LOS ANGELES-It took Kristen Christian less than an hour to lay the groundwork for one of the largest consumer migrations in history.
A long-time Bank of America customer who says she had also long been unhappy with the bank, the Los Angeles-based art gallery owner said she had only "disgust" when BofA announced it intended to implement a $5 monthly debit card fee. What would follow has made Christian Credit Union Journal's 2011 Story of the Year.
Christian got into a Facebook discussion about the morality of the fee and when one person responded with "Who cares?," she was spurred to take action. Less than an hour later Christian had created a Facebook page for what she began calling "Bank Transfer Day" and which she hoped would take place on Nov. 5, 2011.
"I initially reached out to 500 friends and I assumed maybe 200 would respond and shift their business to a credit union," she said. "I was expecting the impact of the Facebook event to be around $20,000."
Instead, within two days the event had attracted tens of thousands of followers and quickly mushroomed into one of the year's greatest examples of the power of so-called viral marketing. CUNA has estimated that more than 440,000 Americans moved their financial relationships to credit unions as the result of Bank Transfer Day.
Christian isn't some longtime credit union activist; in fact, her relationship with Bank of America had lasted 13 years at the time she took to Facebook. When the banking giant announced that it was implementing a $5 debit fee, "my discontent turned to disgust," she said in a recent CUNA webinar. "I knew I couldn't personally support a company that would choose to target the impoverished and working class."
The $5 fee itself wasn't an issue for her-she spends that much on coffee every day, she said. But having worked with Tri-Counties Regional Center, a local non-profit for the developmentally disabled, Christian said she came into contact with many people on disability who live on only $500 or $600 per month. "It bothered me very deeply at a moral level, because it was clear to me that Bank of America was targeting those who couldn't afford to pay the fee."
All of that led to the creation of the Bank Transfer Day site and all that was to follow. The site was not purely about moving business to credit unions; it urged consumers to look to community banks, as well. The Facebook page included a link to findacreditunion.com, and almost from the beginning visitors began posting positive messages about their credit union on the page's wall.
"I was in shock," Christian recalled of the response. "The reality had not set in of how big this could potentially become. I think I began to realize the full potential of the movement when Jen Doll, a reporter from the Village Voice, found my [phone number] online. I just remember being completely stunned that a major media reporter was calling me to discuss this idea I'd had. I just remember thinking 'Why does the Village Voice want to talk to me?'"
Not Everyone A Fan...
Christian went on to be interviewed by major media outlets like The Los Angeles Times and made appearances on National Public Radio, ABC's "World News Tonight" and the Fox Business Channel, where she appeared alongside CUNA CEO Bill Cheney. And in the process Christian joined Coast Hills FCU in Lompoc, Calif., near her hometown.
But as Bank Transfer Day gained steam, it also attracted its share of detractors. Christian said that she was accosted by Occupy Los Angeles organizers and has even received threatening phone calls.
"The reason it wasn't warmly embraced by the Occupy movement was ... because the approaches were so different," Christian said, saying the people involved with Occupy have taken more of a disruptive tack, whereas "one of the strongest points behind Bank Transfer Day was the positive push. I never resorted to attacking banks ... but instead kept the focus on the benefits of credit unions."
Since she's become a nationally known figure, Christian has attracted some recognition in the area near her home. "I definitely do get [noticed] walking around East Los Angeles," she said, adding that she tries to take time to speak with supporters and "give them further feedback on additional ways we can make a difference in our local communities."
While the last few months have been a wild ride for Christian, she said that it's also been educational. "I had a very basic understanding of our financial structure" before initiating Bank Transfer Day, she said. As such, she's begun to learn more about the unique issues credit unions face, including the struggles to boost loan volumes. "It's been a constant learning experience."
The Road Ahead...
While CUNA revised its initial Bank Transfer Day tally to 440,000 bank-to-CU transfers, Christian said that even with the revised numbers, "the response from American supporters was deafening." She refers to the event "a consumer reawakening."
But how can credit unions continue to capitalize on all of the momentum? Christian beleives they'll have to rely on the same social media technology that drove those new members to them in the first place.
"Utilizing and leveraging social media to allow existing members to spread the benefits of credit unions to potential members through word-of-mouth recommendation is absolutely crucial," she said.
Christian recommends the use of social media services and strategies "to inform consumers of the positive impact credit unions have on local economies through sincere, cause-related marketing that engages users to sell your products and services for you through word-of-mouth recommendations. I urge every credit union in America to remind members and potential members that every day is Bank Transfer Day."
Will there be a Bank Transfer Day II? Christian says no-at least, not with her leading the charge. "It was definitely a labor of love," she said, pointing to a long hours promoting the cause in person and on the Internet. "I am so passionate about this because I believe credit unions will promote growth on the local level. But as far as physically, I'm not sure that's something I could commit to at this point. But I believe credit unions and the American public can take it from here."