Marketing to Young Adults is Hard

Marketing to Young Adults is Hard

Originally appeared in CUES Credit Union Management

But it’s not impossible. A three-part series.

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Aging membership is a real issue in the credit union industry. While the average age of a North American is 35, the average age of a U.S. credit union member has risen to 48. And in Canada, largely considered one of the most forward credit union systems in the world, the average age is 54!

But the real elephant in the U.S. financial services industry is the absolute dominance of the top 100 banks. While the credit union market share has increased slightly in the past 20 years to just under 7 percent, the community bank share has dropped by nearly two thirds—from 53 percent to less than 19 percent. Smaller banks are literally being swallowed by the top 100 banks, which have grown from less than 50 percent to more than 74 percent of the total market.

Why are Young People Going With Big Banks?

On the surface, it seems today’s young people should be drawn to community-based, socially conscious banking options, but the numbers are proving they are not. Why? Generally speaking, young adults distrust companies and media, could care less about banking, and have no idea what a credit union is. Lack of interest in personal finance, inertia of the big banks and misconceptions about smaller institutions are the biggest hurdles to overcome.

I’ve heard the argument that we shouldn’t go after young people because they don’t have any money. But they will! The Silent generation and the Boomers will pass on. According to The Journal of Gift Planning (, in the next 30 years, North American members of Gen X, Y and Z will inherit over $40 trillion dollars. This will be the largest transfer of wealth in history with money leaving smaller institutions for large banks by the truckload because 98 percent of next gen inheritors change advisors, and move away from their parents’ existing banking relationships. And where are the young people? At the 100 largest banks. It will be a tough trend to circumvent.

Planning Your Campaign

With that background and context in mind, reaching young consumers should be of paramount importance to your credit union. Let’s look at planning your young adult campaign to cut through the noise and have a real impact.

Your institution needs to take a layered approach to marketing to young adults by using all marketing channels available, including traditional media, digital marketing, events, public relations and more. Rethink the typical two- to three-month campaign mentality—year after year, most credit unions mount loan promotions in the spring and deposit campaigns in the fall, each with a disjointed creative approach. More sophisticated institutions have opted for long-term brand advertising. The same approach should be taken for young adult marketing. Because time never stops and your member base will continue to age, it’s impractical to think you can solve your age issue in a matter of months. It’s far more effective to mount a long-term initiative and build momentum over time.


Spend time up front contemplating your goals. Decide on three to four key performance indicators. Avoid getting caught up on social media vanity metrics including likes, views and followers—these types of KPIs are meaningless to your CEO and CFO. Instead, concentrate on real business objectives like member growth, brand awareness, new product sales, products per member increase and direct revenue. It’s up to you to determine your baselines before launching anything.


Next, think about your product offering. Really stop and think about what you are going to offer young adults—if it’s not compelling, all your marketing activity and investment will be wasted. Your product offering needs to include at least one or two differentiators. Free checking is still very appealing to cash-strapped young adults, but you need to have a streamlined way to open accounts, ideally online. Try to bundle your products—perhaps a checking account, a starter credit card and an auto loan—to cement your relationship early in the process.

Weigh your technology investments carefully. For instance, mobile banking is more important than personal financial management tools to young people and while remote deposit capture is all the rage, not many young people have to deal with checks these days. Take the time up front to think through your complete offering to young adults.

The big Midwest bank, PNC, has a killer banking application called Virtual Wallet ( It’s a great example of a product-centered approach to integrated marketing to young adults. The marketing is centered around user experience and product features expressed through real testimonial videos from Virtual Wallet customers.

If you’re looking for an off-the-shelf young adult product solution, Kasasa by BancVue ( is an option to consider. More than 170 community banks and credit unions across the United States are offering this rewards checking account.


To stand out, your campaign concept should be big, new and different. In fact, it should make you feel a little nervous.

For example, our Young & Free Marketing Program ( is built on a big idea: Empower a local young person to be the voice of their generation and empower that generation with a head start in the form of a free checking account and related products.

To date, 31 young adults have held the Young & Free Spokester position at credit unions all over the United States and Canada. Participating credit unions have attracted more than 150,000 young adults. The concept works extremely well for credit unions because they are so under the radar and the Spokesters feel really good about representing a not-for-profit, socially focused, local organization.

$630 million/78,000-member Listerhill Credit Union (, Sheffield, Ala., has done an excellent job of integrated young adult marketing with its “The Hill” initiative. Everything from a campus branch and free checking account, to a quarterly newspaper and an endless stream of events and promotions has made Listerhill CU the leading financial institution among young adults in northern Alabama.

FRANK by OCBC ( in Singapore is a hip, stylish and trendy brand with obvious youth appeal. To launch FRANK, OCBC conducted a ton of research, developed new products, a relevant brand and a cool new store. At the time of launch, the $200 billion financial institution already controlled 26 percent of the total youth market in Singapore. FRANK is propelling that number even higher.

The concept of a complementary youth brand has proven effective for financial institutions around the world. In Canada, Scotiabank recently acquired ING Direct and has rebranded as Tangerine ( to create a separate more youthful sub-brand. With the recent acquisition of Simple (, the hot Internet startup bank, global bank BBVA appears to be taking the same approach in the United States, using a complimentary, youthful sub-brand.


Now that you’ve got your product and your concept, you need to figure out your platform. For the digital aspect of your credit union’s young adult marketing, promote your own URL, not a social network you have no control over. Use popular platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram but think of these properties as outposts. Ultimately, you want full control of your content and don’t want to be held hostage by platforms that are increasingly charging to reach your followers and fans. Make sure your website is where you put your energy.

For a young adult campaign, you’ve got two choices for that destination. Choice one is a section within your corporate website. The advantage is that it has built-in traffic and it’s a single destination for your members and potential members. Disadvantages may include being lost in the complexity of the site; limitations in the content management system for incorporating social media, videos and contesting; and limited IT resources for building out something really custom within your corporate website.

Choice two is a stand-alone microsite. The advantages are total control, flexibility and simplicity. If your young adult campaign has a differentiated look from your corporate brand, it’s likely easier to build that in from the ground up on a separate website. The disadvantage is that building traffic to a new destination can cost more and take time.

If you go the stand-alone microsite route, you’ll have dozens of content management systems to choose from. Make sure to choose a platform that supports a mobile responsive theme so all your content is optimized for all screen sizes. WordPress ( is the most popular but will require technical chops to fully customize the look and optimize for speed and hosting. Consider a hosted CMS like Squarespace ( or Virb ( among others if you want a solid platform that doesn’t require a lot of technical expertise. This is the ideal route for a smaller marketing department to consider.

If building your own platform from the ground up is not for you, there are a bunch of pre-built platforms in the credit union industry, including CUNA’s Money Mix (, Elements of Money ( and Young & Free.

In addition to growing your following on popular social networks, you should aim to grow your email database as well. Campaign Monitor (, MailChimp ( and CUES Supplier member DigitalMailer (, Herndon, Va., are good email providers to consider.

Aim to deliver at least one email per month with a combination of useful information, chances to win simple prizes and product messages. Take every opportunity to grow your email lists. In this age of social media, email has been largely discounted, but it can be really effective—it’s an affordable way to continuously connect and stay top of mind.


Closely related to platform is monitoring. You can build a free listening station for your digital marketing and social media activity that will enable you to monitor the Web for activity around your brand, your products and services, and your competitors. Set up a Gmail ( account to get access to free Google applications, including Google Analytics, Google Alerts, YouTube, Google+ and more.

For managing your social media presence, Hootsuite ( is a great choice. It will improve your productivity by managing all your social networks within a single dashboard. Plus, you can set it up to work within a team environment.

Other useful tools include Bitly (, a trackable URL shortener. Social Mention ( is a social search tool and Klout ( is useful if you want to get a quick handle on the folks who are following your accounts.

Bonus 1: Launching Your Youth-Focused Campaign

Tools and tricks to reach Gen Y and beyond

The top 100 banks hold 74 percent of the total youth financial services market. That is bad news for credit unions. But if you plan effective youth-focused campaigns, you can make a dent.

After you come up with a plan to meet your market’s youth population, the next step is launching an awesome campaign. Here are some ideas to get you started.

Content and Social

Only take on as many social networks as you can realistically keep up with over the long term. With Young & Free, even though we have a dedicated full-time person, we keep things fairly simple by concentrating on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram. Only introduce additional platforms like Pinterest, Google+ or Foursquare if you have the capacity and it makes sense for your campaign concept.

The latest buzzword these days is “content marketing” and the biggest trend is the constant linking to other people’s stuff. This is OK from time to time, but you need to be producing your own content and linking back to your own destination as much as possible. There are options to buy or license content. Brass Media ( among others have digital solutions for both credit unions and banks. This is a viable alternative for smaller institutions with limited marketing resources.

The Filene Research Institute ( has teamed up with Que Social to offer a platform for sharing content on Twitter and Facebook. This is another option for credit unions that are unable to create their own content.

At Currency, we’re also getting into the licensed content arena with our launch of It’s a Money Thing content packs for credit unions ( Each content pack tackles an important financial topic and includes a custom branded video, infographic, article and presentation. This is a way to share your own content without the hassle or investment of creating high-quality content.

No matter what way you go with content and social, you need to have a strong personality and a distinctive point of view, and it needs to be interactive and engaging. Especially if you are trying to get the attention of young adults.

Media and Events

The second piece of your launch strategy should be media and events. If you have an interesting campaign concept, you can get media attention. In addition to covering the novelty of the job search, our Spokesters have been great media spokespeople in print and on TV. These opportunities have resulted in more than a $1 million in unpaid media attention.

It’s important to be present in your community and at events where young people go. You need to connect in person and have a dialogue. It should be a combination of online and in person and it has to be fun. Again having a dedicated person makes this possible and way more effective than a couple of middle aged people standing behind a table.

Bonus 2: Sustaining Your Youth Campaign

Try contests and targeted promotions to stay in front of the young market

You’ve come up with an excellent and effective youth campaign and launched it. Now it’s time to monitor it for ongoing success.

Layering and Pulsing

Sustaining a compelling young adult marketing campaign at your credit union beyond two or three months is hard work. Once the dust settles, you really need to have a plan to sustain momentum over a long period of time. The way to do this is through a mix of layering and pulsing.

Consider adding contests from time to time. Everything from simple sweepstakes to elaborate user-generated video contests can be effective. What’s interesting is that contesting may seem to be nothing to do with sales and growth, but we’ve been able to correlate, time and time again, that an increase in Web traffic and attention translates into spikes in account growth. However, the social Web is experiencing a bit of contest fatigue as every brand clamors for attention, so you’ve got be creative and pretty generous with your prizing if you want to attract participation.

Smart contesting can work for companies of all sizes. Every year, Google invites K-12 students to work their artistic magic on the Google homepage logo. The winner receives a $15,000 scholarship, a computer and a $25,000 technology grant for his or her school. Google received 33,000 entries in 2013.

Focus in on personal interests of young people. If everything is about money it can get pretty boring. We’ve held a Sound Off Music Competition in Maine ( for the past three years and it’s one our most successful contests. If you do something like this, the prizes have to be amazing. The grand prize at Sound Off is a recording session and a main stage spot at a major music festival.

And finally, don’t be afraid to sell to young adults online! In the early days of social media, sales were taboo, but it’s far more acceptable to provide a mix of helpful information and the occasional sales message. We’re now in our seventh year of Young & Free Alberta ( and we’ve been experimenting with increasingly more direct sales promotions and have had great success in attracting new young members. We recently ran a geo- and demo-targeted online loan promotion that resulted in a 21% increase in the number of loans compared to the same period one year earlier. The paid media mix included Google network ads, YouTube pre-roll ads and Facebook boosted posts combined with free messaging on Twitter.

The Path Ahead

It will be a tough road ahead for smaller financial institutions to compete with the top 100 banks. But with hard work and focus on the next generation, credit unions can carve out a viable future. I will leave you with five ideas to implement. 1) Think long-term program vs. short-term promotion. 2) You need a big, appealing and versatile concept. 3) Use all available media. 4) Keep at it—it’s never really over. 5) And, you need dedicated resources.

Tim McAlpine lives in Chilliwack, British Columbia, Canada. He is the President and Creative Director of Currency Marketing, an integrated marketing agency specializing in helping credit unions attract the next generation of members. Tim is best known as the creator of Young & Free and CUES Next Top Credit Union Exec, and co-creator of the CU Water Cooler.

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