With home values that decreased an average of 56% and an unemployment rate of 13%, it didn't seem likely that there could be any good news to come out of Las Vegas.
Yet Nevada Federal Credit Union Senior Vice President of Marketing Greg Barnes and his marketing team were able break records in new membership growth and mortgage lending in 2009.
"It is a little like Rocky, and while it goes against the conventional wisdom, we saw challenges coming in late 2008 and decided early on to grow our way out of it," said Barnes. "Our thought was that we didn't want to participate in the recession. One of the worst things to do is to totally disappear. So we focused on existing members, but to offset losses, we knew we needed to bring in new members and alternate sources of revenue so we would have a better chance to not only survive 2009 but also give us good footing in 2010."
Faced with the $783 million credit union setting aside more than $43.5 million in 2009 to absorb loan losses, a marketing budget that has been cut by a third since 2007 and layoffs in the marketing department, Barnes focused on strategies that delivered the biggest bang for the buck.
"Las Vegas is a different market, so we developed a series of products geared toward members who don't manage their money well with credit scores that many would consider poor. For example, our 'New Start' checking gives these folks a second chance, and the good thing is that after 12 months of proper account management, they can graduate into a regular checking account to avoid fees," said Barnes. "Believe it or not our mortgage lending was strong. We were one of the Top 10 lenders in Clark County and were aggressive in promoting mortgage loans with a competitive cost structure that was lower than others in town."
Recognizing the importance of brand and name awareness, Barnes implemented several initiatives designed to help Nevada Federal be top of mind. He created a single-signature corporate brand identity standard across all departments, branches and its Web site (www.nevadafederal.org). He also developed several product microsites to give more in-depth focus on targeted products and promotional efforts. Barnes and his team planned to ride the wave of brand and name awareness through much of 2009. With radio identified as the No. 1 driver of its new mortgage business, the Nevada Federal marketing team wrote a series of catchy radio jingles. When new-member surveys revealed that billboards were the No. 2 driver of new checking accounts, the team designed and unveiled 18 provocative billboards, ranging from "This Economy Sucks. We Don't" to "Better than Penns and Tellers. Green Checking."
"The jingles and billboards were a lot of fun and just what we needed to create a buzz to keep our name out there," said Barnes. "Again, this is Vegas, so we were able to push the envelope a bit more."
The team also implemented very successful campaigns via multiple electronic channels such as e-mail, ATM screens and online banking banners through a Fiserv's Next marketing program.
"Using Next, we generated 12,000 member requests in eight months for electronic statements, which we estimate saves us $150,000 per year," said Barnes. "Daily Visa card orders increased more than 10 times, resulting in 3,000 new card accounts, an estimated $5 million increase in our credit card portfolio."
With an eye on the bottom line, Barnes deployed a digital and social media strategy that included Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, YouTube and Nevada Federal blogs. Barnes said the move helped cut the marketing budget by $450,000, while keeping account acquisition and brand awareness high.
"We viewed it as just another arm of the marketing delivery channel and a way to communicate with our members," said Barnes. "It's important to have that genuine back and forth conversation with members so we make it easy for members to comment. Even when they are angry, we don't delete those comments but do our best to address their concerns. The member response has been really positive, and as one of our new channels, it really took off in 2009 and at one point we had more Facebook fans than the local newspaper."
All the marketing department's efforts seem to have paid off. In 2009, Nevada Federal opened 16,826 new-member accounts, setting a new record for the credit union, with a gross acquisition cost per member of $62.40. Barnes said the true cost per acquisition was $120, which is below industry averages that range from $150 to $300. In addition, Web site visits went up 34% with online account openings up 28%.
For Barnes, who gets a kick out of tweaking the equation of targeted product and targeted audience to see what can be done differently to make results happen, last year was like the ultimate game of survival of the fittest.
"In this market, we're just going to push on because while the media reports things are turning around nationally, that is not the case here locally, and the challenge for us is to grow or at least continue the level of business we have," said Barnes. "Although we can't control the local economy, my team and I will continue to do everything we can to help the credit union survive."