||Year End 2002|
Interview: Taking Stock
Bad Boss: Pushing the Envelope
Unions: The Year That Was
Republic: Still Fighting
International: Global Ties, Global Binds
Politics: Turning Green
Technology: Unions Online 2002
Industrial: The Past Is Before Us
Economics: Market Insecurity
Review: Shooting for Sanity
Poetry: The PM's Christmas Message
Culture: Zanger's Sounds of Summer
The Locker Room
Vale: Phil Berrigan
Unions Online 2002
Simplicity, focussing on what works and doing that well is what sums up 2002 for unions online in Australia.
This year saw online campaigning emerge as a very doable action, a relatively old technology in email as the most effective tool for increasing online audiences, some smart new technology to help people easily find what they want, a design rethink and an exception to the rule of web advertising.
Most unions run multiple campaigns on an ongoing basis. Whilst most unions are well organised in running these campaigns on the ground, not many are organised to run them as effectively online. This can be largely put down to the fact that most unions do not have the content management tools within their site to easily publish campaign news and produce online resources that enable site users to take action in support of their campaigns.
Campaigns can move fast and unless you've got a content management system to quickly organise and publish your content, you'll be soon overwhelmed by the amount of content required to be published on your site to keep users engaged with your campaigns. Moreover, there are always new campaigns arising and each new campaign requires a new batch of web development to create what should ideally be a campaign subsite.
Labourstart and LaborNET (with the Workers Compensation campaign) have led the way in online campaigning over the last couple of years, but the challenge remained to come up with a cost-effective solution that would enable unions to run their own campaigns on their own sites.
During the second half of this year, a number of LaborNET union sites (LaborNET with the Keep Our Railway Together campaign), ACTU, NZCTU and NSW Teachers Federation) had a campaign content management solution installed on their sites by Social Change Online to run their campaigns online. This solution allows these sites to effectively create a fully resourced campaign subsite for each new campaign on-demand.
The most advanced version of these solutions is being used by the New South Wales Teachers Federation to run at present a state election 2003 campaign and a campaign in support of Colombian teachers. By simply filling out a series of online content entry forms, the Federation has easily been able to construct campaign subsites that feature:
The result is not only a greater spread of a union's campaign message but some positive action undertaken by the users that can produce tangible effects on a campaign. Labourstart's online campaigns and here in Australia, the LHMU's Hilton Hotel campaign had strong evidence that their targeted, mass-email based protect actions played a significant role in winning their campaigns.
Sometimes people forget that the simple things often work best and get distracted by sophisticated and complex solutions. On the web this can be very much the case. In recent times there has been a sober recognition that email, a technology pre-dating the web by a decade, is the killer application of the internet.
Unlike the web, email is a single channel medium: each user has a single inbox where all emails sent to them arrive. Whereas with the web, there are millions of channels, ie individual websites, that the user may never see (if you build it they will probably not come )...unless they are told about it...and probably the best way to tell someone about what's worth checking out online is via a medium that enables users to instantly jump to where you're asking them to go to: email. Hence the success of the regular e-newsletter announcing new content to view on sites.
But having an e-newsletter strategy presupposes that you have a subscriber list to broadcast your e-news to, which for most unions, apart from an initial batch of active members' email addresses, this is not the case. So the initial problem to solve is how to build up a subscriber list. Getting your website to do this for you automatically is the best way via a subscription form.
Some LaborNET sites have significantly increased their audience share by employing this strategy. Leading the way here have been two LaborNET unions: the LHMU and ASU Services NSW. Both of these unions run a multiple email list strategy; a general news list to broadcast news across their whole membership and a narrowcasting to particular sections of their membership via lists dedicated to particular employment sectors.
Regular e-newsletters are automatically published to these lists via their site's content management system announcing the latest news from the union and inviting the users to visit their site to get more information. The results for both unions have been impressive. Since adopting this strategy the LHMU has increased it's site traffic by 50% and ASU Services NSW, who have only been running newsletters for the last 5 months, have lifted their site traffic by a still impressive 25%.
For Workers Online this is actually old news: Workers has been running this strategy since it first began in February 1999 to build a large and loyal audience.
Probably the most ambitious technology project undertaken in the Australian labour movement in 2002 was the Labor Council of New South Wales' LDAP-based LaborNET union directory. LDAP stands for Lightweight Directory Application Protocol and is essentially a common standard that enables database driven directories to share information between each other and other network based applications.
A key feature of LDAP based directories is that all their content is network addressable. This means that potentially any network based application...a user's web browser or email client, or another website, can look up the contents of a directory and return the results back to the user's local environment.
What this means for the LaborNET directory is that it has the potential in the future to offer users the ability to:
It's early days yet for all of the above functionality for the LaborNET directory but the point is that this application has the critical technological foundations to offer these services in the future.
Secure Payments Online
Many unions have wished to have websites where people could join their union online, paying for membership with their credit card in a secure environment. Whilst this has been technically possible for some time, it is only recently with the provision of secure credit card payment gateways that this has become both affordable and practical to do.
Earlier this year the NSW Teachers Federation launched a secure online payment service for new and existing members. To the best of my knowledge this is the first Australian union to offer a complete and secure membership payment service online. Using a set of smart forms that were integrated into the NAB's secure internet payments service by Social Change Online, users can select their desired type of membership and then securely pay their membership via credit card.
The response to this service has been very strong; over 250 new members have been picked up with this service and over $50,000 in membership fees have been collected from existing members, saving the Federation valuable administrative time in processing membership payments.
A Design Rethink
The last 12 months or so has seen a sea change take place in web design. Back in the late 90's when everyone was talking portals, content rich pages packed with information that gave users one-click access to everything within a site was all the rage. But since that time enough user feedback has filtered through to site owners and their designers to force a change of tack. The latest and most reliable usability research shows that users prefer more simple web interfaces with less content over sites saturated with content.
There are exceptions to this generalisation of course, and typically it's the case of news based sites where the user expects a maximum amount of content available up front on the home page.
At Social Change Online we've listened to the feedback about content heavy pages and of late developed some sites with a fresh new design approach that has an accent on simplicity and pulls back somewhat on content load. Here's a quick rundown of some new LaborNET sites that feature a different design approach:
The collective wisdom of the media experts is that web advertising does not work. Largely, this is right and proven by the manifest failure of web advertising as a revenue generator for even very popular sites. But there is one viable exception; advertising on the one of the world's most popular websites, Google.
Google offers a very clever and affordable service, "Adwords", where you can; tie the display of your ads to particular search terms used by visitors to the site, define your own search terms and set your own price for advertising (you pay more for higher ranked display of ads). Importantly, you only pay for the advertising when someone clicks on your ad: if no one clicks on your ad you don't pay.
The Evatt Foundation have dipped their toe in the water here and have scored some incredibly cheap advertising for their site. To see this in action try going to Google and keying in the search term; "ALP Policy", on the right hand side of the page at the top of the results list you'll find Evatt's text based ad. The trial has been going less than 2 weeks but in that time the Evatt Foundation's ad has been displayed over 11,300 times and delivered over 60 new users to the Evatt site for a cost of only $16.41 - incredibly cheap advertising.
Some sceptics might comment, "well improving the quality of websites is great - but what does it really get you?" Well apart from the intangible benefit of an increased public profile and getting your message out to a wider audience there are real and measurable benefits to increasing your web traffic.
So long as you've the right online tools to take advantage of increased visits to your site, improving the quality of your site can translate into increased membership and greater participation of that membership in your union. Two things that all unions need in these challenging times.
Mark McGrath is the Union Sector Manager for Social Change Online and manages the development of the LaborNET portal
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