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Can You Live on $20 for 20 Days?

AUSTIN, Texas — A unique social media experiment helped one credit union here achieve its new account goals and develop its long-term strategy for utilizing this new medium.

During its "rush" period at the start of the academic year, University FCU offered students a $20.09 initial deposit for any student who opened up a checking account and challenged them to show how far they could stretch that money with a video contest that offered $500 to the winner.

To further demonstrate how far that small sum of money could go, David Lee, an employee at FG SQUARED, a marketing firm with which UFCU teamed to promote its offer and contest, decided to live on $20.09 worth of food for 20 days and nine minutes, and blog about his experience.

"He really understood the spirit of the campaign and understood the target audience," said Jason Fellman, co-founder of FG SQUARED.

As the marketing firm leveraged its social media and traditional public relations expertise, what really helped generate interest in the program was the attention Lee's blog garnered from a more popular blog. Site traffic at his blog and UFCU's site picked up over the days and conversation started in earnest. At one point, some followers questioned if the experiment was making light of people who live in poverty, but those suggestions were quickly shot down by a number of other readers.

"Other followers of his blog jumped in and defended the campaign," Fellman noted. "It really summed up what you hope happens with social media; if you perform a campaign with the right intent, the wisdom of crowds rises to the surface."

Experiment Goes Mainstream

Lee's experiment and UFCU's promotion went mainstream from there, with a story appearing on the front page of the University of Texas' student newspaper, The Daily Texan. While some companies can be uncomfortable with the potential loss of message control in a campaign like this, Fellman pointed out that a marketing and advertising blitz with a typical press release blast likely would not have attracted attention from the student newspaper. Credit unions looking to garner "traditional media" attention for their social media campaigns need to ask if their promotions are "newsworthy out of the gate or not, because in this case it probably wasn't," said Fellman. "What made it newsworthy is how it evolved."

Though its marketing budget was cut in half this year, UFCU set a goal of opening 2,254 accounts during the "rush" period, one more than last year, and managed to surpass that goal by 50 accounts. "So many of our new members are in the 18- to 25-year-old demographic we've been trying for a number of years to use media that this demographic is using," said VP of Membership Sheila Wojcik. "(But) social media is not just for Gen Yers. There are a lot of Gen Xers and even the boomers using social media, especially YouTube and Facebook."

The $1-billion CU plans to step up its social media outreach in 2010 and add more personality to the medium. "That's what David Lee did on our behalf. He brought in his personal touch and fun with his (campaign)," Wojicik noted.

Fellman suggested credit unions start their social media efforts modestly and grow slowly and deliberately. Emphasizing good back and forth conversation with the community, complete transparency and a "do a little at a time" approach are key to a successful social media presence.

"The nice thing about social media is that you can set things up fairly quickly and sometimes you don't know where it is going to take you," said Fellman. "It's not something people need to be afraid of. If you approach it deliberately and not try to shoot the moon, you can get your feet wet (without taking much risk)."