Move over 2020 marketing plan and say “hello” to the new communication-during-a-crisis agenda

As the shock of the coronavirus pandemic has settled in, those marketing plans we all so lovingly crafted last fall are now completely irrelevant. Give them a kiss. Set them gently aside. Now, let’s take a look at strategies and tactics which best position your credit union as your members’ trusted partner.

Because, let’s face it, the target audience is now current account holders. Growing membership right now needs to take a back seat. Focus on taking care of your loyal members. Getting people to switch financial institutions during a stable economy is hard enough, the likelihood of switching during uncertain times is pretty low indeed. So let’s go for increasing trust and loyalty, and maybe gain some wallet share through these efforts.

What To Communicate NOW

This phase is one I’m defining by the stay-at-home mandates, which will likely go through May. Even if official stay-at-home mandates are lifted before then, a lot of people will still chose to work from home to reduce their exposure and contagion.

What are your members going through during this phase?

Thinking about your members’ situation will inform our marketing messages. During this phase, this NOW, the shock of the upheaval has settled in but not worn off. Account holders are still getting used to limited branch/account access. Many, but not all, are feeling drastic economic affects due to lay offs, reduced income, etc.

What are members needing from their credit union?

First and foremost, members want to make sure their money is safe. Then they want to make sure they can access that money as needed. They are looking for stability in the operational aspects. If your organization is finding ways to serve the community, let your members know. These positive messages will boost their mood and their confidence in your credit union. They do NOT want to hear about new products or services which aren’t related to their own situation. Discontinue any automated messages, including direct mail drip campaigns.

Some specific communication ideas for this phase:

  • Reassuring messages that their financial institution – their money – is stable and in a safe place (both literally and figuratively)
  • Specific messages about how to access their accounts
  • Options for easing financial difficulties – emphasize whatever special products or rate reductions you might currently have in your product portfolio (skip-a-pay, reduced rate personal loans, etc.)

How to communicate these messages?

Be as personal as you can. Some members have stable jobs, already enjoy digital services, and may not be affected as much as a member who usually works for a restaurant and cashes their check in a branch every Friday. So the more personal you can make your outreach, the stronger those loyalty ties will get. Use member data to craft really specific messages. Then send them through email, direct mail, video chats, online banking messaging . . . however they usually interface with you.

What To Communicate NEXT

This phase will likely include the summer and fall of 2020. People will start moving around more (given that health precautions are in place), but those who were laid-off or furloughed will start to really feel the pinch, as will the businesses they usually frequent (restaurants, grocery stores, retailers, even landlords, etc.)

What are your members going through during this phase?

Those who have experienced a reduction in income will likely be stressing over their financial situation. We can imagine they might be asking themselves “How will I pay the bills?” or “Which bills get delayed?”

Even members who haven’t seen a drastic income impact are looking for as little disruption to their financial situation as possible. Maintaining the status quo is a big goal at this point.

What are they needing from their credit union?

If we agree some members will be in financial trouble, they will certainly be looking for assistance from their financial institution. This assistance could come in many forms, from allowing delayed payments, to reduced fees on certain products, low interest loans, and such. Account holders will need a comforting touch in the messaging, an empathetic ear when they call in, an understanding tone from their credit union. This will likely be the first time many members have been in this situation – they might be ashamed and embarrassed – the approach you take will have a huge influence on the long-term relationship with that member. Err on the side of grace.

Some specific marketing and communications ideas for this phase:

  • Create and distribute financial well-being content – budgeting, efficient use of stimulus checks, impacts of taking on debt, etc.
  • Announce any new features you’ve been able to develop (lower fees, zero interest lending products, delayed payments, etc)
  • Most members will have adapted to the changes in branch/account access by now, but it will be good to continue communications about your digital products, just not as much as in the “Now” phase.

How to communicate these messages?

Continue to work with personal messaging as much as possible so you can match up those in need with the appropriate financial product or benefit. For instance, that laid-off restaurant worker might need the delayed payments while your corporate-vice-president member might appreciate more than usual time with your financial advisor staff.

Use your own system-wide marketing channels (eStatements, website banner images, etc.) to spread the word about digital products, zero-interest or other special efforts.

What to Communicate When It’s Nebulous

So you could say anything beyond tomorrow is pretty hazy or nebulous, but for the sake of this article, I’m defining the Nebulous phase as beyond the fall of 2020. Let’s take a look at what you might want to be communicating at the end of this year and the beginning of 2021.

Typically, the fourth quarter is full of credit card usage and holiday loan promotions. This year’s holiday season will definitely be very different for your members and your marketing messages need to reflect the situation.

What are your members going through during this phase?

Your account holders will likely feel the stress of keeping holiday traditions at least at last year’s levels, even if their finances aren’t at the same level. The economy will likely be in the third quarter of economic decline, fully in a recession. Some economists say growth could rebound in the fourth quarter of 2020, but most aren’t quite so optimistic.

That growth in the fourth quarter might be a result of holiday spending, but at what costs to your members? To your bottom line? With incomes down, will members be stretching their credit resources? Credit card usage in a healthy economy is definitely a good income source for financial institutions, but we might want to temper usage promotions. Consider what might happen if delinquencies start to overpower the system.

What are members needing from their credit union?

To help stem what could be a rising wave of delinquencies, step up financial education efforts. Contact members who are showing signs of damaging their credit worthiness. Even if it’s a simple call or email to just see how they are doing – no judgement about their spending habits, just a preemptive check-in. This could trigger a moment of clarity for your member and at the very least lets them know their credit union cares.

Some specific marketing and communications ideas for this phase:

  • Continue with financial well-being content. As many people start to feel more comfortable in a (hopefully) more stable economic environment, the urge to spend will be hard to stop.
  • Coach your members to resist spending beyond their means as pent up desires to travel, shop, eat out, etc. start to rise. 
  • Helpful products and services should continue to be at the forefront of your communications.

How to communicate these messages?

Personal connections through email, phone calls, etc. are a great way to check-in with your more loyal members. And keep using your own assets (social media, websites, email lists, direct mail) to communicate general financial well-being tips, and products related to protecting your members’ finances

What About Advertising?

Did you notice I didn’t include any paid media in any of these phases? Using television or radio takes your messaging to a broader audience, which can be a good thing in a good economy, but might not be the best way to spend your budget in a bad economy. Trying to persuade people to undergo a financial institution change when everything else in their life is chaos would be a hard sell indeed. So use your own marketing assets to help your current members. And just think, that loyalty you’re earning by doing so can be a great foundation for earning referrals!

Don’t Delay Planning

With the high rate of change in our daily lives, it is easy to get caught up in the here and now. But take time to create a plan for the Next and Nebulous so you have something from which to start. It’s okay that the plan changes – heck, PLAN on the plan changing – but having no plan is an easy way for chaos to creep in and take over. Instead use these guidelines to provide meaningful messaging to your members and you’ll be ready to head off that chaos.

Jackie Brown

Jackie Brown

Jackie Brown fell in love with credit unions in 2005 when hired to start up an in-house advertising agency at one of the nation’s top 30 credit unions. With ... Web: Details