In the first weeks following banks’ announcements of their infamous debit card fees, more consumers joined credit unions than joined during all of last year. Credit unions welcomed more than 650,000 new members, and those consumers brought an estimated $4.5 billion in new deposits with them.
The membership surge began with Bank of America’s announcement in late September that it would charge many of its debit card customers $5 per month. The bank later scuttled its plans, but the damage was done. A disgruntled customer not only moved her money but shared her anger on Facebook, spawning the movement known as Bank Transfer Day. She urged consumers to switch from big banks to local credit unions and community banks.
Tropical Financial Credit Union experienced what credit unions throughout the country did during this time—a wave of media attention raising consumer awareness of the credit union difference. Soon after Bank of America announced its new debit card fees, Amy McGraw got a call from a local television station. The reporter wanted to interview anyone who was fed up with big-bank greed and had jumped ship to join the credit union.
McGraw, vice president of marketing at the $600 million asset credit union in Miramar, Fla., figured it would be easy to fill the reporter’s request. She issued a mass email to branch managers and within minutes found a new member who fit the bill. McGraw suggested doing the interview at the member’s workplace, giving that business some free publicity, too.
“The next thing I knew,” McGraw says, “I got a call from the business owner.” She wanted to know if credit unions offered business accounts and how long credit unions had been in existence. After McGraw answered those two questions with “yes,” and “for more than 100 years,” the business owner expressed shock that she hadn’t discovered credit unions earlier. “You’re not alone,” McGraw replied.
To McGraw, this incident is a classic example of what credit unions are up against in their attempts to attract new members: low levels of consumer awareness. Membership growth slipped to 0.7% for 2010, lagging behind the overall U.S. population growth rate for the first time in the past five years, according to CUNA’s 2011-2012 National Member Survey.
Bank Transfer Day and consumers’ anger over big-bank fees might be the spark that lights credit unions’ membership growth for years. Until now, credit unions’ anemic membership growth has been concerning. “It’s because credit unions often cling to old methods of reaching people,” McGraw explains. “There’s a saying that goes, if you continue to do what you’ve always done, you’ll continue to get what you’ve always gotten.”
Clinging to old methods stems from “fear of the unknown—the fear of stepping outside your comfort zone,” says McGraw, who was named the CUNA Marketing & Business Development Council’s Marketing Professional of the Year in March 2011. “Credit unions that will succeed at grabbing market share are those not afraid to try something new.”
Count McGraw among them. Before starting her current job at Tropical Financial in September, she was the marketing director at $130 million asset Public Service Credit Union in Romulus, Mich. There she executed a rebranding campaign that changed how member service representatives interacted with members and potential members.
“We trained them to look the person in the eye and ask, ‘What do you want out of life?’ rather than just ‘What can I do for you today?’ It took lots of staff training and retraining to get that across—that they weren’t there only to do transactions anymore,” McGraw says. Such strategies helped Public Service attain a 21% growth in membership over four years.
Since arriving at Tropical Financial in early September 2011, McGraw has launched new marketing strategies. She has always liked using testimonials to let members do the talking about credit union benefits. At Tropical Financial, she hit on the idea of having a local radio personality “tell it like it is” about credit unions.
She got demo tapes from various local radio hosts. Kenny Walker, who’s also the stadium voice of the Miami Dolphins, stood out. “He knew about credit unions, and he believed in them,” McGraw says. “He wasn’t just reading talking points.”
Then in October she created a SwipeWhere ItCounts.com campaign, which gives new checking accountholders a $1 cash bonus for every five debit card purchases through April 2012, not to exceed $5 per month. The campaign went from idea to implementation in only 24 hours.
McGraw acknowledges she has a bigger advertising budget now than she did at Public Service. But there her strategies included using social media, becoming a local television anchorman’s go-to person for financial news, and being active in the community. Any credit union, no matter its size or marketing budget, has plentiful opportunities to garner consumer awareness, McGraw contends.
“It’s a matter of pushing the fear aside,” she says. “Credit unions are in a time that’s unlike any other. We need to be shouting our message from the rooftops. This is our moment.”
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