(A version of this article first appeared on CUInsight.com April 24, 2020)

Move over 2020 Marketing Plan and say “hello” to the new Communication-During-A-Crisis Agenda.

As the shock of the coronavirus pandemic has settled in, those marketing plans we all so lovingly crafted last fall are now completely irrelevant. Give them a kiss. Set them gently aside. Now, let’s take a look at strategies and tactics which best position your credit union or community bank as your account holders’ trusted partner.

Because, let’s face it, the target audience is now current account holders. Growing membership needs to take a back seat. Focus on taking care of your loyal members and clients. Getting people to switch financial institutions during a stable economy is hard enough, the likelihood of switching during uncertain times is pretty low indeed. So let’s go for increasing trust and loyalty, and maybe gain some wallet share through these efforts.

Ready? Start with thinking of the target audience – what do your account holders want to hear? What do they need to hear? I’ll break this down in to three phases: Now, Next and Nebulous. That Nebulous phase is the long-term future (although it might feel like tomorrow is pretty hazy too!). These phases follow what many economists are forecasting. This also provides you with a starting point for how to approach the rest of this calendar year….. A revised 2020 marketing plan, if I may be so bold.

Side note: here are some of the resources I’ve studied as I’ve been thinking about the best path forward for financial institution marketing efforts:

The National Bureau of Economic Research
The Financial Brand‘s Coronavirus Reports
The Credit Union National Association‘s Coronavirus Reports
American Banker Association
Harvard Business Review
JD Power Surveys

What To Communicate NOW

This phase is one I’m defining by the stay-at-home mandates, which will likely go through May. Even if official stay-at-home mandates are lifted before then, a lot of people will still chose to work from home in order to reduce their time in public. There are so many unknowns about the virus I think those who can reduce their exposure will do so.

What are your members/clients going through during this phase?

Thinking about your audience’s situation will inform our marketing messages. During this phase, this NOW, the shock of the upheaval has settled in but not worn off. Account holders are still getting used to (heck, we’re ALL getting used to) limited branch/account access. Many, but not all, are feeling drastic economic affects due to lay offs, reduced income, etc.

What are account holders needing from their financial institution?

First and foremost, members, customers, clients want to make sure their money is safe. Then they want to make sure they can access that money as needed. They are looking for stability in the operational aspects. Account holders want to make sure their credit union or bank is doing what needs to be done to address their financial assets. They do NOT want to hear about new products, services, or anything else which isn’t directly related to the security and safety of their money.

Some specific marketing and communications ideas for this phase:

  • Confirmation that their financial institution – their money – is stable, and in a safe place (both literally and figuratively)
  • How to access their accounts, especially those who may not be as digitally savvy as other members
  • Options for easing their financial difficulties. This is where you emphasize whatever special products or rate reductions you might currently have in your product portfolio (skip-a-pay, reduced rate personal loans, etc.)

Again, this is not the time to be advertising & marketing products and services which aren’t relevant to the situation, so discontinue any automated messages, including direct mail drip campaigns.

How to communicate these messages?

Be as personal as you can. Some members have stable jobs, already enjoy digital services, and may not be affected as much as a member who works for a restaurant and usually cashes their check in a branch every Friday. So the more personal you can make your outreach, the stronger those loyalty ties will get. Use that member data, those insights, to craft really specific messages. Then send them through email, direct mail, video chats, online banking messaging…. however they usually interface with you.

What To Communicate NEXT

This phase will likely include the summer and fall of 2020. People will start moving around more (if the virus is contained that is). But those who were laid-off or furloughed will start to really feel the pinch, as will the businesses they usually frequent (restaurants, grocery stores, retailers, even landlords, etc.)

What are your members/clients going through during this phase?

Those who have experienced a reduction in income will likely be stressing over their financial situation. We can imagine they might be asking themselves “How will I pay the bills?” or “What bills do I pay, which ones get delayed?”

Even those members who haven’t seen a drastic impact in their income are looking to have as little disruption to their financial situation as possible. Maintaining the status quo is a big goal at this point.

What are they needing from their financial institution?

If we agree that many members will be having financial trouble, they will certainly be looking for some assistance from their financial institution. This assistance could come in many forms, from allowing delayed payments, to reduced fees on certain products, low interest loans, and so much more. Account holders will also need a comforting touch in the messaging, an empathetic ear when they call in, an understanding tone from their credit union or community bank. This will likely be the first time many members have been in this situation – they might be ashamed and embarrassed – the approach your organization takes will have a huge influence on the long-term relationship with that member.  Err on the side of grace.

Some specific marketing and communications ideas for this phase:

  • Create and distribute lots of financial well-being content – budgeting, efficient use of stimulus checks, impacts of taking on debt, etc.
  • Announce any new features you’ve been able to develop which will benefit account holders (lower fees, zero interest lending products, delayed payments, etc)
  • Most members will have become used to the different ways they need to access their accounts by now, but it will be good to continue the communications about your digital products, just not as much as in the “Now” phase.

How to communicate these messages?

Continue to work with personal messaging as much as possible so you can match up those in need with the appropriate financial product or benefit. For instance, that laid-off restaurant worked might need the delayed payments while your corporate-vice-president member might appreciate more than usual time with your financial advisor staff.

Use your own system-wide marketing channels (eStatements, website banner images, etc.) to spread the word about digital products, zero-interest or other special efforts).

What to Communicate When It’s Nebulous

So you could say anything beyond tomorrow is pretty hazy or nebulous, but for the sake of this article, I’m defining the Nebulous phase as beyond the fall of 2020. Let’s take a look at what you might want to be communicating at the end of this year and the beginning of 2021.

Typically, the fourth quarter is chock full of credit card usage promotions and holiday loans. This year’s holiday season will definitely be very different for your members and your marketing messages need to reflect the situation.

What are your members/clients going through during this phase?

Your account holders will likely feel the stress of keeping holiday traditions, and therefore spending, at least at the level they were last year, even though their finances aren’t at the same level. The economy will likely be in the third quarter of economic decline, fully in a recession. Some economists say growth could rebound in the fourth quarter of 2020, but most aren’t quite so optimistic.

That growth in the fourth quarter might be as a result of holiday spending, but at what costs to your members? With incomes down, will they be stretching their credit resources? Credit card usage in a healthy economy is definitely a good income source for financial institutions, but we might want to temper usage promotions. Considered what might happen if delinquencies start to overpower the system.

What are they needing from their financial institution?

To help stem what could be a rising wave of delinquencies, financial institutions would be wise to step up financial well-being efforts, both at a larger, more general level and at a personal level. Contact members who are showing signs of damaging their credit worthiness. Even if it’s a simple call or email to just see how they are doing – no judgement about their spending habits, just a preemptive check-in. This could trigger a moment of clarity for your member and at the very least lets them know your organization cares about them.

Some specific marketing and communications ideas for this phase:

  • Continue with financial well-being content. As many people start to feel more comfortable in a (hopefully) more stable economic environment, the urge to spend will be hard to stop.
  • Pent up desires to travel, shop, eat out, etc. will definitely rise. Coach your members to resist those urges.

How to communicate these messages?

Personal connections through email, phone calls, etc. are a great way to check-in with your more loyal members, and build loyalty with others. Keep using your own assets (websites, email lists, direct mail) to communicate general financial well-being tips, and products related to protecting your members’ finances.

What About Advertising?

Did you notice I didn’t include any paid media in any of these phases? It all goes back to doing your level best for your current account holders. Using television or radio takes your messaging to a much broader audience, which can be a good thing in a good economy, but might not be the best way to spend your budget in a bad economy. Trying to persuade people to undergo a financial institution change when everything else in their life is chaos would be a hard sell indeed. So use your own assets, maybe sprinkle in some paid social media ads to those who are already connected with you, but put 90% of your efforts, your budget towards helping your current members. And just think, that loyalty your earning by doing so can be a great foundation for earning referrals as well.

Don’t Delay Planning

With the high rate of change in our daily lives, it is easy to get caught up in the here and now. But if you take time to create a plan for the Next and Nebulous, you and your  team will have something from which to start. It’s okay that the plan changes – heck, PLAN on the plan changing – but having nothing, no plan, is an easy way for chaos to creep in and take over.

If you need a guiding hand to help with your plan, please let me know! I am here to serve.

256-714-6596 or learnmore@jbcommunicationsgroup.com