Holly Morgan
By Holly Morgan on 13 Feb, 2023

If trade unions were not something you were previously aware of, you probably are now. Whether it’s the ‘Mick Lynch effect’ or disruptions to your commute, post or healthcare, unions are increasingly at the forefront of the UK’s current socioeconomic crisis. And whilst our country’s unions are working hard to support their members, they themselves are also facing multiple challenges.

Union membership in the UK has experienced years of decline since its peak in the 1980s. Although, we saw a small uplift in 2020, likely in response to COVID-19, the trend has shown an overall gradual decline. 


Unions are also becoming older, with 74% of membership held by those over the age of 35, and 39% over the age of 50. The combination a declining and ageing membership base is creating concern about the future of unions.

When union membership was at its height in the late-70’s, British people were faced with high inflation and economic instability. And, although we are experiencing a similar economic context, younger workers are not signing up with the same fervour as previous generations once did. Without growing support from younger generations, the future of our unions looks bleak.

For younger audiences, paid membership exists across a wider range of consumer experiences than ever before. Popular retail brands, like Netflix, Amazon Prime and Beauty Pie are adopting and evolving their loyalty programmes into customisable experiences that leverage digital technology to configure the membership experience based on a customer’s level of commitment. Often these include paid-for member-only experiences that deliver experiential advantages, like personalised experiences and exclusive content.

In contrast, union membership feels outdated, unchanged from digitising an originally analogue process. The category is not one that gets a lot of attention in the digital space, yet unions offer complex and interesting challenges to solve. Without membership models that are adapted to the digital age, unions, and similar organisations, will struggle to meet the expectations of younger audiences. It could be argued that by not meeting these expectations, some unions have potentially lost some relevancy and credibility in the eyes of the emerging younger workforce.

So how do we help unions grow their membership by appealing to a younger audience?

Unions can update their membership model in three ways to help drive sign-up and meet growing expectations…

Three updates unions can make by introducing...

1. Tiered membership models

Tiered membership models are becoming more popular, allowing brands to set different levels of access. It allows individuals to set their own level of commitment, accessing what they need at a price they are willing to pay. We see examples of tiered membership in publishing, a traditionally analogue category that has leveraged digital technology to commercialise products and services into a tiered format. Brands like Fortune and The Economist use paywall technology to gate content, allowing for a certain number of free articles to be available for non-members then gradually increasing access based on subscription tier.

Like publishers, unions can benefit from gating their content in a tiered model by positioning their membership as flexible and needs based. The experience may look different depending on a member’s sector, role, or level - so by implementing a tiered system, union members can choose the access most appropriate to them and their specific needs.

Tiered membership strategies often employ three or four tiers and in some cases a credit system to access certain privileges or services. For example, a union may offer a three-tiered membership, like this:

  • ‘All-access’ membership providing the full membership experience with unlimited access to exclusive content and events, sector-related learning and development, benefits, and services.
  • ‘Plus’ membership providing access to some exclusive content and events, non-sector specific training courses, and credit-based access to benefits and support services.
  • ‘Basic’ membership providing access to union content and events, credit-based access to some key benefits and support services.

Credit systems are also a great way to provide some level of access to services and benefits whilst maintaining exclusivity at each tier. This approach may help unions appeal to a broader base whilst continuing to deliver support to those most in need. Ultimately, a tiered membership must make a member feel that the greater their commitment the more access and privilege they can unlock.

2. Referral programmes

Referral programmes not only support acquisition, but it also drives engagement amongst existing members. Speaking with union members, our research shows us that almost everyone started their union journey with a conversation. Word of mouth has always been the most important channel for unions, so it only seems appropriate to harness it and use a referral mechanism to support a behaviour that already exists.

Similar to how customer recommendations and testimonials in the retail sector are highly influential, younger audiences are looking for union endorsements by individuals they can trust and who already have their attention. Refer-a-friend campaigns have become ubiquitous amongst modern brands, but more examples are showing up in traditional sectors, like energy and banking. Often, brands will use incentives or rewards to encourage existing members to recruit, but for Unions, the value exchange is firmly rooted in the collective good and built into the brand promise. For unions, a referral programme is an example of an existing analogue practice that can be digitised to better support members in what they are already doing. It will not only help recruit younger members, but it will do it at a lower cost.

Unions are built on social networks, so fostering connections between members will not only drive acquisition but help disseminate key information and motivate grassroot efforts. Members who are more active are also more valuable to the union, so by using referral as a key indicator for activism, unions may be able to identify which members are budding activists or future union representatives. By segmenting members using engagement data, unions can also focus their internal comms and start having conversations with members that feel relevant, leading to more meaningful, deeper engagement.

3. Membership free trials

Free trials are a great way to give newcomers the opportunity to experience union membership before they commit. We know that most prospective union members are emotionally bought in after they are recommended to join by an existing member they know and trust. However, they still want to see for themselves whether union membership is right for them before formally committing. Including a free trial as a touchpoint at the start of the member journey can help unions win their confidence and trust early on.

Free trials are also useful in capturing valuable 1P data, allowing unions to learn more about their prospective members and engage them in meaningful ways that guide or incentivise further commitment. Prospective member data also can be used to build robust profiles that help inform look-alike audiences for targeting people who have yet to consider union membership.

Most young audiences expect to be targeted in a relevant way and once they have signed up, they have the same expectation within their membership experience. Leveraging member data is one of the biggest opportunities for unions to not only deliver against these expectations, but also to improve marketing efficiency that will give them a better return over time.


The strength of a union is now not only in the size of their membership base, but also in their ability to adapt and modernise. In our digital age a brand’s credibility is closely linked to how they use technology to engage and deliver value to their customers.

Increasingly, we see common retailer marketing strategies being used by public institutions, and for unions to survive, they must look to newer membership models and adopt a modern approach to galvanise their younger, more digitally savvy audiences.

To learn more about how DCX can help you deliver a CRM programme that drives sign-up, please get in touch! 

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