What happens if someone tries to join the Liberal Democrats?

No reply. That’s what happens a third of the time if a member of the public contacts a Liberal Democrat local party via the internet according to a ‘mystery shopper’ exercise I carried out earlier this month.

Taking the publicly advertised email addresses for 25 local parties, I tried sending them all a test email from someone asking about joining the party. Just under two-thirds responded within 48 hours, which is a good response time. However, beyond that there were only a couple of further replies and the others have, after more than two weeks, not replied at all.

It is a similarly mixed picture with the quality of the replies. Only a quarter of the replies included a direct web link to the page on which someone can join the party. Moreover, a third of the replies did not include a working web link to join the party at all – not even one that took you to a page where you have to click to go to a page…

Amongst people who spend time trying to make emails as effective as possible and to maximise their response rates, it is very well known that you get the most responses by providing people with a clear, direct link that takes them straight to the page on which they can then directly take the action you want. (Update – such as this page.) Yet that knowledge looks to be missing in large numbers of local parties, which is likely to have an effect not only on their emails to possible members but also their use of email otherwise, both to inform and involve members and with the wider public.

The same point applies to advanced steps to make emails effective, with very few of the replies containing for example any specific event or activity the person could immediately get involved with. Yet, again, the wider lesson is that if you don’t immediately offer someone the chance to get involved in a specific activity they are much less likely to get involved in the future.

In fairness to those who sent the email replies back, many of whom did so very quickly and nearly all of whom wrote friendly, warm message, the amount of training and advice which the party provides, such as sample emails to adapt for local use, is rather limited. Moreover, a good number of local volunteers replied with a prompt personal message that puts many commercial operations who use email for customer support and contact to shame.

There is a new membership development pack coming soon which places particular emphasis on thinking about what someone trying to contact a local party will encounter, such as whether contact details are up to date. That should help to tackle some of the issues this survey has highlighted.

However, overall the party is being far less welcoming to would-be new members than it should be.

 

Thank you to Martin Tod for helping in the preparation of the exercise and also thank you for their time to everyone who responded to the mystery shopper survey.

* Mark Pack has written 101 Ways To Win An Election and produces a monthly newsletter about the Liberal Democrats.

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34 Comments

  • Whilst I understand the point you’re driving at what percentage of people who are online will find their local party and email them about joining rather than just Googling “Join Lib Dems” and going straight to the link?

  • George Gosling 26th Jan '12 - 11:18am

    This is a big problem. I was at university in Bangor when I got involved with the LibDems and became founding chair of the Bangor University Liberal Democrats. I then started working at the House of Lords.

    Despite the fact I set up a new university group and was working for one of our peers, when I moved into new areas (Oxford, Islington, Waltham Forest and Bristol), I found that getting in touch and trying to get involved with the local party was like banging my head against a brick wall.

    I would email asking about what I could do, when the next meeting was, who I should get in touch with. In some cases I got a friendly response but I only got added to a mailing list and kept up-to-date with meetings etc many months later after moving out of the area – in both the cases of Bristol and Islington. In fact, the local Islington party have ignored my repeated requests to be removed from their mailing list, which I’m still on more than 3 years after leaving the area. And they only did anything after I chased a Focus deliverer down the road!

    I left the Liberal Democrats after the 2010 general election, having been disillusioned with the leadership for a while. I still like to keep up-to-date with party news, but that’s all. But for half a decade I was making a contribution to the party at parliamentary level and was time and time again ignored when I tried to do the same at the local level. This mystery shopper exercise is a useful one, but I think the problem is much bigger I’m afraid.

  • My children have not renewed because the local party emailed me not them about it and the national party did not answer their emails.

  • not surprised by the result – its the result of relying on volunteers and not paid staff, while some volunteers are just post holders many are doing a valuable job. However there is almost never competition for a role so they question who is the best person for that job never is tested – it tends to be the person who has always done it or the person who didn’t run away fast enough at the AGM.

    Things need to change but currently I don’t have a solution of how to professionalise local parties without spending lots of money we don’t have.

  • Good article.
    25 local parties seems a fairly small sample, and how were these distributed?
    I would imagine local parties with an MP or decent number of cllrs would be better organised and respond quicker, than those without.

  • DAVE WARREN 26th Jan '12 - 3:11pm

    I found this article very interesting.

    I joined the party in March last year ten months after publicly supporting the party.

    The thing i found amazing was that having come out for the party in a local press article and agreeing to deliver literature in the General Election there was no real attempt to recruit me.

    In the end i filled in the inquiry form on the national website and that resulted in the local party getting in touch. That was several months after becoming a supporter.

  • Tracy Connell 26th Jan '12 - 3:39pm

    Andrew Emmerson raises a good point. Not only should the initial contact with new members/supporters/helpers be improved, but contact and communication must be sustained. At the start I had no idea what meetings I should or could attend, no proper guidance on campaigning methods. I had to ask to go out canvassing with someone else to make sure I got it right. Sometimes you have to make the effort to find out what is going on and get involved and offer your help.

    I think it would be better if the party contacted you, saying what is happening in each ward and asking if you can spare time to help in certain things and offer for someone to show you where to get started. There’s no sustained contact/communication unless you attend the meetings. It’s too easy to disappear into the sunset and they’ll just roll on as normal without you. You need someone to give you the incentive and enthusiasm to help.

    I think my local party is making a start in improving this, kicking of with a social evening, but then hopefully following up afterwards making contact instead of just leaving people hanging.

    Perhaps some local parties are set in their ways and need a kick up the bum to get going on this?

  • David Allen 26th Jan '12 - 6:33pm

    Back in 1981, when I joined the SDP, our local party was absolutely desperate to get to know its new members. Local organisers were despatched to race round to all their houses and bombard them with election leaflets to deliver as soon as possible. Yes, we did have an absurd faith in a strategy of educating the electorate with learned papers to prove that we were in the right and should therefore be swept back into power. Against that, we did also have a genuine zeal for politics and a conviction that we were doing something worthwhile. That, sadly, has evaporated.

  • “I had a particularly bad time when I changed parties , the problem Is not so much for me initial contact, it’s sustained contact after the initial interest. I went to a welcome drinks thingy, loads of people took a number for me, a few weeks later nothing.”

    Same problem here as a new member to the Lib Dems… nothing heard after joining beyond the usual members leaflets. Went to drinks thingy, gave details … nothing.

  • How are you going to report this back to the local parties that didn’t respond? Not by email… and chances are the same parties aren’t going to training days either. And yes it took me several attempts to join. I finally emailed the PPC and he replied within 10 minutes! So a happy ending in the end.

  • Plus ca change. When I tried to join the Liberals, admittedly a long time before email, I couldn’t make contact at all and was reduced to hi-jacking Wendy Macaulay in the street. Didn’ get much better either – I swear I went to meetings for two years before anybody spoke to me and then it was “Would you like to be a councillor?”

  • Its not just the membership officers that are the problem..its communicating with anyone from a local party. I work in a different constituency from my home and last May I was trying to persuade my co workers to vote LibDem (up hill struggle they are conservatives for their sins). However one said she might consider it if she had any idea who our candidate was in her area and what they stood for.

    I sent her local party an email (No phone number) explaining who I was and asking if they had a candidate standing and if so I needed details. Its now nearly the next set of elections and still no email back!

  • Just another “I initially had no response from local party email” story. It really surprised me at the time!

    In the end had to walk into the office to volunteer. After that they were very supportive and engaging, however.

  • Stephen Donnelly 29th Jan '12 - 8:41pm

    The next survey should what happens after someone joins the Liberal Democrats.

  • Sarah whitebread 30th Jan '12 - 10:52am

    Interesting article Mark.

    I want to comment on the follow up – what happens after you join? As others have mentioned, often in inactive constituencies you will not hear very much (if anything!) from your local party. What leaflets and newsletters you do recieve may be poorly produced and not look very professional. Tackling that is a very difficult problem and not something we can solve easily. But one thing we could do quickly would be to improve our national communications.

    I know some members of the green party and they get a colour magazine either two or four times per year (can’t remember which) updating them on national issues in the party. They also get a more cheaply produced “bulletin” type newsletter in the run up to conference, if I remember correctly.

    Clearly the green party have fewer members than we do, but I really think investing in somethig like this, particularly given our current difficulties in getting our message out, would not be a bad idea.

    Our current all member communications just do not meet expecatations. Yes you can pay extra and get Lib Dem news, but not all members are going to be interested enough to want something every week. That’s not to say we shouldn’t send them something every few months.

    The only contact I ever get from the national party is either reminding me to renew, or asking me to sign up for a prize draw… I know we send the occasional all member edition of Lib Dem News in the run up to conference, but it’s not enough. We need to be sending out attractive, quality colour publications at least a couple of times a year, letting our members know what we’re doing in government for them.

  • After contacting my local party for the first time all I got was a rather bluntly delivered pile of leaflets to distribute.

  • after joining my current local party after having been a member elsewhere since 1983, I found a carrier bag full of Focus leaflets, with a delivery map for the whole ward, in my porch one day. Good job I knew the party of old, but surely human resources are the most valuable thing a party could have? Must do much, much, better. What about a buddy system to encourage new members along?

  • Sarah whitebread 31st Jan '12 - 8:40am

    Louise – fair comment, but it’s only at most four times a year and if it motivates people for the environmental cause then I suppose they could argue they’re ofsetting it! 😉 Friends of the Earth send me more mailings than any other charity I support, something I’ve always found a bit odd!

  • Harry Evans 31st Jan '12 - 9:07pm

    Having joined the party recently (November 2011) I can honestly say that the joining system is awful. When I first tried it, I got absolutely no recognition that I had even sent a payment to the party, and various other technical issues which meant it took 3 months for my membership card to arrive! To cut a long story short, sort it out guys. This is a great party but we don’t want to turn people away because our joining system is so terrible.

  • I did try to change the contact information for my LP last year through MDO, however since I submitted nothing has changed on federal party website…. May email in at some point.

  • Cllr Steve Bradley 1st Feb '12 - 12:05pm

    Good article Mark.

    I’ve had positive experiences the times that I’ve switched my membership around the country. But I would echo the post above that almost as soon as you join up locally you find a bundle of leaflets pushed into your hand. At least you learn quickly what the rest of your party experience is going to be like, but that sort of approach will scare off a lot of people.

    I’ve yet to hear of anyone who, when asked ‘why did you get into politics’, has responded : “So I could deliver leaflets”….. :o)

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