The Power Of Storytelling

Credit unions need to recognize the power in their members' stories as a way to communicate the credit union difference.

 
 

Credit unions had a great year in 2014. They surpassed the 100-million-member mark in third quarter; posted the highest year-over-year loan growth, 9.9%, since 2005 in second quarter; and originated more consumer loans than ever before, $48.0 billion, during first quarter. Heading into 2015, their mortgage market share is quadruple what it was four years ago, and their auto market share is the highest it’s been since 2009.

This is all admirable, but performance data isn’t going to convince a potential member today to become a new member tomorrow. Showing off healthy financials isn’t the way to demonstrate the credit union difference. Offering a safe and sound place for consumers to conduct their financial business is the baseline standard and every competitor in your market can boast about that.

In the December issue of Entrepreneur magazine, editor-in-chief Amy Cooper titled her letter “Why 2014 Was the Year of the Story.” In it, Cooper writes, “Financials still matter to investors, but your story … will land you the cash money.”

She is writing about startups looking for investors, but the message is the same for credit unions. Cooper’s advice — tell a good story if you want to entice people to give you money — is as solid for credit unions trying to engage members as it is for startups trying to engage venture capital firms.

How To Build A Story

“People are attracted to stories because we’re social creatures and we relate to other people,” says Johns Hopkins University researcher Keith Quesenberry in a March 2014 Harvard Business Review article titled “The Irresistible Power of Storytelling as a Strategic Business Tool."

Instead of simply advising businesses to tell a story, however, HBR illustrates how the dramatic storytelling structure called Freytag’s Pyramid can help you craft better stories.

As illustrated here, Freytag’s Pyramid is built around five acts:

FreytagsPyramid

Source: Harvard Business Review

I prefer to share actionable takeaways based on a credit union’s successes rather than abstractly lecture, so here is a true story from Community First Credit Union in Appleton, WI, that clearly illustrates how the $2.0 billion cooperative serves its members in ways other financial institutions cannot. CreditUnions.com covered this in 2009 — you can watch the three-minute video there — but it is still relevant more than five years later. 

Act 1: Exposition (inciting moment)   Seth and Lindsey Gregory did all the right things to be able to purchase their first home and start a family. Seth had a steady job as a sales representative for a welding equipment company, and the couple had saved almost $15,000 as a down payment.

Act 2: Complication (rising action)   The Gregorys learned they could not have children, so they opted to adopt, but the process was expensive and required the couple to spend most of their down payment. Consequently, the Gregorys put their home dreams on hold.

Act 3: Climax (turning point)   Their quest for homeownership might have ended there, but the Gregorys learned about Community First Credit Union.

Act 4: Reversal (falling action)   The credit union was combining a government tax credit with special credit union financing to help first-time homebuyers during a time of extreme stress in local and national financial markets and encourage home sales after the housing bubble burst.

Act 5: Denouement (moment of release)   Thanks to Community First, the Gregorys fulfilled their dreams of parenthood and homeownership.

How To Share A Story

Telling the extraordinary story of a single member is powerful and personal, but the collective narrative of a credit union’s many members can also command attention.

Member One Federal Credit Union in Roanoke, VA, talks to its members daily through its Save This Buy That (STBT) brand, a social strategy and a microsite through which the $665 million credit union provides relevant, local content about financial topics, like saving money, as well as lifestyle topics like health and fitness.

On the STBT website, Member One ran a Best Spent Moments Contest in which members can share how they’d spend $500 or $1,000. The credit union then sends that money to its favorite entrants. It’s an amount that doesn’t have much effect on the credit union’s bottom line, but it has the potential to change the lives of its members — and that’s something to talk about. From buying books for a teacher’s classroom, to helping a chronically ill child fund her dream of building a sand castle, these stories help members relate to the credit union as a partner in their financial success.

Save This Buy That also helps the credit union’s six-person marketing team engage in an ongoing conversation with members. And instead of just hoping local news organizations will pick up a press release, Member One uses the social media element of STBT to become its own publisher.

“We’re trying to get a little younger and fresher in the way we approach marketing,” says Daniel Bliley, director of marketing and segmentation at Member One. “It’s important to stay flexible, stay in real-time, and be able to develop content quickly.”

Read more about Member One and its agile marketing in the third quarter 2014 issue of Credit Union Strategy & Performance, hitting desks in mid-January.

How To Encourage Storytelling

If you think billion dollar credit unions can’t remain local in focus, think again. The second-largest credit union in the United States has nearly $30 billion in assets and 1.9 million members. Yet State Employees’ Credit Union of North Carolina spent less than $500,000 in education and promotion in the first nine months of 2014, according to Callahan & Associates. Instead of pricey marketing campaigns, email blasts, and flyers, SECU tells its story through word-of-mouth marketing disseminated by more than 3,200 volunteer member ambassadors.

These committed storytellers represent SECU on a very personal level in every one of the communities it serves. Ambassadors make up each of SECU’s 254, 12-member branch advisory boards, on which they serve  anywhere from two to eight years. They talk about the credit union and share its news with families, co-workers, community organizations, and friends. They serve as a focus group and a media relations network. Together, ambassadors are a marketing team by proxy that offers a fast, inexpensive, and effective method to get the word out to current and potential members.

In selecting ambassadors, SECU targets various ages, schools, and state agencies. Although ambassadors represent SECU’s overall membership demographics, the diverse group also gives the credit union an entry point to populations across its statewide footprint.

Ambassadors help SECU reach deeper into the community than what newspapers and other formal channels provide. And according to Leigh Brady, SECU’s executive vice president for organizational development, although ambassadors are quick to recommend the credit union to potential members, they aren’t shy about providing criticism and pushing SECU to improve.

“They are quick to recommend the credit union and quick to speak up to offer criticism that pushes us to improve,” Brady said in a February 2014 Q&A on CreditUnions.com. “Those members are our best and worst critics because we task them with making sure we stay true to our mission.”