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Digital Delivery and Marketing, 2021 Edition

Man working from home on laptop

The pandemic exposed major weaknesses in online banking, but nimbel CUs have discovered new marketing and service opportunities.

Over the past several years, credit unions were already ramping up digital marketing and 24/7 digital banking access. But when the pandemic hit, they suddenly found that a safe, seamless remote experience was the only good option for serving members.
“Like many businesses, credit unions were initially concerned about the impact to business
fundamentals, such as loan losses, along with member safety and ease of access to their services,” notes Jedd Taylor Sr., director/digital strategy at CUES Supplier member Franklin Madison, Franklin, Tennessee. “Member communication, with messages of care and how to bank remotely, also took the place of traditional marketing. Above all, staying quiet was not an option.

“While credit unions were already moving to a digital-first experience, the pandemic forced a lot of members to figure out how to self-serve—and many will continue to use this option,” adds Taylor. “Credit unions that can deliver a quality, convenient digital experience as well as help members plan for the future and manage life’s uncertainties will emerge as leaders.” 

Terrill Herbig, president of The BA Group, Northfield, Minnesota, says the messaging and delivery channels credit unions choose must be in tune with the market and public sentiment—but that doesn’t mean going dark during tough times. “Having been through the Great Recession—and seeing the detrimental effects of credit unions laying low or waiting out uncertain times—we advised clients not to abdicate their voice to their field of membership. Remember, it’s always easier to keep the momentum going versus restarting from a standstill,” Herbig says.

As the shutdowns lengthened, credit union messaging and product focus shifted to “distress products,” such as personal loans with smaller loan amounts, shorter terms and expanded credit guidelines, payment skips and financial counseling. Herbig notes that these products can easily be made “shelf ready” so credit unions could pull them out again should members fall on hard times in the future.

“The beauty is not having to change the rates, terms and other details of the loan,” he explains. “Even after the pandemic, this tactic will be an excellent way for credit unions to change up their creatives and messaging for loans to address current needs with minimal effort.

“The advertising infrastructure should be in place to maintain a consistent presence and be ready to adapt to changing market factors,” Herbig adds.

CUs have already applied that concept to existing loan products in the midst of the pandemic. “Personal loans also became ‘home office’ or ‘home school loans,’ covering everything from technology purchases to home office furniture,” says Herbig. “[Recreational vehicle] and home equity products became hot as well compared to previous years, as the ‘staycation’ replaced long-distance vacations, and home improvements and repairs became a priority.”

Taking a macro view of economic uncertainty—including assisting essential workers and members displaced from manufacturing jobs during the pandemic—can also bring to light new opportunities for credit unions, offers James Robert Lay, founder and CEO of the Digital Growth Institute, Houston, Texas.

“People are living and working longer, and job displacements will continue to happen,” notes Lay, whether due to the pandemic or future economic and workforce shifts. “The right digital tools can keep a credit union in touch with these shifting demographics and stay transformational to their changing needs… while providing helpful guidance and recommendations based on individuals’ personal spending behavior.”

Meeting member needs at the onset of the pandemic required an unprecedented level of agility. “I think in many ways, we amazed ourselves in how quickly we could pivot and move faster than previously thought,” reflects Doug Brown, SVP/general manager/digital banking for NCR Corporation, Atlanta, an enterprise technology provider for restaurants, retailers and banks. “During the pandemic, marketing teams gained invaluable insight into the types of content members interact with and can use the data collected to provide relevant marketing material.

“Today, blanketed marketing campaigns are interpreted as spam by members and basically ignored,”Brown adds. “Members demand a personalized experience that includes relevant content when and where they need it most.”

Not surprisingly, the adoption of digital products and services increased substantially in the past year. App download rates increased by as much as 56% for some credit unions when COVID-19 hit, Brown reports. In addition, millions more dollars were moved via mobile apps. “Mobile banking volume increased from about 55% to 70-75% during the COVID crisis,” he says. “And during the week of April 13-17, 2020, we saw an increase of 260% to 320% over prior peak activity.”

$3.2 billion Canvas Credit Union, Denver, is among those CUs that experienced notable
growth in the digital space. Through November 2020, the credit union experienced a 6% increase in online banking registrations over the same period in 2019. Money movement options (transfers and peer-to-peer transfers) also grew 8% year-over-year, and digital payments grew 13% year-over-year.

“This growth is exciting, especially with payments, because it demonstrates deepening engagement as members use us in more robust ways,” says Tansley Stearns, chief people and strategy officer for Canvas CU, CO. 

“Employees are your greatest advocates. Beyond the branch’s physical boundaries, let them promote 
the credit union to their online and social communities.”

— James Robert Lay

“With this uptick of overall usage and new users, marketing teams have had to flex their muscles and move quickly to create content that alerted customers to both new and existing features,” he notes. “Messages included ... tutorials for new users, alerts to enroll in online bill-pay or geolocation notifications with updated branch hours or closures.”


Though such rapid digital adoption has created opportunities for credit unions, vulnerabilities were also revealed during the pandemic. “Since digital banking has been historically limited to transactional selfservice, credit unions weren’t equipped to drive robust marketing and sales in the context of personal service,” reflects Lee Wetherington, director of strategic insight at Jack Henry, Monett, Missouri. “As a result, transforming self-service digital banking into full-service digital banking (including sales) has become an existential imperative for credit unions of all sizes everywhere.

“Credit unions have traditionally relied upon their branches to drive the sale of products and services face-to-face,” maintains Wetherington. “For example, members might see marketing ads in the digital channel, but many if not most of those ads were not actionable end-to-end inside the digital channel. Rather, they pointed members to branches or call centers to complete registration or activation of new accounts or services. The pandemic exposed these shortcomings in completing digital marketing calls-to-action."

Consequently, the pandemic created an urgency for credit unions to advance their digital marketing. This includes making all marketing ads actionable, having marketing and sales happen instantly and conversationally in the context of personal service, at the moment of need, and making marketing and sales happen consistently and seamlessly across online banking, mobile channels and credit union’s website.

All of these needs require robust digital marketing capabilities, stresses Wetherington, including integrated member relationship marketing, content management system and ad engines that allow nontechnical credit union staff to easily create, launch, track and manage marketing campaigns. Staff should also be able to perform the segmentation necessary to target ads to specific members or prospects.


“Nothing will make a credit union realize how much improvement their website or app needs like everybody trying to use it at once,” says Katie Hamilton, digital marketing manager for The BA Group. “The online experience needs to be just as good as the in-branch one.”

Hamilton references an April 2020 McKinsey Financial Insights Pulse Survey, which found, she notes, that “15% and 14% of consumers will, respectively, use more online banking and mobile banking services, versus 5% and 8% that will use less once the COVID-19 crisis ends. That survey also shows in-branch transactions, phone transactions and video chats will respectively decrease by 18%, 16% and 20%.” The key is to focus on a flexible digital infrastructure, perhaps implementing a new or upgraded website while targeting digital convenience, says Hamilton. “Also, remove internal hurdles like cumbersome (or non-existent) online loan applications [or a] lack of payment research tools (calculators), among others.”

Digital options have also come to the fore in member communications. “Call centers were overwhelmed as lobbies closed, so members reached out via Facebook messaging for issues,” Herbig says. “This highlighted the importance of digital communication between member service and the credit union’s social media platforms.”

Credit unions should conduct a digital member experience audit, advises Hamilton, and at a minimum:

  • offer online applications and pre-approvals if they are not already available;
  • improve online and mobile banking apps to include services previously only offered in-person;
  • build specific landing pages for products to improve the user experience, page quality scores and ad performance;
  • allocate more budget to digital and social media ads instead of in-branch advertising; and
  • target existing members with relevant ads to gain additional business from those with existing brand awareness.

"Marketing abhors a vacuum, if you're not out there your competition is."

- Terrill Herbig


Herbig suggests that all signs point to an increase in digital ad spend. “Last year we saw a decrease, but 2021 should be a year to regain momentum. Display advertising spend looks to increase by roughly 26% (eMarketer, July 2020) and social network ads by 21% (eMarketer, October 2020).” The takeaway? 2021 will be a crowded marketplace to attract your potential members’ attention, and credit unions should adjust their budgets accordingly.

Hamilton expects a larger focus on local search engine optimization as well, particularly as members look forward to businesses reopening. “It’s an important part of optimizing your online presence and a key factor in competing with both local and national brands. For brands that may not have the budget for search ads, focusing on local SEO and ‘near me’ searches can help a credit union rank better organically.”

A good starting point for improving local SEO is to create a Google My Business
listing and perform local keyword research for content. “Beyond that, optimizing for voice search will further improve local SEO and ranking,” notes Hamilton. “Voice search, in particular, is growing in popularity as more than 41% of adults use it daily, and this year more than 50% of smartphone users will engage with this feature.”

Lay points out that the big players will keep investing in advertising, especially digital. “JPMorgan Chase, for instance, spent $2.79 billion on [all] marketing in 2019. That’s more than what Apple or Netflix spent on marketing—and larger than the majority of credit union assets for that matter,” he explains. “While some credit unions may be cutting their budgets, now is the time to invest in digital to stay competitive.”

However, Lay maintains that the digital ad game is wavering in some ways, most notably due to ad blockers, fraud in the ad space and third-party cookies going away in 2022.
“As a result, a credit union must diversify digital marketing budgets into other channels and strategies, like content that can directly improve organic SEO ranking, while ensuring digital conversion tracking methods provide a positive ROI for all channels,” says Lay.

Lay also sees a resurgence of blogging and email marketing— complemented by enhanced video and infographics—reinforcing credit union brands. “It’s using valuable content for the long game with digital,” he stresses. “To illustrate, $340 million Louisiana Federal Credit Union,La Place, Louisiana, has devoted significant resources to their email and blogging content. By offering valuable content and real member stories, the credit union saw ten times the traffic to its blog in 2020, with 55% of those hits coming from organic searches.”


Canvas CU recently added another pillar to its vision statement: “known for ease of use.” “It was imperative prior to the pandemic; now, the demand for an easier, digitally forward approach to service delivery and engagement has increased exponentially,” says Stearns. “It starts with consumer research, extending through the brand funnel as the consumer moves towards loyalty. Credit unions should strive to be a trusted advisor, and that role must include digital touchpoints and options.”

Digital is getting more personal. “The ability to interact online is growing,” observes Taylor. “There’s no question that the more you know about your members, the more effective your marketing will be. Data can help match the right message to the right member.”

With companies collecting and using more data, Taylor believes consumer privacy will also continue to be a hot topic. “And because regulation typically follows advances in technology, it’s important for credit unions to keep their privacy and information security practices up to date.”

Members will continue to use digital channels more often, giving marketers more data to leverage. Referencing the Salesforce 2020 State of Marketing Report,Wetherington says, “Marketers have long recognized the importance of data in understanding and engaging customers as individuals. And only 37% of marketers are satisfied with the quality of consumer data they have, and 34% with their data integration efforts.”

Salesforce also reports that the median number of customer data sources used in 2020 was 10, a figure that is projected to increase to 15 in 2021. “These sources include transactional data, declared interest/preferences, known digital identities, offline identities and anonymized digital identities,” says Wetherington. “By better understanding the member’s journey and being there at the moment of need, credit unions can create their own first-party data, which should result in smarter, long-term strategies.”

When building your credit union’s digital strategy, “it’s not so much what other financial institutions will do—it’s about what the world will do. And it’s the world (Amazon, Google and others) your members will compare you to,” says Randy Schultz, VP/marketing for CUES Supplier member Strum,Seattle.

“Credit unions that can deliver a quality, convenient digital
experience as well as help members plan for the future and
manage life’s uncertainties will emerge as leaders.”
— Jedd Taylor Sr


“Watch for a recovery phase—helping staff, members and communities move into a new chapter,” adds Schultz. “Here, CUs can lean into their core principles and continue what they’ve been doing to support members, essential workers and DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) initiatives.”

Two great examples to consider are the “Send a Message of Hope” campaign
by $749 NIH Federal Credit Union Rockville, Maryland, and the “&Essential” campaign
from $277 million Tucoemas Federal Credit Union, Visalia, California.
“NIH FCU built a special site in a matter of weeks, inviting anyone (members and consumers) to post inspiring messages of gratitude to healthcare workers and first responders,” says Schultz. “As video or photo messages are posted, they’re shared with hospitals, healthcare clinics and more. Messages might have been a child’s artwork or tribute song. When the frontline workers took a short break or got home from their shift, they could visit the site and get a dose of hope from all who contributed.”

Similarly, Tucoemas FCU was looking to do something unique not only for its members but to celebrate essential workers of every kind. Its “&Essential” campaign was built around the truth that every essential worker is more than just a job. “They’re mothers, fathers, friends and colleagues,” explains Schultz. “They’re strong and resilient, focused, and essential—all at the same time. The campaign was also made available to any credit union across the country that wanted to use all or part of it to celebrate essential workers. “None of this should stop,” he stresses. “It’s how people are feeling right now, and it’s not going away just because it’s 2021.”


The pandemic brought financial wellness to the forefront of members’ minds, notes Brown, so continuing to educate, advise and make relevant and timely offers will be critical. “Moving forward, credit unions need to go beyond simple cross-sell opportunities and embrace a strategy of empathetic help for members rebuilding their financial health.

“Empathetic help may encompass a push notification for a potential overdraft for an upcoming bill that is scheduled or an alert that a member is nearing their grocery budget. Credit unions could even go as far as recommending a change in spending habits or advice on how members could pay off credit cards, school loans, etc., and not pay as much interest on these types of debts.”

Stearns believes that the financial service brands that win in the next five years will support the consumer’s well-being and safety as the impacts of COVID-19 continue. “A project we embarked on before the pandemic was a wellness research study with Filene Research Institute. Because of the connection between someone’s overall well-being and finances, we wanted a vivid, data-driven picture of our members’ well-being compared to,” she explains. “We were thrilled to learn our members are ‘more well’ across the spectrum of social, health and financial well-being measures.”

Lay suggests looking for the innovators among your staff to act as influencers and promote such financial wellness services: “Employees are your greatest advocates. Beyond the branch’s physical boundaries, let them promote the credit union to their online and social communities. In the future, I see their personal brands developing to support the [credit union] brand. Remember, people trust people.”

He concludes that there will always be economic challenges and times of displacement or doubt. “Credit unions have a tremendous opportunity to use member and employee digital communications to guide people beyond their financial stress towards a bigger, better and brighter future.”

Stephanie Schwenn Sebring established and managed the marketing departments for three CUs and served in mentorship roles before launching her business. As owner of Fab Prose & Professional Writing she assists credit unions, industry suppliers and any company wanting great content and a clear brand voice. Follow her on Twitter @fabprose.