June’s Melbourne Campaigners’ Network focused on building strong attendance at rallies and other actions. There was participation from a diverse group of campaigners – an even split between workers’ rights, social justice and environmental/animal rights activists.

The session kicked off with an activity to share successes, failures and lessons in the area of turn-out. This was followed by some great story-telling by Cindy O’Connor about the Your Rights at Work campaign (2005-2007). Cindy, currently an AMWU organiser, was a YRAW community campaigner in Tasmania. If you need a reminder of the kinds of activities YRAW built around the country, check out this video (Warning: folk music!)

Here are some of the tips for building turn-out that came out of the session:

  • Campaign for your context. YRAW was made up of an ‘air war’ (communications strategy, TV advertising, billboards etc) and a ‘ground war’ (grassroots campaigning, talking one-to-one to people, running campaign events). The nationally coordinated air war didn’t always meet the needs of the locally coordinated ground war. Cindy gave an example of a YRAW billboard which was highly effective on a Melbourne freeway, given the amount of time people spent stuck in traffic, but was ineffective in Launceston with much less traffic and people driving much faster. The local campaign had to find creative ways to reach people.
  • Sometimes building turnout means small events. Cindy spoke about campaigning in a community divided by another issue – the proposed pulp mill – which meant that people from opposing sides of the issue wouldn’t necessarily attend the same events. Instead the campaign utilised multiple smaller events, in workplaces and communities, to enable people to connect with the campaign.
  • Have a clear purpose for an action – so people know why it’s important for them to turn up. It can also help to have a particular activity for people to do at the action, so they have a sense of being part of something with others, don’t feel like ‘rent-a-crowd’, and will miss out or let others down if they don’t make it.
  • Conversations are key. Don’t rely on email or social media. Talk directly with people, either face-to-face or on the phone. You actually get to ask them if they are coming along, and you have scope to persuade them which you don’t with other methods. An email which doesn’t get opened won’t be effective at getting people to an event!
  • Build your list. Undertake list building activities like getting people to sign petitions, postcards, or take online action. The more people you can contact directly, the better you’ll be at spreading the message. Make sure to ask people for their phone numbers. Postcodes can also be important information – to get a sense of where people are coming from, and useful for marginal seat campaigning.
  • Form alliances and coalitions with other organisations with key networks and audiences. Build ‘buy-in’ among all organisations involved so they feel ownership of the event and take responsibility to build it.Phone tree
  • Set up a communication structure like a phone tree for making contact with people and asking them to attend an event. Unions have built this structure (i.e. union leadership tasks organisers; organisers task delegates; delegates contact a number of people in the workplace) and other campaigns can build this too, and utilise existing networks and relationships.
  • Set goals and ensure accountability. For example, individual campaigners could have goals for how many people they contact about an action, or how much they increase membership or build the campaign’s list. Organisations in a coalition can set goals for how many people they can turn-out to the event. Getting leaders on side is key to getting outcomes.
  • Know your audience and match your messenger. Cindy talked about knowing the demographics of different geographic areas and matching the people to do outreach in those areas, depending on political tendency or cultural background.
  • Coordinate promotion of the event. It helps if people come across promotion for an event several times, e.g. in their Facebook newsfeed, in the media, on posters in their neighbourhood – and most effectively if people are talking to them about it.
  • Build relationships with ‘influencers’, people with credibility, profile and connections to networks. If these people support your event they’ll bring their followers with them. Likewise, a ‘drawcard’ speaker can play a big part in getting a strong attendance.
  • Identify barriers and opportunities. Think through what would stop people participating in an activity, and work to break down the barriers. This will help you  prepare to handle objections put forward, as well as taking practical steps like arranging transport or protection from the weather.
  • Experiment! Try lots of different things and learn from them… and share what you learn.


See also Victoria McKenzie-McHarg’s tips for turnout – and share your own below. See you at the next MCN – Future of Media, 6pm-8pm, Thursday 9 August.