with your union before they resign? What administrative actions is your union taking that increases involuntary churn and can you change those admin actions?

There are no shortcuts to member retention

Improving and maintaining a high member retention requires proactive investment and deep understanding of your members. To achieve long-term retention, you must understand what your members really value (e.g. support at work, better pay and conditions, and changing laws for work and society) and then ensure you are providing that to them.

Decent, high quality and affordable insights about your members and potential members are now available for all unions via the ACTU Insights Team.

You can also look at your membership database. IMIS unions will have access to valuable membership analytics that will help identify key areas of your membership that may be at risk.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to retention, and it’s not easy. If it were, then unions (and other membership organisations) would already be doing them.

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