The Credit Union Guide to Social Media Strategy

Social Media Icons

For many credit unions, “getting on social media” is defined as a goal. Boarding the social media bandwagon is simple–anyone can create a Twitter or Facebook account. The difficulty lies in building and maintaining the relationships developed as a result of these unique social channels. So, if social media isn’t a “goal,” what is it?

No matter the channel or platform–Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, Pinterest, Instagram, blog, Tumblr, etc.–”social media” is a tactic, simply a means to an end. Therefore, social media platforms should be used as tools to help fulfill or support credit union goals.

You might be asking what credit union goals are social media platforms equipped to support? In my 19+ years of working with credit unions on defining strategy, I’ve come to appreciate that there are three overarching goals common to every credit union. They are: service, growth, and education.

Every healthy credit union desires success in these areas, and social media platforms are effective means to help credit unions meet these objectives. Regardless of your chosen platform, these three common goals apply across the board and are applicable to one and all platforms.

Service

Despite all of the flowery language usually associated with the concept, service is simply maintaining an effective responsiveness to member/potential member needs, questions, and concerns. Service exchanges are also almost always initiated by members/potential members, and often involve interactions such as transaction requests, product questions, problem resolution, and other similar issues.

While credit unions would be unwise to take and process transaction requests via social media platforms, these platforms are perfectly suited to support many other service situations. For example, every single one of the following non-transaction, service-focused questions and comments can be addressed via any given social media platform:

  • What time does the branch close?
  • Is the line in the branch long right now?
  • Am I qualified to join?
  • How do I get a mortgage?
  • I had to wait forever to deposit my check!

Interestingly, many consumers are beginning to expect service responses from brands via their social media platforms. How many times have you heard stories of frustrated airline passengers tweeting the airline their concern and the airline responds? That certainly beats calling customer service and waiting on hold for hours on end to register a complaint. In fact, even a simple search on the words “credit union” on Twitter turns up multitudes of members asking questions, expressing frustrations, and looking for general help, and some even seeking transaction assistance. Social media platforms allow for real-time problem resolution, or at least the next link in the communication chain.

Credit unions can and should use social media to interact with members, and seek to address as many service-related concerns as is possible using their platform(s) of choice. The two most important reasons why are:

  1. Consumers are looking for assistance via the same channel in which they reach out. If a member came into a branch to ask about the hours of operation and we told them we’d call them to let them know, that’s similar to having a member initiate a service opportunity via Twitter and us telling the member to call us for more information in response. If we are going to open the door of communication by creating branded social media accounts, we must be willing to see the requests through to completion as best we can via that same channel.
  2. Your response becomes part of the public record and leaves a legacy of the kind of service you offer as an organization. Archived forums, tweets with the same hash tags to identify a particular topic of conversation and the like are valuable records for members and potential members to mine should they have similar questions. And, your members will learn how truly plugged in you are as a brand as you respond quickly and thoroughly to their comments–or not.

One credit union executive I recently spoke with said that her staff was pulling some portion of their credit union’s social media account management away from marketing and into their call center so staff could more quickly respond to service opportunities. She recognizes the importance of the social media channel as it relates to their goal of superior service.

As a reminder, the opportunity to deliver service is presented to credit unions because of the member’s initiation. However, not all opportunities to engage in social media interaction are at the behest of members. Leveraging social media platforms to drive growth happens as a result of member initiation and credit union initiation, as well.

Growth

To begin with, growth consists of two components: deepening existing member relationships and acquiring new members. This distinction is important for two reasons.

First of all, each audience, existing members in one case and general consumers in the other, have different knowledge and awareness levels of credit union brand distinction. Here is an extreme example to illustrate the point: Existing members know that their credit union is a financial institution; general consumers may not know that a credit union is a financial institution.

The second reason to appreciate the distinction between relationship growth and new member growth involves the language we use. Simply put, we speak and sell differently to people who know us versus those that don’t. Consider your speech in casual conversation. In speaking to a friend we dispense with the formality of introducing ourselves. When speaking to someone new, we usually start off by introducing ourselves and perhaps offer additional background information.

If you craft messages designed to acquire new members but in doing so make the assumption that potential members are as knowledgeable about credit union and brand-specific distinctions as members, you will lose the attention of your audience and likely fail in your objectives. Likewise, if you craft messages with the casual informality afforded to members, you may fail to impart critical brand information consumers are looking for as they seek to establish new connections. In crafting growth-focused messages, then, effective social media communication strategy must consider the knowledge common to target groups and the depth of the relationship with those groups, and any communication copy must be drafted and targeted accordingly.

Earlier in this article I referenced an important element of service, particularly in a social media context: an institution’s service response happens only as a result of a member’s initiation. In other words, “service” is simply effective responsiveness to a consumer request. As a result, service effectiveness requires sound “listening” skills and the capacity to respond — true for in-person interactions and for those occurring on social media platforms.

In the context of growth, however, conversations can be initiated by either consumers or the credit union, or both. Successful facilitation of growth, then, requires credit unions to engage in push/respond … respond/push strategy, where the credit union creates growth-focused messages and responds to growth-related requests. This method is truly different than how most credit unions currently support growth objectives via social media, however, which involves a heavy amount of broadcast “promotion” and little targeted messaging and listening.

For example, consider this broadcast promotion copy. Which is a more effective “push” message for driving interaction with consumers regarding auto loans?

Check out our great car loan rate special!

or…

Buying a car this weekend? Here’s what you need to know before stepping foot on a dealer lot…

Of course the second message is more effectively worded, but we need to understand why. One is clear, unadulterated advertising, which consumers often tune out, while the other suggests an opportunity to gain an advantage in purchasing a car. The objective of both, of course, is growth — specifically to generate auto loan applications/pre-approvals. However, in terms of grabbing consumer interest and generating further opportunity for push/respond engagement, they are clearly not equal.

Regarding the respond/push opportunities for growth-related engagement, consider this tweet (it’s a real one!)

I need a car loan 😦

While there is some debate as to whether it is “creepy” to attempt to engage consumers, as a brand, when they post comments like this, I say if they are a member and/or a connection, then a response is certainly appropriate. However, it is important not to jump into sales mode. If social media platforms are, in fact, platforms for conversation, then it makes sense to engage in conversation. For example, my first thought in reading this particular tweet was, “Why?” I am curious as to whether this person’s car died, whether they had an accident, etc. I want to know the root cause of the comment and driving force behind the need for a loan. Such curiosity forms the basis for an effective conversation that just so happens to relate to credit union loan growth.

One other point to note regarding growth. Credit unions must ensure there is call-to-action support for growth-based exchanges. To put it bluntly, if a credit union has no opportunity for members and potential members to apply online for loans and/or membership, then it makes no sense to attempt to use platforms geared to the establishment of online relationships. While some may disagree, any given credit union must get its online house in order for social media efforts to be anything more than a waste of time.

While there would appear to be little difference between sales pitches and member “education,” a difference does exist.

Education

Social media must deliver relevant educational content to members. First, let’s begin with a basic definition of Education, which is “the process of receiving or giving systematic instruction.” Member education–providing instruction to members–has long been an important component of effective member/credit union relationships. Consumers have historically found credit unions to be sources of helpful, unbiased education about how financial products and services work.

Generally, credit union staff desires to inform consumers of product details so that consumers can make informed decisions, as opposed to hiding the specifics so as to keep consumers in the dark. They have taken time, usually in face-to-face settings, to explain complicated financial concepts and products so that members leave the exchange satisfied with their choices.

The problem we face today, however, is that the presentation of educational efforts online via website and social media channels come across as marketing or sales copy rather than as unbiased sharing of information designed to help members make better decisions (or feel comfortable with the decisions they are making). How can we correct that perception? The answer is two-fold.

First, it helps to understand educational focus in the context of the financial community, and by that I mean the general subject matter for instruction. Two basic, macro areas of focus comprise education: financial literacy and product usage. If someone is financially literate we mean essentially that that person understands the basic concepts of banking. With regard to product usage, if someone is product literate we mean that they understand how to assess or use a particular financial product.

These two areas are certainly related, but each area brings different expectations with regard to what is taught. Here is a very basic example of the different educational responsibilities using the concept of compounding interest and savings accounts. For someone to make educated decisions about which savings account provides the best return, they need to understand both the concept of compounding interest and how to determine the impact of various product terms on interest earned.

To continue this very simple example, a product with a higher interest rate that kicks in only after certain balance requirements are met may be a worse choice than a product with a lower rate offered on all deposited dollars. A consumer is less likely to successfully evaluate product choices and make an effective choice for themselves if they simply don’t understand how interest works.

Our task in educating consumers is to ensure the delivery of information that improves the basic literacy skill set required both to evaluate and use products. When you think of it that way, it becomes more clear exactly what we should be teaching consumers–and it should be evident that subject matter must be broadly focused rather than limited solely to the feature set of internal products and services.

In defining educational material to deliver to members, any given credit union must ask and answer two questions:

  • “What do our members and potential members need to know about banking?”
  • “What do our members and potential members need to know about comparing and/or using financial products?”

In answering these questions a robust subject matter outline will emerge, which should bring clarity to the scope of educational material to be shared via social media channels. Proper, in-depth, educational subject matter will go a long way to breaking down the perception that educational material shared online is actually thinly veiled sales copy.

But… good material focused on improving financial literacy and product evaluation/usage will not break down the barrier alone. This brings us to the second answer to our challenge, which is the separation of educational material from service and growth-related information.

Social media channels are fascinating in that they offer a direct pipeline to consumers at very little cost as compared to the development and mailing of newsletters, etc. Managing social media channels certainly carries a cost, staff time costs to be specific, but comparing the development of a paper newsletter to the development of a social media account shows less cost for social media due to the materials and mailing costs involved in creating a newsletter. Social media channels have no comparable costs. Furthermore, having two (or ten) social media accounts or handles costs no more than having one. Multiple newsletters each carry additional material and mailing costs.

The point here is not to debate the value of mailed newsletters versus social media outreach. Rather, it is to show that creating multiple social media channels carries no more cost than creating one, which means a potential solution to separating educational material from other service and marketing-focused copy is simply to create another channel to carry the content. To use Twitter to illustrate, the strategy is to create one Twitter account (handle) to carry service and growth content, and another account to carry unbiased consumer education–with each positioned according to their “mission.”

Consumer social media accounts are often awash with a multitude of competing and conflicting messages, and it is likely that the strategy of message separation is undermined as educational information is mashed together with other messages within the viewing windows of social media services. However, as consumers first encounter the distinctive credit union messaging and engagement options available to them via their credit union affiliation, they no doubt will appreciate a channel designed solely to help them navigate the complicated world of consumer banking.

To conclude, “being in social media” is not a goal. Rather, it is a tactical option to help credit unions fulfill three common, overarching, real credit union goals: service, growth, and education. Engaging in social media simply to cross off a “strategic goal” is poor strategy. Using social media to drive service, growth, and education is excellent strategy–provided service, growth, and education are properly understood concepts.

In addition to using social media to deliver service, drive growth, and educate, consider these other important initiatives as you seek to engage your members via social media channels:

  • Establish social media goals/objectives that map to corporate strategy.
  • Identify the social media resources that allow you to best connect to your members and potential members.
  • Use social media resources as platforms.
  • Don’t forget that just as with in-person dialogue, social media interactions are with people.
  • Adopt tools to help efficiently manage interactions across resources.
  • Define policy that keeps you and your members safe.

Social media is not a panacea, but the various services that make up the world of online social interaction have great potential to bring credit union and members closer together than they have been in years. It is an opportunity not to be overlooked.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s