Guest post in Credit Union Times

6 Ways for Marketers to Leverage the Credit Union Operating Principles

This piece, written by our CEO Cameron Madill, was originally published in the Credit Union Times.

Pop quiz: What are the Credit Union International Operating Principles?

Hopefully you can name them, but chances are, many of your employees and members can’t. Having visited my fair share of credit union websites, I’ve found that they tend to focus disproportionately on the ways in which they are “just as good” as banks, rather than what sets them apart as a cooperative financial institution.

Let’s not forget that credit unions are founded on the idea that cooperation between people is powerful. When groups come together with a common goal, amazing things can happen. That’s what the Credit Union International Operating Principles are all about, but they often seem to get lost in the shuffle. As part of the team responsible for the public face of a credit union, marketers are in a unique position to bring these core principles to the forefront. Here’s how:

1.  Open and Voluntary Membership, Non-Discrimination: Showcase real members and real member stories

Credit unions open their doors to people regardless of their race, gender or financial situation. But if you visit most credit union websites, they are filled with contrived stock photos of people who bear little resemblance to the members the credit union actually serves.

Point West Credit Union ($94 million in assets, Portland, Ore.) takes a different approach. By bringing financial empowerment to the underserved, Point West is the epitome of a mission-driven financial institution. When my company partnered with Point West on a website redesign, we approached the project as both photojournalists and marketers, bringing individual member stories to the forefront. If you take a look at the website, likely the first thing you’ll notice is that the photos showcase people from a range of races, ages and backgrounds. Rather than focus on products, we focused on the members – Citizens of Point West.

2.  Democratic Control: Highlight your board of directors and your election/voting process

Adam Schwartz, founder and principal of The Cooperative Way, said, “I think that one of the prime advantages [of the cooperative model] is that the owners are the users of the service.” He continued, “I could be a stockholder in Wells Fargo or CitiBank and not be an account holder. I wouldn’t really care what kind of service they provide to their customers.”

Democratic member control is about every member having a vote, regardless of their financial situation. It’s also about every member having an opportunity to run for election if they so choose. OnPoint Community Credit Union ($5.8 billion in assets, Portland, Ore.) highlights the voting and application process with a robust Board Elections subsite that outlines what the board and supervisory committee are responsible for, how to apply to serve and how to vote for your preferred candidate. DC Credit Union ($65 million in assets, Washington, D.C.) shares recaps of its annual meetings, including multimedia highlights, letting members know what was discussed and who was elected or re-elected to the board. Keesler Federal Credit Union ($2.9 billion in assets, Biloxi, Miss.), meanwhile, leads with its board of directors and supervisory committee on its Meet Our Team page, sharing in-depth bios and professional headshots so that members can understand who is representing their interests and guiding the credit union’s strategic direction.

3.  Equal Distribution to Members, Service to Members: Be transparent about where your money goes (and doesn’t go)

Credit unions must improve the economic and social well-being of all members; any excess profit belongs to and benefits all members, with no one benefiting at the expense of others. This is a key, but often overlooked, distinction when it comes to differentiating from the “big banks.” While Aspiration Bank is not a credit union, it positions itself as an autonomous, independent bank, and it devotes most of its homepage to highlighting this crucial distinction. “Big banks use your deposits to fund oil drilling and pipelines,” it proclaims. “With the Aspiration Spend & Save Account, your money won’t be lent to fossil fuel projects and you can earn up to 2.00% APY interest.” Aspiration’s Giving Tree shows customers where their money goes instead.

Clearwater Credit Union ($547 million in assets, Missoula, Mont.) dedicates a robust webpage to transparency that leads with, “Values-based banking starts with being transparent” and goes on to showcase its financial statements, strategic plan, impact assessment and more.

4.  Building Financial Stability, Ongoing Education: Promote financial wellness over products

Financial wellness is all too often presented as an afterthought – one link buried in mega-menus full of financial products. Peninsula Credit Union in Washington State bucks this trend by focusing on financial wellness first. Every Peninsula employee is a certified financial counselor, and the credit union presents its financial products as one component of its financial wellness approach, rather than the “holy grail” of financial success. Because let’s face it, a high-interest savings account is nice, but it’s not going to solve all our financial woes.

Interestingly, the attitude shift comes not just in how the financial education is presented to prospects and members, but also in how valuable education efforts are for a credit union’s bottom line. If a credit union views financial wellness programs as “freemium products,” they will be presented and prioritized as such. Shawn Gilfedder, president/CEO of Kitsap Credit Union ($1.3 billion in assets, Bremerton, Wash.), once put it this way: “The comparison I like the most is when you think about Zappos, right? Zappos is a great service company that happens to sell shoes. Our future, and I think the future of many a credit union, is we should be known for promoters of financial wellness that happen to sell retail banking products.”

5.  Cooperation Among Cooperatives: Highlight fee-free ATMs

Fee-free ATMs are the best kept secrets in the credit union industry. Prospects often worry about making the switch from their big bank because they fear they will lose the convenience of a robust branch and ATM network.

There’s absolutely no reason to keep this perk a secret. Alliant Credit Union ($11.8 billion in assets, Chicago, Ill.) doesn’t beat around the bush when it comes to the messaging on its ATM map: “Search 80,000+ surcharge-free ATMs … That’s more than Chase & Bank of America combined!” However you decide to approach it, make sure your members and prospects are in the know.

6.  Social Responsibility: Lead with your community work, and tell your community’s stories

Most credit union websites feature at least one “big check photo” – usually in their blog or in a subpage under their “About” section. There’s nothing wrong with big check photos, but donating money to a cause in exchange for a PR opportunity does not demonstrate the depth of community impact that entices modern consumers. While 90% of U.S. consumers say they would switch brands to one associated with a cause, given comparable price and quality, 70% of Americans find companies’ communication about their social responsibility efforts confusing, according to Engage for Good.

To mitigate confusion, the aforementioned Clearwater leads with its impact work in its website’s main navigation. Rather than highlighting products or services, the first navigation label is “Force for Good,” offering visitors a chance to learn more about “What We Believe,” “Transparency” and “Community Impact” stories. The stories go far beyond the proverbial big check, sharing the challenges and triumphs of real people in the communities that Clearwater serves.

Our friend Adam Schwartz is not shy about touting the benefits of cooperatives. “Cooperatives are the best business model on earth!” he asserts, and he really means it. If it were up to him, credit union marketers would be shouting these cooperative operating principles from the rooftops.

If you’re looking for a way forward that doesn’t involve shouting, a website refresh that includes at least a few of the strategies outlined above is a great place to start.

Hannah talking on the phone