Beyond traditional email campaigns: Two British examples

This is my regular monthly column for Labour Research.
Unions are increasingly looking for ways to get beyond the traditional email-based online protest campaign.
One innovative solution was the TUC’s initiative in June 2008 to create a photo montage showing the faces of two jailed Zimbabwean trade union leaders. The photo was made up of some 2,000 individual supporters from around the world.
The same kind of thinking was behind UNISON’s latest effort to get broad public support for the July strikes by low-paid public sector workers. The union set up a page where you can send in texts, photos or videos using an online form, or SMS text messages, or phoning and leaving a voicemail message. The use of cutting edge social networks like Flickr and YouTube was encouraged. Using Google Earth, a map is generated showing in a strikingly visual way the widespread support the workers have received.

These kinds of innovations are becoming increasingly important as the traditional email-based campaigns begin to lose their edge.
But while this new kind of campaign will surely attract more attention, one can already foresee certain problems.
First of all, there is a risk that each new innovation will be a one-trick pony. While people were eager to send off their digital photos in support of Zimbabwean trade unionists, and rushed to locate their images in the resulting photomosaic, it’s difficult to believe that that level of enthusiasm can be repeated in a second campaign.
Second, these kinds of campaigns — unlike the traditional email campaign — are much more labour intensive. UNISON is processing the submitted videos, photos, texts and voicemails individually. The TUC had to cope with thousands of individual photos in all shapes and sizes sent as simple email attachments.
And third, as we discovered when promoting the campaigns, not all our trade union members are comfortable with the new technology. Many wrote in to say that they either did not have digital photos, or that they had no idea how to attach such a photo to an email.
Traditional email campaigns did not require such a high level of technical competence.
Those problems will all be overcome with time. Individuals are getting better at coping with digital media. In the Zimbabwe campaign, thousands were able to produce digital photos on a moment’s notice. Unions will find ways to streamline the process of coping with a flood of photos, videos and phone messages. And certain types of campaigns — such as using SMS texts to send in messages of protest — are likely to survive and be used repeatedly, with growing success.
None of this means that the more traditional email campaign is going to disappear. It will remain central to the success of any online campaign now and in the future.