In addition to looking at some of the high-level concepts of improving retention, I also want to address practical, tactical things that union leaders and other staff can do to improve retention.
Member experience is a crucial part of retention. By member experience, I mean the full range of being “union” – from participating in collective workplace and community action (like a meeting or rally), to seeking assistance from delegates or a member call-centre, to getting a discount on a new car or home loan, to being supported through a workers compensation claim or disciplinary proceeding.
While all unions are member-focused, not all unions are necessarily focused on member experience as a discrete concept or program.
Some of the benefits of assessing and improving your member experience include improved member loyalty and therefore retention (which supports growth), and greater preparedness of members to support the work of the union (as an activist/delegate or financially in other ways).
The collective union experience
A key “member experience” is the collective “union” experience. Direct participation in workplace solidarity is one of the most powerful forms of member experience, and cannot be replicated by other membership organisations. This participation – in a workplace action, industrial action, protest or rally or other mass solidarity event – should be central to your union’s member-experience plan. Of course, this is not to say other types of member experience aren’t important, or that participation in a collective workplace action will magically solve your retention issues. A member may join for the tangible “services” of being a union member (discounts, bargaining, industrial advice), but after they join the “union experience” of collective action and power is what can turn them into life-long, committed unionists.
What’s more, your union should have some way or system that tracks member experience and participation. Which members took part in a workplace action? Which members came to a rally? Does your membership system or CRM allow you to easily track this? Do your organisers record this information? Do you have a plan to engage with members who have not participated in this kind of collective member experience, either at all, or not within a certain period of time?
Does your union have a dedicated staff member or team focused on member experience or the member journey? Is there a senior leader or elected official who is responsible for member experience?
While this may be difficult or impossible for smaller unions, larger unions and national offices should seriously consider dedicating resources solely to member retention – this could include having an elected leader take specific responsibility for retention and member experience. (It’s worth noting that member experience is very important in other sectors and industries outside the union movement, so much so that even small member organisations are increasingly prioritising resources for a staff member with “member experience” responsibility.)
Does your union have a consistent “brand” (read more about union branding here)? Does it clearly articulate your union’s values? Are your union’s brand/values included as part of the member experience?
Having a strong, clear brand (or “promise”) that is understood and accepted across all levels of your union will help build member loyalty and retention. By consciously ensuring your member experience (e.g. welcome journeys) refers to and supports your values, you’ll reinforce that loyalty.
Are you advertising your union to new members during their first 12-24 months of membership?
This may seem odd, but unions should promote itself to new members, especially during the early period of their membership.
The first year or two is typically the highest churn period. By advertising your union to new members, you’re keeping your union “top of mind”, as well as highlighting the most important member experiences that your union determines. If you’ve already got a new member welcome journey, look at how you can include paid advertising (e.g. via social media or Google Ads or both) – especially using retargeting and custom audiences.
Are you advertising to acquire new members?
Signing up new members online via social or digital ads can potentially be a very low-cost source of new members. When signing up new members online via digital ads, you can have a lot of granular targeting. This means you can advertise to your “ideal member” - based on occupation, age, location or other demographic. However, a word of warning: unless you’ve done the work to make sure your online join form is as seamless and frictionless as possible, this could be a waste of money.
Emails and direct member communication
Do you have a pre-join nurture journey?
While many unions have new member welcomes, what about before a worker joins? Lots of unions keep potential member records and send emails to them. Is this automated or ad hoc? Making sure these emails and messages are aligned with your “union brand” and member experience is important. What’s more, your nurture journey should be more than a single email – research from the charity and e-commerce sectors is increasingly showing that long, sometimes months-long nurture journeys have better results (in terms of actually signing someone up as a donor or long-term customer) than shorter ones.
Do you have a new member welcome journey?
What happens when a worker joins your union? What message do they get immediately? After a few days, a week, a month? How do you communicate your union’s values, the breadth of activities your union undertakes, the services available and why union membership is valuable? What communication methods do you use - email, SMS, letters, social media? Thinking about these questions will help you improve your new member experience. You should be aiming to convey:
- What your union stands for – your union’s values and the things it believes in (i.e. why your union does what it does)
- What membership does practically for the member (the tangible benefits or value of membership)
- Why union membership will help make the member’s life better
- Why they should continue to remain a member
Each of these points are potentially one or more messages or emails, and could even be repeated several times (across different channels, including hardcopy letters and Facebook ad retargeting).
And remember, most people resign from the union because they don’t see value in it – either a tangible value, or a values alignment (obviously, this excludes industry/job-loss churn and involuntary churn). Your objective with the welcome journey is to define that “value” and communicate it with the new member.
What balance will you have between “news” messages and the welcome journey?
While a new member is on their welcome journey, there is a question about what other kinds of messages they should receive. Some organisations completely cut off new members from their normal broadcasts about organising or campaigns. Others just include new members in all “normal” broadcasts. There is no right or wrong, but whichever you choose, you should ensure that any messages are reinforcing your union’s core values and supporting a good member experience.
Your union likely has a whole range of transaction messages that you may not have a lot of insight into. Many could be automatically generated by finance systems, member systems, websites and so on.
The main transactional messages your members are likely to see are “lost password” emails to access member-only parts of your website, and also messages to unfinancial members about payment, credit cards, etc. The tone of these messages can have a massive impact on member experience, and many of them could have been left as effectively a “default” message when your system was originally set up.
All of your transactional emails, letters, SMSs or other messages should be reviewed to make sure they’re properly communicating your union’s values.
Other member experiences
There’s loads of other union activities and communications that impact on member experience.
The join experience: How easy is it to actually join your union? Have you personally tried to join online or via a printed form? Consider making a mistake on the form – how does your union’s processes follow you up and make this an easy, positive and simple experience?
Hard copy mail and membership cards: when was the last time you looked at whether your hardcopy mail, envelopes and membership cards were aiding a positive member experience? Does your hardcopy mail look like a generic corporate letter that can be ignored? If you still have membership cards, are they adding to the new member’s attitude of the union as an effective organisation or are they outdated?
Member experience in calling the member service call centre: If your union runs a call centre, this will be one of the main interactions members will have with their union. When was the last time you called your own member service centre?
Member meetings: How is the member experience of workplace meetings? Are they welcoming to new members? Your workplace meetings of members is a core union experience. Other membership organisations spend a lot of time thinking about how to improve their meetings to be a positive experience for new members. Are you building a union community in the workplaces you’re organising?
Delegates: What training do delegates receive about providing support or a positive welcome to new members? What resources do they get?
Servicing: needless to say, the experience your member has through the industrial servicing your union provides will have an impact on retention. Have you called your member service centre recently with a problem? What was it like?
Complaints: consider pretending that you’ve had a bad experience. How does your union respond?
Merchandise: Union merch can be a strong signal in workplaces that the union is present, powerful and active. But the best union merch is merch that members want to voluntarily wear or even buy (which in turn increases their loyalty to the union). Some unions do this really well, while others still see merch as a secondary concern.
Unique union experiences
The union movement and collective worker action (in the workplace and in the community) is unique to our movement. While other groups can organise rallies, no other group builds and exercises power in the workplace like our movement. This collective experience is one of the most powerful demonstrations for members of what it means to be “union”. Thinking and planning this out for new members could mean the difference between a short-term member or making a unionist for life.
As I noted earlier, a lot of unions are asking these questions and investing resources into member experience and retention already. These issues and suggestions aren’t all necessarily new, but I hope they’re of practical use.