Capturing Members’ Attention

person using smartphone projecting happy face and positive reactions
By Molly Hayman

11 minutes

Credit unions need creativity and perseverance to best attract new members and serve existing ones.

Much like the internet, the world of member engagement is vast and ambiguous—and not everything that initially appears to be true actually is true. 

Member engagement refers to the combination of many ideas and initiatives, so much so that when you ask a member engagement officer about it, even they will ask you what you actually want to talk about. 

The reason the topic is so broad is because it is responsible for both grabbing the attention of potential new members as well as continuously connecting with and helping existing members. Doing both well is a lot to ask, and many credit unions might not be delivering fully on the potential of high engagement.

This may be because many credit unions are stuck. They are stuck with paper welcome packets. They’re stuck with PDF forms for direct deposit. And they’re stuck with using checking accounts as a method of new member acquisition. 

But the industry is past the point of checking accounts. Even the name “checking account” is archaic. When was the last time a young person wrote a check? 

Younger members don’t often distinguish between traditional checking accounts and such payment tools as Apple Pay, Venmo or PayPal; how often do they swipe their debit cards anymore, much less write checks? 

So which credit unions are doing member engagement well today? How have they captured members’ attention in an online space flooded with content and options? And who is helping them do it? 

First Impressions Matter

The first part of member engagement is finding new members to engage with and making a good first impression. And this is a place where being a credit union, as opposed to a megabank, digital bank or fintech, makes a huge difference. 

CUES member Tom Brennan, chief marketing officer of $804 million Erie Federal Credit Union succinctly says, “Doing good is good business.

“We know that it’s very important, in order to get new members, to go out and really engage your community. Talk to them about how you might be able to help them [get] better with their finances or anything regarding being a solution for them,” Brennan says.

Erie FCU’s numbers suggest something is working. Its growth from January through November 2023 is 4.44%, and its fastest-growing demographic is 25- to 34-year-olds. 

“I think in this space for younger people, they want to know you’re authentic,” Brennan adds. “They want to perceive you as a white hat company, meaning they know we try to enhance goodwill by being visible in the community.” 

It’s about showing, not telling, that you are there for them and their community. 

Community outreach is familiar and even comfortable for most credit unions. But successful engagement should also include getting outside of a CU’s usual comfort zone, according to Laurie McLachlan, chief marketing officer of CUES Supplier member Digital Onboarding, Boston.

“Stop being boring and win the war!” she advises.

What does McLachlan count as “boring”? 

“Stop offering the same boring ol’ checking accounts!” she asserts. “It’s a sea of sameness, and it’s not getting you ahead. Get creative with benefits like roadside assistance, travel discounts and cell phone protection.” People are looking for more than just a place to deposit money, so wrap your checking accounts with unique benefits that people really value.

And what about when your credit union is onboarding the new members it finds? After all, first impressions last a lifetime. McLachlan says credit unions need to make sure their delivery lives up to their promises. 

For example, many credit unions espouse the idea that they have the best mobile banking experience, she explains. “Then they send [new members] a paper welcome kit. It would be like me signing up for a Netflix account and getting a brochure in the mail about how to use it. That’s exactly what credit unions are doing.”

And good onboarding is not just about paper vs. digital. Even in the digital space, many credit unions are not keeping pace with people’s service expectations. 

“Members get an instant follow-up when they buy paper towels on Amazon,” McLachlan says. “Why does it take credit unions two days just to welcome new members? … The reason members open accounts and don’t use them is they find it challenging to get started.” 

$2.3 billion 3Rivers Federal Credit Union, Fort Wayne, Indiana, instituted an instant issue program for quickly getting debit cards into the hands of new members and members who have experienced fraud, according to Chief Member Experience Officer Peter McMahon, CCE, a CUES member.

“What’s important is that we connect with them (new members) right off the bat,” McMahon says. “Sure, we do onboarding touch points within the 30-, 60- and 90-day mark with personalized messages, but if someone opens a checking account in the branch, we want a debit card in the hands of our membership right then and there. And we get everything set up for them then and there too. We get them signed up and logged into the app, and ensure they understand how to use it.”

Of course, to ensure they serve every type of banking preference, 3Rivers FCU members can also open a new account online and request a debit card without ever setting foot in a physical location.

Tom Brennan
Chief Marketing Officer
Erie Federal Credit Union
I think in this space for younger people, they want to know you’re authentic. They want to perceive you as a white hat company, meaning they know we try to enhance goodwill by being visible in the community.

Know What They Need, Before They Do

Member acquisition and initial onboarding are certainly important to the larger picture of engagement. However, credit unions should be careful not to get so caught up in the race to sign up new members that they don’t have the bandwidth to keep those members engaged over the long term. 

Brennan summarizes this point perfectly: “Many credit unions focus on acquisition at the expense of attrition. After all, you can’t grow your CU if your member attrition rate is higher than your member acquisition rate.”

He continues, “We try to welcome people and know them versus just getting them to join by saying, ‘Here’s a $100 gift card.’ That’s a short-term fix, and there’s no real member growth without member retention.

“We must be part of their everyday lives,” he adds. “We remain focused on delivery and services channels for everyone” through all stages of their lives. 

McMahon calls what 3Rivers FCU is doing “lifelong boarding.” 

“We want to be able to reach our members with the right message, at the right time, in their preferred channel, across their entire lifetime,” he says. 

This means knowing what products they need before members do, McMahon continues. “It’s about following their journey and knowing what might be next for them to provide them with the right products at the right time.

“We try to focus on the full relationship,” he adds. “It’s focusing on what’s important to our members and deepening that relationship across the board.”

McLachlan goes even further. “Americans want help managing their finances, but they do not want to do it themselves,” she says. “Credit unions need to go beyond giving people data on their spending and savings and actually deliver the insight and advice.” 

She explains how CUs might dive deeper: “Don’t just show me a pie chart. What I really want is a text message that says, ‘If you just change X, your life will be better.’ It should tell me to cancel that specific subscription or how much spending money I will have this month after bills, specific to me.”

She sums it up by saying, “Save me from myself, and make it mindless for me.”

The Importance of Data

But how are credit unions really going to succeed at knowing the ins and outs of each member’s personal journey and act on them in a timely manner?

Would it surprise you to know you already have all the information you need? It’s in the data. 

Brennan saw the potential to use his CU’s data better, so he and the Erie FCU’s business intelligence and analytics manager created a three-person, in-house business intelligence and analytics team.

He says, “We started going down this path of personalized member journeys to get their existing needs. In other words, it gives opportunities for more cross-sell and upsell at inflection points. Because we have that data and we’re able to dive deeper into relationships, we’ve been on the lookout for those things to offer during the right time.”

3Rivers FCU built something similar called “The Triad.” Leaders of marketing, business intelligence and digital experience come together to discuss friction points and figure out how to reach members with the right message at the right time in the right channel. 

The biggest takeaway there? No team is siloed. Marketing is not just about new member acquisition, and business intelligence isn’t just creating spreadsheets and graphs; all teams have the same information, are seeing the repercussions and are brainstorming together. 

Many CUs have looked for outside assistance in this area, and why not? If the experts are, well, experts, why not utilize their pre-existing knowledge?

Strum, a CUES Supplier member in Seattle, and its Platform, support credit unions with analytics, growth strategies and data-driven marketing. 

Credit unions often come to Strum when they are experiencing declining relationship growth because of poor cross-selling or retention members problems, according to CEO/principal Mark Weber. 

“When we start talking with organizations that are having growth challenges, we usually have the conversation and assessment of their strategic growth plans for new members and member relationships,” Weber says, “because if you’re not deepening your wallet, then you’re probably not paying attention to retention.” 

Some credit unions don’t even look at the data to know that members are slowly disengaging. Weber describes not using data as “closing the back door” too late after members leave. CUs have all the information they need long before that member leaves to know they might be on the path out that door. 

“If you didn’t know and see those trends, that’s a challenge to stop attrition,” Weber asserts. “If you’re not flowing rich data on a daily basis, then you don’t have the right tool. We built a customer data platform to solve that, to leverage the cloud, to enhance data around lifestyles, demographics and behavioral first-party data so that you have an incredibly rich view of your member beyond anything you’ve ever had before to increase member engagement.”

Once a CU has rich, free-flowing data, how can it translate that into benefits for its members?

Digital Onboarding has tools to help make that happen. The company was built around the problem of creating a more engaging experience after a member joins. 

McLachlan explains that Digital Onboarding isn’t Hubspot, and it isn’t generic. 

“It’s a communications platform, and it’s designed to make it as easy as possible for people to take actions that CUs want them to take,” she says, such as signing up for e-statements, which they can do through Digital Onboarding without ever having to log into home banking. 

“If they even do log into digital banking, we know people are usually only there for 90 seconds, so we put exactly what they want in front of them,” she continues. “We’re always trying to get people to complete the next best action.”

Digital Onboarding has also built personal microsites for members as a place where the tool for taking the actions they personally need to take live—again without forcing members to log in. 

Laurie McLachlan
Chief Marketing Officer
Digital Onboarding
Members get an instant follow-up when they buy paper towels on Amazon. Why does it take credit unions two days just to welcome new members?

Branching Out 

But it’s not enough to look for engagement online. Both new and existing members still appreciate branches. 

McLachlan says, “A survey sent out by financial services company Marqeta reported 44% of respondents said they would not give up branch access. And branches often factored into how people initially chose their PFI (primary financial institution). Thirty-eight percent of respondents cited convenience and branch proximity as their biggest considerations.”

And why is this? Because people want human support, maybe even in a physical location.

3Rivers FCU believes in branches. “We’re bullish on physical locations,” says McMahon. “We’re adding branches because we know that those personal interactions make a big difference.” 

McMahon reports that his CU has opened three physical locations since December 2022. “Are there as many transactions happening in a branch as there were 10, 15, 20 years ago? No. Because people can and do direct deposit. But if they do come in, we want to create a great experience for them.” 

Branch visits aren’t even necessarily about having to make a deposit in person anymore, he explains. “We’ve seen a shift in how the branches are used. Financial wellness is a big part of our brand. Our mission is ‘to help people understand their money matters, every day.’” Branches help to support that.

McMahon sums up by saying, “We’re not forcing them into a branch, but financial wellness—in whatever channel they want to receive it in—we want to provide that for them and be a best-in-class experience.”

Be Digital in a Human Way

Credit unions absolutely can win this race. They are perfectly situated to capitalize off the digital/physical blend that members crave. 

It’s no longer enough to have “a digital option.” The world we live in is online, and CUs need to embrace this. Know your members through their data, show them you care about the same issues they do, and be there for them in every channel. 

McLachlan says, “We want personalized banking, and we want it digitally, but with a human behind it. We, the credit unions, absolutely need to better adopt technology while utilizing the humans we have in a more empathetic way.”

The future is not an “either/or situation,” it’s an “and.” “The best brands and the best organizations have a consistent member experience across every channel, however the member wants to engage,” McMahon says.  cues icon 

Molly Hayman is a former CUES publications intern who writes from Wisconsin.

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