LAS VEGAS-As traditional avenues of marketing either decline or change, Kelley Parks says credit unions should seize the power of word-of-mouth advertising.

Parks, formerly VP of marketing and business development for Call FCU, Richmond, Va., is the founder of Henrico, Va.-based credit union consultancy gira{ph}. She noted trust in consumer advertising has dropped 41% in the last three years and 92% of people who own DVRs fast forward through commercials, both of which tend to limit the impact of general marketing spending.

"Ten years ago, the mass media controlled 95% of the content consumers were exposed to," Parks said during the CUNA Marketing & Business Development Council's recent conference here. "Today, there are millions of bloggers and thousands of conversations taking place on social media sites."

The trick, she explained, is to get one's credit union mentioned on Facebook, Twitter or on blogs.

"There are five questions that are most important, I call them the litmus test," she said. "Answer five questions: Is it engaging? Is it true? Is it relevant? Is it fresh? Is it memorable? Every credit union has its own circumstances, but if something passes those five things, it will generate word of mouth."

Parks offered CUs nine ideas to "create conversation" through word of mouth.

1. Reinvent the Common Bond

Despite CUs' ability to add SEGs, and later, community charters, membership growth at credit unions has slowed dramatically in recent decades, Parks pointed out. "I think this is because we have lost that common bond that credit unions had in the 1950s and 1960s," she said. "Even if a credit union has a community charter, it should connect with a unique niche."

As an example, Parks said Latino Community CU in North Carolina has built an impressive business model and is one of the most profitable credit unions in the country. "There are members who drive for hours across North Carolina to go to the credit union because there is a common bond," she said.

Another example: Boulder Valley CU in Colorado has built its entire brand on being "Your Eco-conscious Credit Union."

2. Speak Their Language

Entrust FCU in Richmond, Va., serves Christian missionaries. It recently added other church groups, which Parks said is an example of connecting with a niche.

3. Create a Buzz

"Be unusual, be outrageous or be remarkable," said Parks, who pointed out Krispy Kreme made the simple act of purchasing a donut into a unique event-and thereby created its own buzz. Another example is Facebook, which started out as something for college students. Eventually, other people clamored to be in the "special club."

4. Do Something PR Worthy

Seattle Metropolitan CU had a $10 giveaway a few years ago. The one catch: the money was for the recipients to give to someone else. "This got national media coverage," Parks said. "For a relatively small investment this credit union got a lot of attention."

5. Solve a Problem

Chicken restaurant KFC launched a program a few years back that involved the company paying a contractor to fill potholes. In exchange, it put its logo on the fresh blacktop. Closer to the credit union world, Parks praised the Filene Research Institute's Debt in Focus program, which allowed people to address their debt problems anonymously. "People are embarrassed to talk about debt, this is a great program."

6. Stand For Something

Studies show 85% of Americans are willing to change their behavior to make the world a better place. Clothing company Patagonia taps into this spirit. "Champion a cause," Parks urged credit unions.

7. Leverage Social Media

The statistics are eye-catching: 500-million people on Facebook, 50% of whom log in every day. Facebook has 70 translations worldwide. Seventy percent of bloggers organically talk about companies. There are 14-million articles on Wikipedia, which tends to pop up near the top of searches. Some 20 hours of video content are uploaded to You Tube every minute. There are 75-million accounts on Twitter.

"Take advantage of social media, but be aware of the fact only 10% of word of mouth happens online," Parks said.

8. Be Human

Credit unions have a great reputation for service, but Parks said the challenge is how to do so online? She said Coast Capital Savings has an online virtual hostess that adds a critical element of humanity to the web banking experience.

Before Diana Dykstra moved on to become president and CEO of the California and Nevada CU Leagues, when she was CEO of San Francisco Fire CU Dykstra had a special spot on the credit union's website for a feature called "Ask Diana." Parks said members could use this to send Dykstra an e-mail directly, which made them feel welcomed and listened to.

9. Be a Rock Star at One Thing

In-N-Out Burger has just seven menu items, but it is more profitable than McDonald's. The reason, Parks said, is In-N-Out is focused on doing a great job on the few items it offers rather than trying to be everything to everybody.

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