Ride The Wave Of Free Press

Co-ops like Affinity Plus Credit Union are already taking measures to prepare for a potential surge of new members on Bank Transfer Day.


Affinity Plus Credit Union ($1.4B, St. Paul, MN) has been heavily investing in its “Ditch Your Bank” marketing campaign for more than a year now, urging people in its market to stop bothering with institutions that charge hefty fees. But lately, through ongoing Occupy protests and a Bank Transfer Day gaining popularity, that message is reaching a wider audience for free.

“We’ve got press all over the place on these debit card fees,” says Sarah Mason, Affinity’s senior vice president of marketing. “We have responded specifically to the recent wave of debit card fees. We’ve kicked it in a little higher gear.”

About 78% of debit card holders say they will switch financial institutions to avoid monthly debit fees for using their card, and two out of three debit card holders said they would ditch their cards if their banks started charging monthly debit fees, according to a poll by Creditcards.com, conducted Oct. 7 – Oct. 9 by GfK Roper Custom Research North America. Debit card users polled said their tipping point on average was $3.90 before they switched from debit cards to another form of payment, the report says.

Instead of relaxing its marketing efforts as the national Bank Transfer Day message goes viral, Affinity has invested more into pushing the message out. In fact, the credit union is hosting its own version of Bank Transfer Day, called “Ditch Your Bank Day” set for November 4. Bank Transfer Day encourages consumers to move their money out of large corporate banks into credit unions by November 5. At Affinity, every employee, including those in the marketing, human resource, IT departments, is ready to deal with an influx of new members.

“We will have all Affinity Plus employees on deck and ready that day,” Mason says. Affinity has also been expediting its hiring process, which usually includes four interviews, as it expects to increase membership by an even greater rate in the following year.

Credit unions that want to leverage the surge in anti-fee sentiment need to put in extra effort, says Mason, as marketing messages often take up to a year to take hold. And many credit unions are doing just that.

In Scranton, PA, Tobyhanna Federal Credit Union ($155.8M) recently launched a Divorce Your Bank campaign, which includes promotion material to help disgruntled bank customers make the switch to a credit union. In New York, Bethpage Federal Credit Union ($4.2B, Long Island, NY) has promised new customers that they’ll get fee-free checking for life when they open a Bethpage Bonus account. “No debit card fees, no monthly maintenance fees, no transaction fees, no minimum balance fees and no fees charged by Bethpage for use of other banks’ ATMs,” The New York Times reports of the promotion.

Similar efforts from credit unions across the country are getting a significant boost from national media coverage. Comedians like Ellen DeGeneres and Jay Leno have been poking fun at institutions that charge high fees. Newspaper articles like The Wall Street Journal’s “Credit Unions: a Cheaper Banking Option” and The Washington Post’s “The 411 On Credit Unions” are encouraging consumers to put their money with co-ops.

In the wake of the coverage, Affinity, which has a marketing campaingn that already includes racy commercials and aggressive billboards, recently added a bus wrap initiative and a new billboard announcing “More Debit Card Fees? Stagecoach robbery” to it efforts. It added more newspaper ads and press releases, which have been picked up by its local media.

The Ditch Your Bank campaign – which Affinity attributes to boosting its member base by 40% year-over-year as of September, including a record 2,000 new members in August alone – has been the credit union’s most successful effort to shore up new members, Mason says.

“It seems like every couple months, the opportunity for credit unions just gets bigger and bigger,” Mason says. “And we’re responding a little stronger.”