Starting from zero: Marketing without a budget

Is marketing a luxury you feel you can’t afford? For many smaller credit unions – and indeed for some larger ones too – budgets are often stretched ultra-thin these days. Marketing might look like one area on the balance sheet that seems relatively easy and pain-free to cut when things are tight.

Of course, as a marketer, I would fundamentally disagree with such an approach. Essentially marketing is about communicating and extending your brand, developing those shared beliefs that connect you with your members and that re-affirm their faith in you. It’s about how you interact with members and how you make them feel. It’s the story behind your business name that is the real reason your members come to you as opposed to your competitors.

In short, marketing is the life-blood of any business, profit or non-profit, by attracting new customers, retaining old ones and increasing the sales that are essential for future growth. Without a marketing strategy, businesses can quickly get a little lost, becoming unclear who their customers are, what they want and what to do to keep or grow them.

So I would never advocate a stop, or even a pause, in marketing activity but I can see there are times when you have to be smart with your money. Fortunately there are plenty of things you can do that will add value with little or no financial cost to your credit union.

I was reminded of this recently when talking to someone who has just helped set up a new credit union. With little money for promotion or PR, the starting point was always “How can we do this with a zero budget?” And it’s amazing what you can achieve by working from this premise.

Take PR. If you’ve got a new product or service, it’s relatively easy to generate your own news stories and to file these with the local media.  That’s not just the local press, there’s radio, regional and community TV, and the ever-growing number of online news outlets. They are all hungry for a good story and if you can make their life easier by providing one, it’s a win-win all round.

Key to this is understanding the media’s own target market (who is their typical reader/viewer?) and writing something that will appeal to them and which, of course, also reflects your own brand values. You also need to presume a degree of ignorance in potential readers – avoid jargon and assumptions! – as well follow the accepted principles of being legal, decent and honest.

Of course it is easier when you have something newsworthy to say. There isn’t always a new product launch to shout about or a key milestone passed. So what do you do then to keep your credit union’s name in the public arena?

This is a time when case studies can come into their own. A real life example of how a member has achieved a goal with the credit union’s services can make an excellent feature and is a great way for non-members to understand the benefits of using your business. It’s also a neat opportunity to demonstrate how your credit union can make a tangible difference and how your solution is better than your competitors. Over time you’ll find you build up a catalogue of brand “stories” that also clearly illustrate the ethos behind your business.

Alternatively your credit union may choose to comment on current issues.  Not everyone is comfortable giving their views on the latest legislation or a breaking news story. But if you can establish a reputation for giving considered opinions that support the position, or underline the value, of credit unions in industry or social issues, you may find yourself in demand for comment as reporters try to assess the implications of evolving news stories.

PR aside, there are other ways to pursue low or no cost marketing. If budgets preclude a full blown promotional campaign, there may be cheaper ways to advertise your newest product or service. Effective use of social media is a prime example of a potentially free advertising medium, although the savings in financial terms need to be balanced against the incremental cost in time. You also need to be careful to strike the right balance with engaging content (not just a hard sell) that links back to your brand values.

Other possibilities include partnering up with other like-minded organisations or affiliates to run competitions or joint promotional activities, holding open house or educational sessions and getting involved in community events.

If you are lucky in having a little bit of budget, consider its application wisely. For example a couple of colour ads in a newspaper can easily cost the same as something with more longevity such as a promotional calendar which can give you visibility over a full twelve months and the opportunity to highlight a range of key messages rather than a one-off sales campaign.

Social media advertising and “boosts” are other low cost ways to test a target market and, using the various free analytical tools available, can be measured for their effectiveness.

Of course, the unique selling proposition of credit unions is that they are member-owned organisations and this should never be overlooked when considering marketing strategy. Quite simply your members are likely to be your greatest marketing resource. It is they who can deliver the Holy Grail of marketing tools – word of mouth recommendation.

By making sure your members have a positive experience and a strong level of engagement – both of which should come naturally to a credit union – your members can become your greatest advocates. However, on the basis that more people will tell friends and family of a bad experience rather than a good one, you may need to remind them to share their good fortune with a specific Recommend a Friend recruitment drive or another form of communication!

It’s also worth remembering that your members are likely to have a lot of diverse skills. You may well have a creative copywriter or a budding graphic artist among your customer base who might be happy to help out on a volunteer basis. Others may be able to donate a prize for promotional competition or help man a stand at a community event.

Once your credit union has reached a certain size and stage, it’s likely that professional marketing assistance will be needed to help manage communications, expand the reach and capacity of services offered and ensure the credit union can compete with other larger financial institutions.   However any independent experience of marketing you have gained will not be wasted – a good agency will learn from your past successes and failures, and you will have a better understanding of what they are seeking to achieve.

Terry Van Ryhn

Terry Van Ryhn

Terry has over 30 years’ international experience in marketing communications, delivering top-calibre solutions to major clients across the globe via agencies in Detroit, Cape Town, London and the Isle of ... Web: Details