Social Media Lessons to be Learned from Financial Cooperatives

To consider how cooperatives should best use social media to connect with members and potential members, I will look at the state of the social media within the financial cooperative, or Credit Union, industry.  According to the Financial Brand, “retail banking has consistently ranked among the earliest and most aggressive industries to adopt social channels”.  Never to be outdone by their shareholder-owned competitors, Credit Unions have also been aggressive adopters of social channels.  As early adopters, financial cooperatives can teach the cooperative movement many lessons from what works, Facebook pages, to what does not work (at least not yet), Pinterest boards.

A quick survey of financial cooperatives in NH shows an active and engaged industry. Bellwether Community Credit Union , Granite State Credit Union, Service Credit Union, St. Mary’s Bank, and my own, Triangle Credit Union, all actively manage a Facebook page.  Posts on Facebook range from the community minded, to inform members of local events and sponsorships, to financial advice, often done through the resharing of fin lit blogs, and general Credit Union announcements, during the recent snowstorm, Nemo, all took to Facebook to inform members of branch closings.

Facebook is a great member-facing tool as it is where many of a cooperatives’ members and potential members are located.  A cooperative benefits greatly when they create shareable content on Facebook. For example, Bellwether’s branches and offices recently participated in the Go Red for Women campaign to create awareness of heart disease.  A photo collage of the event was posted on Facebook.  The post received 26 likes and 3 comments, placing Bellwether positively in the news feeds of each of those who took the time to engage.  Here cooperatives can see an example of how social media can be used to share the message of community, which is tantamount to the success of any cooperative.

Beyond Facebook, Bellwether use Linkedin, St. Mary’s, Triangle, and Service use YouTube, and Service and Triangle use Twitter.  Triangle also maintain a blog, to which I am a contributor.  There is no doubt that the adoption of these different tools create additional platforms for listening but are they truly capable of engaging?  A look at Pinterest boards shows how aggressive early adoption can force a cooperative down a narrow and unfocused path.

A Financial Brand study of Pinterest reveals that a great deal of time and effort may be misguided when it comes to social media use.  They cite the example of Fireman Community’s use of Pinterest.   As I mentioned earlier, the banking industry and by extension the financial cooperative industry, are quick adopters of new social media tools.  In 2012, Pinterest was all the rage, with Banks and Credit Unions alike directing efforts toward the image-sharing site.  But can their be any value for a financial cooperative with only intangibles to sell to engage in a tool that makes sense for restaurants and clothiers that have a need to display visualizations of their products?  Financial Brand’s analysis of Fireman’s determined that approximately 67 hours were spent maintaining the page to net 274 followers of which many are other Credit Unions, marketing professionals, and not in fact members.  Making the answer a resounding “no”.

In the comments of the article an articulate and fascinating argument plays out.  Fireman’s defend their use of Pinterest, stating, “Pinterest is part of our holistic multi-channel content strategy, not just another social network…That means we’re not just wasting time on Pinterest; we’re integrating it into our overall communication strategy.”   A worthy and admirable response, but the resources of a cooperative are generally limited.  Consideration should always be given to utilizing only those tools that have been proven to be successful.

Financial Cooperatives, and other coops by extension, must use caution when proceeding with social media channel adoption.  According to the Financial Brand, “65% of consumers surveyed say that they would stop using a brand that upset or irritated them as a result of their social media behavior.”  Coops run the risk of pushing themselves unfavorably on potential members and of publishing irrelevant and unnecessary content because they feel the need to communicate or participate in new channels; the more channels, the thinner and less relevant the content will be.  Social Media is as much about listening as it is about connecting.  Cooperatives will be successful and reap the rewards of social media as long as they focus on creating great content, and limiting themselves to participating in proven channels.

Ian – Southern New Hampshire University Grad Student


Co-opting Brand Recognition for Social Change

Social Media has proven its worth for corporations and political campaigns.   In 2012 social media was used to spectacular effect to create awareness for brands such as Obama ’12, Jetsetter, Ikea, and Sharpie.  But is Social Media’s true value merely brand awareness – where consumers passively engage with brands for the return of discounts, special offers, and campaign promises?  I believe there is a more lasting impact to be found, and that is in social media’s ability to form networks, beyond those naturally available by proximity, and thus inform users of the power and opportunity to be found within cooperatives.

Cooperatives are a natural expression of how people wish to do business. According to the International Cooperative Alliance, “A co-operative is an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise”.  In the past those autonomous associations were formed by proximity.  For example, my credit union, a financial cooperative was formed on the factory floor; born from a desire to provide affordable credit and to promote thrift to the mill employees of Nashua Gummed and Coated Paper Company, factory workers came together to pool their savings and create loans for those who could not otherwise afford the interest on a bank loan.  The values of coops are congruous with community and at the same time an important counterpoint to the shareholder driven business model of corporations.

Social Media provides many tools to educate, inform, and connect people with cooperatives.  Kristen Christian, a cooperatives advocate and highly effective social media thought leader, proved that Facebook was an invaluable tool to the movement when she founded Bank Transfer Day.  Created in response to the financial crises of 2008 where large shareholder owned banks burdened taxpayers on the way down with their need for bailouts, and attempted to burden consumers on the way back up with fees, Bank Transfer Day began as a Facebook event.  Individuals were encouraged to attend much like they would a friend’s birthday party.  The response was enormous and seismic.  Reports one year on stated that the event was responsible for Credit Unions netting 2.2 million members, almost double their normal growth.

Being fortunate to work for a credit union, I was introduced to Dr. Bill Branch, President & CEO of the World Council of Credit Unions.  Dr. Branch informed me of WOCCU’s efforts on Twitter (which I have been following since).  He indicated that the council saw a huge opportunity to build awareness through the micro-blogging site.  So much so, that they had tapped Charlene Li, one of the authors of Groundswell, to speak at the next World Council of Credit Unions gathering.  The pick suggests that Dr. Branch is prescient and aware of the way in which “people use technologies to get things they need from each other, rather than from traditional institutions like corporations” (Li pg9).

Social Media tools such as Facebook and Twitter have, in Christian’s case proven themselves, and in WOCCU’s case, surely will soon prove themselves, as valuable assets in connecting individuals in a way that transcends proximity, previously cooperatives’only tool of connection.  Great things are afoot and huge social change is imminent.

Ian – Southern New Hampshire University Grad Student

Li, Charlene.  Bernoff, Josh. (2008) Groundswell. Boston: Harvard Business Press. (pg 9).