Credit unions with branches on college campuses are in a unique position to attract new Gen Y members. But proximity alone doesn't guarantee a relationship. Getting students through the door takes ingenuity-and is not without challenges.
For one thing, incoming freshman aren't as easy to sign up these days.
"Five years ago when students arrived at college, they didn't already have an established financial institution. We were often the first experience for an account," said April Clobes, executive vice president at Michigan State University Federal Credit Union. "Now students come with accounts that have been opened for a few years because they needed a debit card to make purchases on iTunes, Xbox LIVE, etc."
To address this issue, the credit union has changed its marketing materials, redirecting the focus to getting students to make the switch by explaining why the credit union is a better choice-namely, it offers better rates and lower fees and owns the only branch within walking distance of MSU as well as all the ATMs on campus and around East Lansing.
"Also, we focus on the connection to the university and emphasize that our debit or credit card and checks feature MSU campus scenes on them, so you can show your Spartan spirit!" Clobes said.
With the constant stream of media from their many gadgets, another challenge can be simply getting students' attention.
"Students are hard to get through to," said Jim Kelly, senior vice president of marketing at University of Iowa Community Credit Union. "Every generation that comes along has been marketed to more than the last. They have become adept at zoning the messages out."
The credit union has hit upon one message that students find hard to ignore: free money. Its referral program, whereby students are mailed a check once the referred account is active, has been a big draw, Kelly said. "If they can earn money telling friends about the credit union, then they seem to perk up."
The credit union also cuts through the noise by getting right into students' hands via one of their greatest necessities: their student IDs. Through a partnership between the credit union and the University of Iowa, students who open an Iowa One checking account with the CU can use their student IDs for free access to all campus ATMs.
But for the Credit Union of Ohio, vying with the big banks for ATM deployment on and around the Ohio State University campus can be a real challenge when the opportunity is put out for bidding.
"Students want convenience," said Kim Hudson, vice president of marketing at the credit union. "Large multinationals have deep pockets for delivery channel deployment in campus buildings."
However, the credit union competes on other fronts by boldly going where some banks won't go. After conferring with other university credit unions, CU of Ohio rewrote its procedures to serve the international student community. "Some big banks won't serve international students because they don't have a [Social Security number] and the reporting can be cumbersome," Hudson explained.
She added that many international students are grad students receiving stipends or teaching assistants with direct deposit, so they start with checking and savings accounts with pretty healthy balances. Also, many stay in the U.S. after graduation to work for top U.S. companies, especially in the tech, science and medical industries.
And although large banks have deep pockets, it doesn't have to cost a lot to make a big impression, as CU of Ohio has learned with its Buckeye Buttons. Each year, the credit union runs a slogan contest for the 12 regular season football games (and a special one for a bowl game) to produce weekly buttons-20,000 total for less than a quarter each. The credit union hands out the buttons for free, but fans must go to a branch to get them.
"I think the buttons have been more effective than other traditional advertising we've done on campus," Hudson said. "Fans come in weekly for 12 weeks and get to know us. And they're viral-we'll be increasing our quantity next year."
Unlike CU of Ohio, UT Federal Credit Union doesn't worry much about banks on campus. That's because at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, UTFCU is the only financial institution on campus. In the summer of 2009, the credit union won a bid from the university to fill the space left from a merger of the bursars' two locations into one. Although other banks have ATMs on the campus, UTFCU has the most machines and the only branch.
UTFCU uses its "only bank on campus" distinction in its UTK branch logo and student microsite. The CU said the branding helps educate students and parents about the flexibility of a credit union.
"We used the word bank in our name because that's what our members do with us-they bank with us," said Malinda Wood, vice president of marketing. "Many younger people think a credit union only offers loans or credit cards. Likewise, many of their parents think you have to work for a specific employer to use credit union services and that we're only a good option for savings or payroll deduction."
Although UTFCU and CU of Ohio have different situations when it comes to campus ATMs, both credit unions know how to bring foot traffic to a campus branch. A photo booth that UTFCU rented for its university center branch during homecoming last year drew about 600 people over the course of four hours. It cost about $2 per person, and the credit union didn't charge for the printouts, which had six photos each and the branch logo strip down the middle.
"This was a ton of fun," Wood said. "I hope to do it again this season and make it an annual event."