The words "not possible" and "can’t be done" do not compute for Amanda Thomas, marketing/business development manager at Columbus, Ohio-based Members First Credit Union.
"Don’t be afraid to try anything. The only thing holding us back is ourselves. If everyone had that mindset, they’d see that all is possible," said Thomas. "I really believe we as an industry can do anything."
That unflappable belief is what gave Thomas the strength to toss out the traditional credit union marketing and business development model.
"That’s when I started to see results in my career," said Thomas. "If we do what’s always been done, look to other credit unions to see what’s working for them and duplicating those efforts then everyone is basically doing the same thing. When we started doing what no one had done before it set us apart."
She credits senior management and the board for creating a culture that encourages new ideas even if they aren’t all home runs.
"It’s great that there is this trust instilled already and that it’s really O.K. to try new things because the understanding is that we’ll win the game by base hits and singles," said Thomas. "That being said, I don’t just shoot from the hip. There’s a lot of research involved and every move has to be part of the bigger strategy. I think that’s why our social media efforts have been successful."
For three years, the credit union has been slowly building awareness through a mix of its revamped website, branded Twitter, Facebook accounts, guerilla marketing and email campaigns around Members First CU’s core values, essentially giving members the reasons why it’s a reliable local resource. She added that it has also helped that Members First CU has stopped trying to be the "everything to everyone credit union" and focused on targeting young families, young professionals and the gay and lesbian markets.
"If you try to appeal to everyone, then you may have members that just like you, but hone in on the target market who you are best suited to serve and serve those well, then they will love you, be loyal and tell others about your credit union. That kind of member growth ultimately is better than having a bunch of $5 accounts," said Thomas. "I think that’s why social media has been huge for us, and we’ve been transitioning out of traditional marketing billboards, regular newspaper ads and direct mail pieces because we just weren’t getting any response. So if we spent this much money, why not include something new?"
In May 2010, that meant unveiling a Twitter billboard.
"Let’s face it, credit unions and cutting-edge technology don't often get used in the same sentence," said Thomas. "So we were approached by Clear Channel about tying the Twitter technology to our digital billboard campaign as a way to engage the local social media community. When we started the campaign, we were the only company doing this in the United States."
The Twitter billboard, which resembles Members First CU’s website, is basically a live feed of the credit union’s Twitter account. Thomas can update and post messages ranging from invitations to member appreciation days to who is eligible to join in real time.
"We’re reaching thousands of potential members who drive by the digital billboard as they go about their busy day around town," said Thomas. "The other billboards in the area are static, so it’s helped us stand out."
Recognizing that social media is hard to gauge, Thomas said that it takes time to build that trust and has found Twitter and Facebook have served as an effective communication channel for the public and members to share what they want and need. She recently got her first direct message from a member via Twitter.
"We just wrapped up a two-month ‘Financial Freedom’ campaign, where we asked locals and members to share what does financial freedom mean to me as a way to have an open conversation," said Thomas. "We thought the examples they’d provide would be something like I want a yacht or a day at the spa, but what happened is that people opened up to us in a way they hadn’t done before where they talked about wanting to be able to have more flexibility in their budget to do more than just pay bills and not be able to take a vacation or how to pay for their kids’ college education. It’s helped deepen the relationship as we look for new solutions."
Thomas said the strategic shift in the marketing focus and social media efforts, including the digital billboard, have contributed to best member growth experienced by the credit union.
"Something really happened in the past three years that is a testament to the way we do marketing. The average member age was 57 in 2007, and it has now been lowered to 45.5. And the little shifts we’re experiencing in every area across the credit union tells us that we’re doing things the right way," Thomas said. "I think it’s because our engagement is genuine and they know they’re connecting with an actual person. We’ve taken a similar approach in business development where we treat networking as a way to talk, really listen, so we can help them and provide some value in their lives."
Thomas, who has been working with a business coach for a few years and is part of the Crash Network, finds value in collaboration and challenging yourself.
"The thing about our generation that sets us apart is that we want to be part of something greater, we want to see the good done by what we do day-to-day," said Thomas. "I’m a one person department, so it’s good to have a support system like the Crash Network where you can bounce off ideas, get immediate feedback or even to cheer you up when you’re having a bad day."
She enjoys challenging herself and said mentors and coaches have been a boon to both her personal and professional growth.
"I’ve seen such great changes in myself," said Thomas. "I do think the most important thing someone can do, and this applies to anyone in any industry, is to surround yourself with a great team of people who realize they have a gift, other positive thinkers that can be friends, family or mentors."
She is currently a member of two teams in the Crash Network’s Collider innovation competition that addresses how credit unions can increase the availability of affordable home ownership in North America. So far a "Test Drive to Home Ownership," which is a nontraditional lease-to-own option loan that allows borrowers the option to lease a home for one to three year prior to purchase, and a CCPE loan program, which bases a home loan around the income of the person or persons who want to purchase home have garnered a lot of interest. The overall winning entry will be taken from idea to actual implementation.
"Working on the program with people all around the country–on two different teams–is a testament to the strong bond we have as part of the Crash Network. There is a trust factor established between all of us even though most of us have only met once or twice in person," said Thomas. "The judges have been so supportive, and I can see their excitement grow as the competition unfolds. It's amazing to think that people from this network will be winning this competition and making their project a reality."
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