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What To Focus On In 2021 and Beyond


Marketing planning itemsAmy Herbig, The BA Group CEO


 Amy Herbig
 The BA Group

How Marketing Strategies And Approaches Need To Shift

As published on

As we navigate through the last two months of a year that has been defined by such phrases as “unprecedented,” “the new normal,” and simply “it’s 2020,” it is challenging to focus on the future.

But we must plan because the credit union industry is categorized as an “essential service,” deemed necessary to remain not only open, but relevant, nimble and useful for a nation that’s grappling with what is yet to come.

In the blink of an eye in mid-March, we found ourselves halting all intended plans for the year as we were forced to take a detour through unchartered territory. We went from being an industry somewhat good at providing virtual financial services to needing to become experts at it, and fast. We stopped focusing on spring campaigns and turned our marketing efforts to round-the-clock and rapidly changing member and community communication wherein we provided messages of reassurance that we are still here for those we serve. And at times, we struggled to stand behind those words and take them to a new level, striving to live to the fullest extent of our industry’s mantra, “people helping people.”    

To sound like a broken record—it has been quite the year, to say the least. But I’ve always believed that when hardships are shared, we learn valuable lessons and can choose new opportunities to explore.

How to Approach Planning for 2021 and Marketing’s Role In It All

Like many frequent travelers, my in-person visits to credit unions around the nation have completely halted and in their place are phone, video and email conversations with CEOs and heads of marketing. We have been engaging in necessary discussions including how to shift gears to provide members with resources and some relief for their monthly bills and payments to the credit union.

More recently the discussion has begun on how to even begin to think about planning for next year when we're lucky if we can foresee just three to four weeks out.

Regarding the latter, I have said to pretty much everyone I've spoken to: If ever there was a time for a credit union to think differently and really start to get in the game around how marketing should be done, now is the most opportune time to do so.

In early October, my team and I had a 2021 marketing planning session with one of our credit union partners in Minnesota. We did so following social-distancing protocol that included a few of us in person spread out six feet at a large conference table while everyone else joined via Zoom.

Around the two-and-a-half hour mark we all realized we were having a planning session unlike previous years. We had yet to discuss any specific product or service, what our marketing calendar was going to include and the new campaigns we might want to run in the year.

Rather, and quite organically, we found ourselves taking a deeper look by discussing who they are as a credit union, what they truly stand for, how we've been able to demonstrate that to members over the last several months, and how we were going to continue to showcase this. In short, we knew we needed to raise the bar while doing a complete 180 shift of our marketing approach for next year.

Don’t Plan Without Data

Take note that this conversation didn't start out of the blue. We had developed and were following an agenda that listed specific topics we wanted to cover with the goal of walking away from the meeting with marketing strategies and plans for 2021 starting to take shape. The reason the conversation was able to go so naturally in this direction was because we had data.

And by data I don't just mean black and white numbers (though we had those too). We had the history of online keyword searches we had been tracking for this particular credit union all year long, specifically during the start of and since the pandemic.

We had analytics about website page hits, time on sight and conversions (i.e. actions people took on certain webpages like clicking an “Apply Now” button).

We had social media engagement information showing us what posts and topics were most popular and had the highest engagement.

We could also see where members were spending money based on online banking, mobile banking, bill pay, debit and credit card activity.

The Power of Search Results

Looking at search data is an important way to learn about your members. For example, prior to March, we had seen searches for “low rate mortgage loans” and “how to create a budget” but now we are seeing more specific searches such as “Can a single mom get a mortgage?” and “Calculate my monthly loan payments.”

Over the years, search engines have evolved from simple keyword searches and incomplete phrases to complete sentences providing precise insight into a person’s internal dialogue at a given moment. Just the other day I Googled, “Why can't I get the header removed on a second page of my Word document?” Sure enough, the Google bots were able to answer my question with several articles and links to credible websites on the first page of my search results. Brilliant. Efficient. And always a little eerie, but we tolerate it because it makes our complex and busy lives just a little simpler.

So with your own Googling habits and expectations for results pinned in your mind, let's take a brief look into those exact keyword search examples I provided above.

The person who entered in the search of “Can a single mom get a mortgage?” is likely a single mom herself. There are a few things we don’t know about her, but what we DO know after a bit more research across our digital data resources is that she resides within the field of membership market area this credit union serves, and has likely been exposed to certain marketing efforts we've targeted. From this information alone, we're able to look further into the frequency of such similar keyword searches to begin to connect the dots as to whether or not this is an infrequent keyword search query or if we have a number of single moms—existing members or not—who are within the field of membership. From this data, we’re discussing targeting single moms and others with similar demographic and geographic profiles with mortgage education, resources and programs in 2021.

Regarding the second example I listed above, we are finding the words “calculate” and “calculators” are becoming widely used in keyword searches, often paired with terms such as “budgeting” and “loan payments.” While we have seen such searches in the past, the frequency and popularity started to increase shortly after the pandemic started.

From this awareness, we implemented new, robust calculator widgets on the credit union's website and promoted the new calculators within marketing campaigns, newsletters and social media efforts. Additionally, the credit union’s staff use the new website calculators when talking with members face-to-face, or via video chat and shared screen. Employees find them to be a very useful, relevant tool and have had a number of members express gratitude toward the credit union for providing the resource.

Stop Assuming and Start Asking

As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “Change is the only constant in life.” You got that right, Heraclitus. And as we head into planning for 2021, we can’t deny that change has been and will continue to be dramatic and all around us, primarily with our members. Their needs have changed. Their focus on what’s important—and what isn’t—has changed. What appeals to them has significantly changed. Overall, their lives have changed.

As credit unions, we are primed to be the financial partner that can focus on what our members are looking for and need. However, we have to also be able to fulfill on their needs.

How do we do this?

For starters, we stop assuming we know what our members are looking for, need, and use and we start asking questions, searching for the answers in every possible situation. Two key questions every credit union should be asking are:

“What are people looking for and in need of that we may be able to offer that no other financial institution can?”

“Why do we have core values if we’re not living up to them, revolving our credit union around them in every possible way?”

You can use member surveys and have staff ask questions when interacting directly with members. But those tools should be just a portion of your data research. The power and knowledge gained from digital tools and analytics is the real-time answer-generating and insight-providing resource far too many credit unions are either not fully leveraging, or devoting enough resources to.

Don’t Market in the Dark: Let Data Shine the Way

What is driving our strategic planning and approach to marketing plans for 2021 with a number of our credit union partners is leading with data – all the data we can get our hands on, letting the data show us the way. However, and quite frankly, not all our credit union partners have the data-gathering resources in place for us to fully utilize. This year the conversations around planning are including how they currently use data and improvements needed so we’re no longer marketing in the dark.

Starting now and as 2021 comes about, every credit union should be looking at their current and potential data and analytic resources (no matter their asset size), and begin the dialogue around how to utilize what they, what’s missing, and how to bring resources together in order to paint a better picture of their current and targeted membership.

This isn’t about auto loans as low as 1.99% APR marketed in the spring and fall. It’s about reading and dissecting the stories being told within various data and analytic resources. From there you derive your strategic marketing plans and tactics, marketing budget allocations, and where to expend the time, energy and resources in order to yield the desired results and reach the credit union’s annual goals.

Knowledge is power, and with that power can come proactive action for any credit union ready to realize and embrace the new way to view, manage and implement marketing. Afterall, we are the financial experts out to help other people – and the insight and information to truly understand the help people need has never been more at our fingertips than it is right now.

The only thing holding a credit union back from leveraging all this is the credit union itself. Don’t stand in your own way, because the longer you do, the harder it’ll be to catch up to the other financial institutions who have been taking this approach for years. And they have no plans to slow down or stop—ever.