How many CUs should be blogging?

It has been fascinating to follow discussion on why more credit unions are not blogging several years after blogging became somewhat mainstream. The earliest reference I read was Trey Reeme’s post on CUES’ Skybox blog, one and a half years ago. More recently, Tim McAlpine in Vancouver asks CUs if they will blog for the money if not the love, which then got Shevled by the Shevlinator. The following message is partly aimed in response to Ron, who I think needs a trip to America’s CU Museum in Manchester, New Hampshire. (It’s only 51 minutes away from your office, Ron…. looking forward to joining you there on April 5 for BarCampBank NewEngland.)

Ron has some outstanding points to consider in developing an online strategy. Yes, a marketing person should always consider the broader strategic picture and figure out if/how blogging may or may not fit into that. Especially if you work at a large bank, where ROI is watched like a hawk.

But Ron is himself missing the bigger picture when it comes to credit unions. Namely, what is the purpose of a credit union? Why were they founded? These questions are even more on the forefront of my mind since I made a presentation last week to Lehigh Valley Educators CU in Allentown, Pennsylvania on the history of the credit union movement, and how their credit union fits into that amazing one hundred year history. (Yes, this is our centennial year in the United States.)

What is the major difference between banks and credit unions, besides lower loan rates, higher savings rates, lower or no fees, etc. (which is not even true in many cases nowadays)? It’s the self-governance, the fact that I personally can be elected to the Board of Directors. Since the Board equals .00001% of the total membership, most people never actually get to serve on the Board. But in theory, the Board is there to serve my needs and best interests. Prior to the internet age, there was no practical way that Average Jane Concerned Member could communicate with Elected Board Representative Wiseone. Now, via blogs, not only is that possible, it is possible to hold those conversations out in the open. Why wouldn’t Board members want to invite participation from their members? Why wouldn’t they want to discuss policy openly? Why wouldn’t you want to find out from the members themselves what it is they want in THEIR financial institution?

Ginny Brady is doing that with the Boardcast. But she is the lone voice out of 8,000+ CU boards. (Multiply that by an average of about 9 directors per board, and she is one in 72,000.)

It’s not easy being a Board member. It’s an unpaid position, and mostly thankless. Most members don’t realize that.

Most members feel disenfranchised from the institution. They feel it’s faceless, and that “it” doesn’t care about them. So why should they keep their accounts there or feel anything special towards it? By keeping policy decisions behind closed doors, Boards and CUs are perpetuating that the institution doesn’t really care about its members.

BY OPENING UP THE DISCUSSION, BY INVITING PARTICIPATION FROM THE VERY MEMBERS THAT YOU PURPORT TO SERVE, YOU ARE GIVING YOUR MEMBERS A VOICE. YOU ARE LETTING THEM KNOW THAT THEY ARE IMPORTANT TO YOU, THAT THEIR OPINIONS, CONCERNS, AND DESIRES COUNT FOR SOMETHING.

You want loyalty from your members? You can’t purchase loyalty. You can only earn it. You want your members to have a relationship with you? That starts with having a relationship with your members.

So how many CUs should be blogging? 100% of them.

(Credit unions that are planning on converting to a bank charter may be excused.)

Let me go out even further out on a limb. Trey and the rest of the gang at Trabian have always been very diplomatic when it comes to the question of blogging and credit unions. They have been very polite by saying you should determine if your culture is READY to blog. I’m going to flip it around.

If your culture has devolved so far from what the original mission of the CU movement is all about, IF YOUR MEMBERS AND EMPLOYEES CAN’T TELL THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN WHAT IT MEANS TO BELONG TO YOU VERSUS BEING A CUSTOMER OF THE BANK DOWN THE STREET, IT’S TIME TO CHANGE YOUR CULTURE, THROW OPEN THE DOORS OF TRUTH, LIGHT AND DIALOGUE, AND ENGAGE YOUR MEMBERS IN OPEN AND HONEST CONVERSATION.

IN OTHER WORDS, IF YOUR CU CULTURE FEELS LIKE IT ISN’T READY TO START A BLOG, YOU NEED TO CHANGE YOUR CULTURE TO BE IN A PLACE WHERE YOU ARE READY TO BLOG.

Now having written some inflammatory remarks, I will back off that statement in three regards: One, because blogs are ‘hot’, I am seeing and hearing talk about blogs where a different form of media/communication is more appropriate, such as an online discussion site. Two, when I say blogs, I really mean open communication with your members. If you are still small enough or still have a focused FOM, and are in regular communication with your members via face-to-face discussions, or other channels, then you don’t need to have a blog. Three, blogging is indeed NOT a be-all, end-all panacea. It’s just one tool in a marketing toolkit. There is still a place for traditional media, as this Fast Company article on how trends happen points out.

But for all the CUs out there that are not growing, that are floundering with a lack of membership growth, that have ‘gone community’, that are looking for direction, you need to start communicating with your members, and not marketing ‘at’ them. And blogs are an exponentially less expensive way of doing that than focus groups.

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22 Responses to “How many CUs should be blogging?”

  1. Gene Blishen Says:

    Morris,
    Your point about communicating with members is excellent and a necessary one. What term do they use now? Transparency.

    The issues you discuss here forced me to write a blog entry about this particular subject. It really is a hot button at times with my peers in other credit unions. Why are they hesitating?

  2. rshevlin Says:

    A lot to reply to there. Couple of quick thoughts:

    1) It’s nice to talk about the “purpose of a credit union” in a general, theoretical, and historical sense, but sometimes reality strikes. If the purpose of “THIS PARTICULAR CU” in the mind of “THIS PARTICULAR member” is to “give me a car loan and service that loan effectively”, then all the talk about “promoting thrift” and “getting back to the core” falls on deaf ears.

    2) I’m a customer of Bank of America, and theoretically, I can get elected to their Board of Directors, too.

    3) I’m all for open communication and transparency. Can’t CU members communicate through the phone, mail, email, and branches today? Why is a blog such an immediate and dire imperative? Maybe Gene’s CU’s members don’t want to make their opinions and thoughts about the CU and their financial lives or whatever public.

  3. Andy Says:

    Caps locks…cruise control for awesome! :)

    Great points Morriss. A blog won’t solve all your problems, but it can help when combined with other marketing efforts. Its all about putting the pieces together to get people to talk to you.

  4. Ginny Brady Says:

    Morriss, I certainly can’t let this post go by without a comment. The support and encouragement I have received from you and other credit union professionals has been invaluable. I planned on joining the conversation on Ron’s blog but wasn’t able to gather my thoughts in a timely fashion. I’m glad for this second chance to react to and join the dialog. Blogging may or may not be a valuable marketing tool but I think it is a natural fit to enhance the spirit of credit unions. In particular, I like the opportunity it gives credit union boards to generate an ongoing conversation with our members. It seems to me that credit union boards should want members to have a way to communicate directly with them. In addition, blogs put in practice what credit unions aspire to – they tell the member, “You are the most important part of the credit union equation”.

    I believe that boards do need to think through their purpose and strategy for blogging. It requires some (usually minor) computer expertise, the support of management and staff (who can’t be threatened by the openness it generates), the support of fellow board members and a time committment that for some may be difficult to sustain. I believe in the value of this so strongly that I’d love the opportunity to talk with other credit union boards about what’s needed to get started.

    It’s been an unintended bonus for me to have gained so much from my experiences as a blogger. Primarily, I have met wonderful people throughout the US and Canada who share my passion for the ideals of the credit union movement.

  5. Ginny Brady Says:

    Ron, I read your comment after I had hit the “Submit Comment” button. We did a member survey a few years back. We were proud of the response we received and so the board took the feedback very seriously. Overwhelmingly, what members valued most from UFirst was the high quality of personal service they recieved from our staff. I see the Boardcast as being in direct reponse to what our members want. They told us that they want to be valued as members. The Boardcast is one way to respond to what our members have said is of value to them.

  6. Morriss Partee Says:

    @Ron – To point 1, we’ve all agreed that no business can be all things to all people. If a person is just rate-shopping credit unions for their transaction, then they are falling short on their end of the deal. No credit union needs or wants rate-shoppers. No credit union needs everyone, everytime to become a member. There is such thing as a bad customer.

    To point 2, I didn’t explain this one correctly. As a member of the credit union, you have an equal vote with everyone else, as to who is going to be on the board, and you can vote for yourself. This is not at all the case with banks. You must be a shareholder to vote, and your vote is in proportion to the shares you hold. The PRACTICAL ramification of this, barring running for the Board yourself, is that you have some sway with the Board, and you have a voice to the board. Try getting face time with a Bank of America board member and see if she will even listen to you.

    To point 3, I think I acknowledged this in the last paragraph. Indeed, there are important cases where private converation is imperative. No one wants or needs to discuss their private financial matters in public. But the advantage of a blog over these other communication methods mentioned is the very fact that you are willing to have them out in the open for all to see. I know that that’s probably the most scary aspect for CU professionals to swallow, but as Gene said, transparency is what good business is all about.

    The reason why I think it’s a natural fit as Ginny is doing, and has stated, is that as a Board member, elected to represent the membership, why WOULDN’T you want to have open feedback from your members? Why NOT tell all your members what YOU as a CU board member believe in, why they should continue to support your position on the board, what direction, plans, or strategies you are trying to take your CU in? The NCUA data on all credit unions is already in the public domain via the Freedom of Information Act. Why not take appropriate parts of the Board and Management meetings, the thoughts behind the results, and make them public as well. I know, very scary, but VERY powerful and liberating as well.

  7. Andy Says:

    Just to add something here. A blog is also a way to reach a new group of people, especially young people, who don’t respond to direct mail, phone surveys, or statement inserts. Its a way to connect with the people who ignore those channels and let THEM know they have the ability to communicate with their credit union.

  8. Ginny Brady Says:

    Andy, one thing I’ve started to do is to make sure the Boardcast URL is associated with comments I make on local blogs and facebook notices. My motive is to tell other potential members, “Here’s what we’ve got – if you like it, join the conversation!”

  9. rshevlin Says:

    I’m getting so confused, I’m not even sure which side of the argument I’m on.

    But I will say this — it seems to me that a lot of so-called “credit union blogs” are: 1) the blogs of certain individuals — NOT the CU, and 2) more monologue than dialogue.

  10. Ginny Brady Says:

    Ron, I disagree – 1. contributors to or moderators for most cu blogs are representatives of the credit union blogging and therefore “the credit union” and 2. According to “Citizen Marketer’s” about 1% of those reading blogs enter into the dialogue. a.) That doesn’t mean the blog is wothrless. b.) If credit unions have to get used to blogging then we have to give members an opportunity to get used to commenting.

  11. Andy Says:

    Perhaps integration of a forum would be beneficial in addition to just a blog? In my experience they seem to foster more user interaction.

  12. rshevlin Says:

    Denise Wymore, where are you? On my blog, you blast direct mail as being worthless and a total failure because of a 1% response rate. But here’s an argument that blogs aren’t worthless despite their 1% response rate. What say you? You can’t have it both ways, you know.

    @Ginny: Prediction: Your CU’s members will not simply and magically “get used to commenting”. Some will, for sure. But many will not — not without cajoling, incentives, bribes, handholding, threats, etc.

    The issue I’m having with this conversation is that it’s elevating the “channel” out of proportion. A blog is nothing but a web site. It’s just ONE mechanism, or channel, for communicating. One of a number. Any firm — a CU, bank, or whatever — needs to determine for itself what is the best way for it to engender communication and dialogue with its customers. A blog might be right. But it might not. And if it is, this “build it and they will come” attitude of so many blog advocates has got to change, cuz’ that’s not the way the world works.

  13. Ginny Brady Says:

    Ron, I think there are differences between blogs and direct mail. Blogs are not designed, specifically, as marketing tools – direct mail is. Blogs don’t cost thousands of dollars and and aren’t carefully measured through ROI statistics – this is true in that same way that cheerful, calm, personal customer service is not carefully measured.

    I’d better admit it, here – You’ll find out soon enough – I’m planning a promotion in Feb. to encourage members to enter the conversation in our blog. Before you say – Ah! Ha! Caught You! – I don’t apologize for this. It’s not unlike rewarding members for participating in focus groups.

    I agree completed with your last statement. The importance of blogs shouldn’t be blown out of proportion. Many elements make up a good credit union, bank or whatever. Blogs could be one of those elements but they don’t replace all the other important aspects of customer service and great products that meet the needs of customers – but I think steadily communicating the value we place on members and encouraging their active participation in membership in their credit unions IS the way a good credit union works. A blog may or may not be part of realizing that ideal but it’s fun to give it a shot.

  14. Andy Says:

    @rshevlin Is that 1% of people that comment a larger group than would have responded to a traditional focus group call out (especially for learning what youth are looking for)? We sent out a direct mail piece, a statement insert, etc. looking to get young people to join a focus group…we got 0 response.

    If a blog can bring in even a fraction of that demographic and let them comment I believe it is worth it. Its not about getting EVERYBODY to comment, its a way to reach a specific demographic. Those who have something to say and are used to the online channel of communication will speak up.

    In the past, those people would have joined a focus group, but they don’t work anymore for the younger generation. It isn’t fun or easy to come to a focus group. It is to comment on a blog.

  15. terrell Says:

    …thinking out loud here…

    Blogs are overhyped. There is a disconnect between bloggers (us) and the people we are trying to communicate with. Not everyone reads blogs. I am young, tech-savvy and live in Seattle (wi-fi hotspot of the US), and yet most of my friends don’t read blogs. My friends who do read blogs tend to read about music/sports or something related to their passions. Most ppl are not passionate about their finances (although there are quite a few good personal finance blogs out there, but those are different than FI blogs).

    Also, because a blog is live and in real-time, there is an expectation that it will be updated frequently. That can be a lot of pressure on a small marketing staff. A direct mail piece, on the other hand, is sent out and done with. I’m not saying DM is better or worse, just different.

    I wish everyone did care about their financial well being and that they wanted to actively talk with us (CUs) about it. That would be awesome. Trying to reach members through as many channels as we can is a worthy effort. I’m not so sure that it’s the fear of negative comments keeping FIs from blogging, but perhaps the time commitment involved and the uncertainty of who will be reading.

  16. Laura Baker Says:

    I’m with Terrell on this one. For me, it’s all about time commitment and has nothing to do with fear. I would love to start a blog, but I can’t commit the the necessary time to make it work and update it frequently. We just don’t have the staff to do that right now. I find myself getting caught up with Facebook, Twitter, reading CU/finance blogs and other things which are already more than enough to take me away from my regular responsibilities. Perhaps someday we will be able to blog, but definitely not right now.

  17. tinfoiling Says:

    I must admit that I agree with terrel and Laura to a large extent. We seemingly lack time to write the blogs, time for people to read them and there are so many too choose from. A number of years ago we would have given our eye teeth to have the technology of blogging (real time, instant, text-colour-graphics, animation, brand specfic, cheap, etc. etc.) and now that we have it, the environment we understand and perceive it from isn’t the environment we live in. We haven’t caught up to realizing the extent our normal lives have changed.
    Something needs to become prominent to move blogging forward. When does it become relevant for the masses?

  18. CU Skeptic Says:

    Another aspect that I believe is overlooked by those of us that blog about cus (as opposed to for a cu) is the ease of editorial writing.

    It’s fairly easy to hop on the keyboard and say outlandish things like “If you’re not ready to blog you need to turn around your culture” and “Let’s start the Crack Addict’s Credit Union.” It’s an entirely different beast to do what Ginny (or any other cu) does on a regular basis.

    Also, I’ve got a quick survey up trying to get a feel for the time commitment that blogging entails. I’m hoping this can be used to at least help people gauge the time aspect of blogging. The survey link is http://www.surveymonkey.com/s.aspx?sm=ZLLSldB0sq7G2UyZQcgEyA_3d_3d

  19. How many CUs should be blogging or how many angels can dance on a head of a pin? « Tinfoiling Says:

    [...] 24, 2008 by tinfoiling Morriss has written a blog “How many credit unions should be blogging” over at EverythingCU.com. Some very interesting ideas that I need to expand [...]

  20. Morriss Partee Says:

    @terrell – I love that your hesitancy in regards to blogging comes from one of the CUs that is succesfully blogging. That’s kinda ironic. You are absolutely right – not everyone is blogging or interested in reading blogs. And most people indeed are far more willing to spend time on icanhascheezburger than read a blog about their F.I. But what you are doing at Verity is outstanding; you are showing the real people who are behind the institution. That’s far more interesting, and is a great way to lead people to the “spinach” aspect.

    The other thing to keep in mind is that having conversations about YOUR credit union is GOING to happen, whether or not you decide to have a blog. This is already happening. The latest example, courtesy of Rob Wright is here: Columbia Credit Union Sucks. It’s not pretty. Or this one in Michigan, courtesy of Mary Arnold. So really the only question is whether or not you want to have some say in the conversation that is going on about you. If you have a blog, you have a shot at setting the record straight. If you ignore the blogosphere, they (your members and potential members), will think that you don’t care about them.

  21. Morriss Partee Says:

    @ron – the difference between 1% of blog readers commenting, and 1% response rate to direct mail is night and day. Most direct mail goes straight into the trash, never even having been read. Even if it is read, it’s only read by one person. But a meaningful blog entry not only can be read by many people, it can be passed along, shared, commented on, elaborated on by others, such as this particular conversation that is so nicely illustrated by Tim McAlpine here. Ginny’s point is that blogs are read by many more people than just those who comment, not that the success rate is on par with direct mail.

    @Ginny – I’ve never been a big fan of bribes for behavior….. I’d love to discuss some alternatives for increasing your readership/commentership. To me, it’s not about bribes, it’s about education and awareness…. I’ve got ideas for you; let’s talk.

  22. Blahg Blahg Blahg Blahg-I’m sick of hearing about Blahgs! « EverythingCU.com World 2.0 Adventure Says:

    [...] Blahg Blahg Blahg Blahg-I’m sick of hearing about Blahgs! It is truly fun to see the mini-firestorm of discussion that this meme of “to blog or not to blog” has generated. (Trey Reeme guesting on CUES Skybox, Tim McAlpine – Currency Marketing, Ron “the Shevlinator” Shevlin, Gene Blishen – Tinfoiling, Currency Marketing again, CU Skeptic, Lisa Hochgraf – Nexus Connection, and right here) [...]

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