Trend Alert: Online Financial Makeover Reality Contests

This year, credit unions across the country are offering “savings challenges,” reality-based contests in which selected finalists compete to achieve specific savings and debt reduction goals (see 8 examples below). Participants work with a financial planner on a set of realistic yet ambitious financial goals. Over the next 10-12 months, their ongoing progress is made public.

The concept, originally developed by Filene’s i3 credit union think tank, uses a mix of reality television, online interaction and individual planning to encourage members to reduce debt, increase savings and get control of their financial lives.

One of the credit unions deploying a savings challenge this year is AMOCO Federal Credit Union, a $500 million financial institution outside Houston, Texas. They are calling their promotion the “Earn or Burn Money Challenge.”

Tina Linquist, Marketing Director/AMOCO FCU believes people are curious about the private financial lives of others, and could benefit from getting vicarious advice during a down economy. “Layoffs, bankruptcies, foreclosures — it’s all around us. People are afraid and they need help, they need advice, they need someone they can trust,” she said.

“Some people will probably think we are nuts, but our goal is PR,” Linquist said. “We want to build credibility in a time of financial uncertainty. If we do this right, people will learn to trust us and make the switch to us.”

Reality Check: These contests take a ton of time and energy, and they don’t necessarily lead to major, direct increases in business. They are primarily brand-building promotions.

The Earn or Burn Challenge kicked off in January. People were required to submit video entries to be considered for one of the four final spots. At the end of the year, the contestant who most improves their financial situation will win $20,000.

Each of the four finalists — three families and a single woman — have been assigned at least one “financial coach.” The credit union has seven total financial coaches working with the competitors.

Contestants have to be comfortable having all their personal financial details shared publicly.

In addition to a financial coach, each finalist gets a laptop equipped with a camera so they can create video diaries, or what AMOCO calls “confessionals.” They will be encouraged to share their thoughts and struggles as they work to make good money decisions.

“We have promoted the challenge heavily and generated a good amount of traffic to the challenge website,” Linquist told The Financial Brand.

The credit union sent out 2 or 3 email blasts promoting the launch of the savings challenge to 11,500 of its members, about 20% of the overall membership.

When asked how the competition will be supported over the course of the year, Linquist says, “We hope social media will help us attract and maintain interest. We want people to become engaged with the challenge and the four families, much like they are with reality shows.”

Reality Check: Creating a campaign with any kind of viral quotient is extremely hard. These promotions are just like any other. It takes time, money, energy and commitment to sustain people’s interest and attention.Many of the tools are cheap (or free), but just because “you built it,” doesn’t mean “they will come.”

AMOCO Federal Credit Union partnered with a number of co-sponsors for their savings challenge, including local TV station KHUO, the YMCA, a fitness center, a medical center, an IT consulting company and the creative workhorse that built the Earn or Burn website, PTP New Media.

All the finalists were featured in 30 second spots on KHOU, a local CBS affiliate, helping fuel interest and drive traffic to the website.

With its partnership with KHUO, Linquist says the plan is to “broadcast vignettes every month featuring a different family and the progress they are making.”

Bottom Line:

  • A savings challenge can be a good strategy if you want to build your brand around financial counseling and “advice you can trust.” But if those aren’t part of your strategic plan or components of your core brand, this kind of campaign probably isn’t right for you.
  • Savings challenges take as much time, money and energy to plan an execute as any other major promotion. If you aren’t comfortable with the (arguably vague) ROI with this type of campaign, then perhaps your financial institution should stick with more traditional sales-oriented promotions.
  • To make this work and backup your implicit brand promise that you are a smart financial institution, your entire staff needs to have a high level of financial knowledge.
  • A year is a long time for any promotion. It takes a lot for both the marketer and the audience to remain engaged over that period of time.


The website is essentially divided into two columns. On the left side, the latest video sits
atop an omnipresent Twitter stream. In addition to monitoring the financial details
and progress of the four contestants, the site offers viewers financial tips that can be
implemented in their own lives. They have five different RSS feeds, one for the credit union
and four others so you can track each family individually. There is also a blog embedded
within the Earn of Burn site.

AMOCO’s branded Twitter page supporting the Earn or Burn Challenge has over 400 “Followers.”
There’s also the Earn or Burn Facebook page that currently has 21 “Fans.”

GECU — “Savings Challenge ’09 College Edition”

First Tech Credit Union — “U-Turn Challenge”

Community America Credit Union — “Financial Makeover”

Kemba Financial Credit Union — “Biggest Saver”

E Federal Credit Union — “Lose to Win!”

Connex Credit Union — “$aving$ Challenge 2009”

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