Teenagers May Not Know About Credit Unions, But Neither Does Your Aunt


Over the holiday season I, like many, spent a great deal of time with family. I caught up with my cousins, nodded along as my dad and uncle discussed sports, and ate way too much food. In the course of going through the polite chit-chat and talking about what’s new with my cousins, my aunt reached over and asked about my job.

I told her I enjoyed it, but when I expanded on my role writing and editing for a magazine that focuses on credit unions and CUSOs, the big smiles turned to her own slow nods. As I elaborated, I got a lot of “mhm…”s and “uh-huh…”s, enough to tell that no one really knew what I was talking about. I knew they didn’t understand what a credit union was, let alone what CUSO stands for or what it does. After the slow nodding went on for a while, my aunt eventually broke down and said, “What’s the difference between a bank and a credit union? I’m never sure what it is that credit unions do.”

I responded as I think most in our industry would, enthusiastically sharing how credit unions are owned by their members, and how those members can get on the board and work for the credit union. I shared about the lower rates, the dividends, and the cooperative difference that brings credit unions together. Some were impressed, some continued to nod, and some asked more questions, which I was happy to answer.

My aunt jumped in again asking, “But do they offer similar things the banks do? Could I get a loan or a mortgage through them?”

After I explained to her that yes, credit unions offer all the same services banks do, along with the benefit of knowing you are an owner of your financial institution, there was a lot of murmuring. If that’s true, they wondered, then why would anyone choose a bank?

Age isn’t the problem

It’s always strange to me that there are so many people out there who still don’t understand what a credit union is or what makes them unique. Maybe it’s because I’ve been in the industry for a few years now, or maybe it’s because I assumed someone as educated and financially-savvy as my aunt would know that a credit union is a financial institution. But she doesn’t, and more often than not, I’m discovering most people I come across are equally as uneducated on the topic.

However, I didn’t fully realize until then, sitting in a room of people from ages 25 to 70, all of whom were financially successful and independent, how severe the lack of knowledge about our industry is. And those gaps in education aren’t limited to younger generations. They may be slightly larger, but nearly as often, I find older generations are just as uninformed. The credit union industry has been around for hundreds of years and still, people are unaware of what it is.

In fact, according to CUNA, 64% of all non-members are not familiar with credit unions. That number bumps slightly higher for Millennials (71%), but not nearly enough to lay the blame at their feet. This isn’t a generational problem where credit unions are simply failing to connect with Millennials and now Gen Z, it’s a population-wide issue. But how do we combat this lack of awareness?

Where can we switch it up?

Sadly, there’s no magic spell or one perfect solution that will turn this all around. I can’t provide you with a magic cure to make the whole world know and love credit unions. However, there are a few places where credit unions can improve.

A great place to start might in fact be with the word “member.” I know, I know, we in the industry pride ourselves on having members and not customers, but if the goal is to draw people in and help educate them on credit unions, the word member is confusing.

There’s a lot of implication behind the word. It implies you have to belong to a select group, one that has required qualifications, barriers to entry, and possibly membership fees. Banks and their customers have a very simple, universally understood relationship. You give them your money (and pay a certain fee to keep it there) and they take care of it for you. But what does membership entail? What does it require from the consumer? The truth is, the public doesn’t know, and that alone will make them unsure about joining a credit union.

Furthermore, some credit unions really enjoy advertising how different they are from banks. From our perspective, that’s a great thing! We have better member service, we are not-for-profit, and our members own their credit union. Why not tote it about?

But if your phrasing is limited to what you’re not, you’re doing nothing to help people understand what you are. Saying, “we are not a bank” doesn’t tell me what a credit union is, it makes me think I shouldn’t use your institution for the same things I use a bank for (which is the opposite of what we want people to think).

One advertisement I came across simply had the phrase, “no bankers, just neighbors.” Again, from our perspective, we are advertising that we care about our members and are part of the community, unlike banks. But from an outside perspective, I’m wondering, “what does this mean?” and more importantly, “what am I being offered?”

Beware of social media missteps 

When I step back and think of where in my daily life (outside of work that is) I come into contact with a credit union or casually hear about one, I’m at a loss. If you’re using the radio to advertise, sorry, I don’t hear you. My phone automatically connects to my car when it starts, and my Spotify is open and ready. What about TV ads? Nope, I actually pay extra each month to keep commercials and other marketing out of my streaming services. So what does that leave? Bus bench ads? Word of mouth? Social media? You’re welcome to cover as many benches as you’d like with ads, but social media might be a better bet (word of mouth is always a great resource too, but I think our industry is already pretty good with that).

Already have social media accounts? That’s great! But what are you actively doing with them? How are you reaching groups that don’t follow you? After a quick scroll through some credit union Twitter accounts, I saw some great ideas, fantastic promotions, well-made graphics, and overall solid marketing, but there are a few places they missed the mark.

Several of these credit unions sharing great tips on budgeting and financial health were only tagging their posts with #creditunions and #creditunionname. That’s a great way to get your post seen by other credit unions, but what about non-members? They probably won’t start searching Twitter for credit unions (remember, 64% of people don’t even know what they are), but they might start searching for #budgeting or #financialhealth.

Also, make sure your social media username is your actual credit union name, not your credit union’s acronym or “[Your Name] CU” only. I noticed a number of accounts only using their acronym. If your target is to reach new people, they need to be able to see your name. If a non-member does happen upon your post and reads it, the username CMCU @CMCU looks like nonsense or even a bot account, making the odds of users looking at your content extremely low. Sure, “[Your Name] CU” is a little better, but remember that most people don’t understand what credit unions are. We can hope they will make the connection between “CU” and credit union but it’s much better to just write it out. Plus, your full name will make them trust you more and will increase the likelihood of them interacting with you.

One step at a time

Stepping up your social media efforts and polishing off your marketing phrases won’t make prospective members come pouring in overnight, but one by one they might make understanding and connecting with credit unions easier for everyone. How do you think credit unions can improve the public’s understanding of who we are? Share below!


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