ROCK HILL, S.C. – Lee Gardner knows about the pitfalls of portals. When his credit union discovered the car-pricing service linked to their Web site was advertising an unaffiliated auto-financing service, it pulled the plug on that relationship. Gardner is president/CEO of Family Trust Federal Credit Union (www.familytrust.org) in Rock Hill, S.C., a community-chartered CU with about $111 million in assets and 22,500 members. While such instances are rare in Gardner’s experience, it illustrates why credit unions need to be aware of where their links lead. If they’re not careful, that can be into the clutches of competitors or to a product or service that the credit union may not want to be associated with, experts say. It’s also something their members may not even want. “We had a shopping network on our Web site for a while, and really, our members were not hitting it at all,” Gardner says. “We came to the conclusion that if somebody was going to buy something they wanted from a department store or other retailer, they would go to their Web site, not ours. And if they wanted to know if the Fed had just cut rates again, they’d go to news portals. “Now, if they’re thinking about buying a new car and want to know interest rates and the value of a car, then I think yes, they would come to us for that.” (Family Trust still uses NADA, the national car-pricing service.) Such thinking would fall under the vertical portal strategy, to DeLania Truly’s way of thinking. Truly, vice president of member marketing at CUNA Mutual Group (www.cunamutual.org), says “a vertical portal puts you basically in alignment with your goal, which is to have a financial relationship with members. A vertical portal adheres to that goal and makes for a stronger Web site.” On the other hand, a horizontal portal would be similar to one like America Online or Yahoo!, the big services which seek to provide, as Truly puts it, “everything for everyone.” “I feel you have to have a strategic plan for what you want to do on your Web site. Otherwise it might become too busy and cluttered,” she says. THE WAY IT WAS Many credit unions, especially those early adopters on the Internet, at first went along with the horizontal approach, but pulled back as they found that it simply wasn’t what members wanted, and that it diffused their own strategy and core efforts. One of those was Mountain America Credit Union, an $800 million, 145,000-member institution whose FOM covers the state of Utah. “We’ve pulled back from offering the nifty links that we thought maybe many of our members would enjoy, as opposed to back in 1997 when we first started,” says Tony Rasmussen, vice president of eServices for Salt Lake City-based Mountain America (www.mntamerica.org.) “The Web was new then. A lot of people used to get on and just see what’s out there. But now members are telling us, `We’re looking to you for financial products. Don’t bother us with cell phone offers and shopping,’ ” Rasmussen observes. His observations jibe with Scott Patterson’s research. “ We see it over and over again in the member surveys we conduct,” says Patterson, e-commerce manager at Callahan & Associates. (www.creditunions.com) “In my opinion, that’s also a very strong reason some of the CU portal sites aren’t around anymore.” Patterson adds: “This is one I feel really passionately about. Hands down, credit union members are looking for financial services and information from their credit union. Not sports scores. Not the weather. Not a TV guide. And especially not shopping, with the exception of higher-end, financed purchases. “Those credit unions who understand that and provide a purely financial-content portal to their members are serving their members best.” Effective linking, to such things as calculators and financial articles and the growing array of robust decision-making tools, are as much part of an effective online strategy as bill presentment and e-statement services, observers say. And there are ways to help make sure the member understands who’s doing what when they start clicking. For instance, Callahan suggests credit unions consider using a “splash screen” that appears when a member clicks on a link to a non-CU site. That screen can both endorse the link and note that it is separate from the credit union itself. Gardner at Family Trust also notes his credit union’s use of meta-tags, which provide a quick link to his credit union’s Web site directly from the URL window when the Web surfer is at other, related sites. Such tactics can help avoid the situation that Truly says she’s seen where “in a matter of two or three clicks, a member is in a competitor’s back yard. “Whether that’s inadvertent or intentional, you need to be diligent.” PRODUCTIVE PARTNERSHIPS Rasmussen at Mountain America agreed with the need to be aware of the lurking competitor, but advises not to take it to the point that opportunities are overlooked. “For a while, we were very concerned about that,” he says. “We didn’t want our members to see anything else. Then we softened and have kind of backtracked on that a little.” That approach particularly applies in offering partnerships with products that are associated but not competing, such as insurance. Gardner at Family Trust, for instance, notes that his credit union is exploring a partnership with his community’s largest independent insurance agent. Credit unions of all sizes, of course, routinely engage in such partnerships, which can offer co-branding opportunities but calls for a whole other kind of diligence. Members associate those vendors with the credit union that partnered with them and the credit unions need to make sure they meet muster, Gardner said. “With Gramm-Leach-Bliley and NCUA guidelines on using vendors, we’ve established standards for evaluating them,” Rasmussen says. “That includes everything from their time in business, level of venture capitalization and ability to serve to how well they fit into our line of business.” However, prudence can be pushed too far, some say. “A 100% `safe’ credit union Web site is one that doesn’t link anywhere, doesn’t provide its members with outside information or any of the other positive benefits the Internet can offer,” Patterson says. “Frankly, it does a real disservice to credit union members and to the purpose of the movement. Burying their hands isn’t the solution. There is a happy medium,” the Callahan & Associates e-commerce manager says. While links should be carefully considered and evaluated on a regular basis, he says, “don’t be too careful or strict.” Patterson notes that while many credit unions are concerned with “credit union-friendly advertising,” that can be pretty hard to find. “The only services and sites that tend to participate in CU-friendly ads are businesses and organizations that work only with credit unions,” he says. “That can really limit the ability of credit unions to link their members to a lot of very useful content.” And credit unions can show some faith in their members. “Competition exists almost everywhere on the Internet. Members are bombarded each and every day by offers. Credit unions shouldn’t be scared of a banner ad luring away members,” Patterson says. “The data we have shows that members aren’t as likely as we may believe to be swayed away from their primary financial services provider. “It’s a risk, but I think in the end, the credit union will come out ahead.” – [email protected]

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