Archive for February, 2010

One of the most common things I hear out in the land of credit unions and community banks is “we’ve got great word of mouth.” Somewhat skeptical of how accurate this is, I like to probe a little and find out what they mean. Upon further digging, what I normally hear is this: “We are very active in the community, providing financial literacy education, and sponsoring local events, etc., so people have a positive impression of us.”

This is what I call “goodwill word of mouth”. It’s like the concept of karma applied to marketing: if you do good things for other people, it will come back around and good things will happen to you.

I don’t disagree with that, but you can’t build a bank or credit union business on that alone. And just as importantly for this blog, you can’t really call that word of mouth.

See, goodwill WOM is very positive. It’s favorable sentiment out in the community, and you can’t argue with the value of that. But it’s still passive, and reactive. Goodwill WOM does not STIMULATE word of mouth or buzz. Much like we described in our recent post, Reactive Word of Mouth is Not Enough, goodwill word of mouth may give you the benefit of the doubt in a customer’s mind, but it it is not enough to cause them to proactively mention your credit union or community bank to a friend or family member without being prompted.

The bottom line: embrace your goodwill WOM, but don’t settle for it. Continue working to spark deliberate, proactive word of mouth.



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I was working on my presentation for tonight’s California Credit Union League Wine Country Chapter meeting, at which I’m presenting about social media, when I was struck with a funny realization: credit unions (to be fair, this is true of most companies) have somehow pulled off an amazing feat. The SIMULTANEOUS oversimplification and overcomplication of social media. That’s like driving in reverse and forward at the same time. Impressive indeed.

Here’s what I mean:

: It seems most financial institutions have come to think that social media is as simple as putting up a Facebook page (focusing, of course, on making sure the logo looks good, rather than creating substantive content), sending a few tweets (ummmm, financial education tips anyone?), and producing a “viral” video for YouTube (“viral” meaning the marketing staff forward it to their friends, where it then stops or gets viewed 8 more times by other credit unions)

Overcomplication: At the same time, social media isn’t rocket science. It’s about connecting with people over common interests, and showing a sincere level of care about their lives. That’s not really complex, but we overthink it. We all know how to be successful in social situations–if we weren’t capable of having quality social interactions, none of us would have any friends in real life. So how come we can’t do it for our companies? Further evidence of overcomplication is the obsession with compliance and multiple layers of approval. I’m always baffled when I hear marketers say “our Twitter account isn’t ready yet. We’re still working on it, and waiting for approval.” What? It takes 10 seconds to set it up, and (as long as you have something worthwhile to say) you can be adding value to conversations in minutes.


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Word of mouth is generated by things that don’t fit into the way we are used to seeing the world. When someone/something acts differently than as expected, we talk about it. As Steve Knox (CEO of Proctor & Gamble inside agency Tremor) puts it, “word of mouth disrupts schemas”. Knox recently wrote a very good article for Ad Age, which spoke about the cognitive science behind what makes people talk.

Usually our brain stays in a very static state, expending as little energy as possible as we go about our day-to-day activities. It’s a conservation method that lets our brains rely on learned cognitive schemas of how things are supposed to work. A good example that Knox gave is driving. When we (in the US) get in our cars, we automatically drive on the right side of the road. It feels natural, comfortable and familiar. When we are in the UK, it feels wrong or bizarre to be driving on the left side and see cars passing on the right. As we try to reconcile the unfamiliar and “disruptive” experience, we talk about it.

I have a theory that simply having a sense humor could in and of itself be buzzworthy for many banks and credit unions. Why? Because it’s unexpected. The public is very programmed to think of financial institutions as serious, conservative and stoic. Like seeing a car drive on the wrong side of the street, a bank being genuinely funny could be a shock that jerks people out of their stupor. I’m sure there are lots of other schema-busting things that banks could do to get people talking. How about being open until 10 pm? Or having tellers with lots of visible tattoos and piercings? Both of those disrupt mental models we have about banks (banks have inconvenient hours and bank employees dress square).

But how many banks or credit unions are really going to dare and be different to get people talking? I guess the biggest obstacle to disrupting other people’s cognitive schemas is first busting one’s own.

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