How PenFed Generates Real ROI With Social Media

Telling stories large and small through social media channels to help build the financial institution's brand and drive awareness of its charter change was the goal. Building visibility came by hiring specialists with eyes and ears for stories people care about.

Too many bank and credit union social media posts just don’t resonate with anybody at all.

The strategy of having accounts for your institution on all the major platforms just to show you’re “with it” is about a decade out of date. And even clever posts will wither on the social vine unseen and useless to advance your brand if there’s no muscle behind the effort.

What many institutions could use is a social media team that produces content with the attention to appeal and quality of a modern TV news team, backed by the analytical focus to evaluate metrics every day to see what means something to people and how to improve the content. For those with limited budgets, even just one person experienced in producing news content would be a big plus.

PenFed Credit Union, with a large-institution budget, opted for the team approach in early 2019 when it started what’s now a seven-member social media team under Andrea McCarren, Vice President & Chief Content Officer, PenFed Digital.

McCarren came aboard not even knowing the differences between a bank and a credit union, she admits in an interview with The Financial Brand. But after about 35 years of experience in local and national television news production and other journalism, McCarren had learned how to tell stories in a way that mattered to people. (And learned how to become an “instant expert” in many fields.)

PenFed twitter veteran home

Many of PenFed’s social posts carry a military theme. The video that this still version represents tells a story of compassion and appreciation.

And the key point is that the attraction to these stories paid off for PenFed. The credit union has gone from a lackluster level of engagement to a social media program that actually functions cooperatively, but independently, of PenFed’s own marketing function.

“We have a marketing team and we have the digital team and we work collaboratively,” says McCarren. “I always tell them, ‘I will bring consumers into the tent and then you can sell products and services to them.'”

That’s an important distinction, says McCarren, from PenFed’s old practice, which generally just used social media channels as another place to post traditional commercials. While PenFed social posts frequently still use videos, most of the samples accompanying this article represent posts with staff-produced video stories or interviews, not ads.

Starting up the new operation meant changes for PenFed, but also for McCarren. “I was an investigative reporter for decades and I was often the primary go-to reporter for breaking news,” she explains. “That often meant covering natural disasters, mass shootings and other things that were tremendously grim.”

By contrast, her team’s mission is to tell upbeat, human-interest stories that evoke positive emotions.

“They can be informative, they can be educational, and they can also be uplifting,” says McCarren. “so I am absolutely loving what I do now.”

But, more to the point of ROI, does the public like what McCarren’s team produces? The proof is in a growing following that is also more diverse by gender, ethnicity and age, she says. This is especially so on Facebook, the credit union’s leading social channel.

Bottom Line:

Social media is the great equalizer. Everyone has access to it and it’s free.

“What I love about social media and leveraging it for a financial institution is that it’s a two-way street,” says McCarren. “Members often get real-time feedback on their concerns and they’re also able to weigh in on content that we post, whether we are celebrating the birthday of the Air Force or sharing great community service projects by either our members or employees.”

That only touches on a portion of what PenFed social covers. In the The Financial Brand interview McCarren spoke about building a broad social program that gets eyeballs. She shared tips that can help any financial institution using social media to do a better job.

PenFed twitter veteran and service dog

PenFed sponsors the raising and training of service dogs. Frequently the progress of the trainee canines is tracked in the credit union’s social posts. At right “Maverick” is being trained to calm a veteran subject to nightmares — including turning on the lights.

Read More: Marketing Helps PenFed Rack Up Major Growth Under Open Charter

Building a Productive Social Media Presence

Today PenFed social media includes an enviable range and depth and has won national awards.

“Every piece of content we share is intended to evoke an emotion,” says McCarren. “The effect may be uplifting, informative, educational or surprising.”

A sampling of what PenFed puts out there: news and updates about service dogs sponsored by the credit union (and raised by McCarren and her family); advisories about financial decisions, such as the video accompanying this article about stimulus checks; tributes to military and military families and first responders; and community service stories. A relatively new approach is mini documentaries, such as a five-part series about a potential treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. A popular post that draws younger followers are the observations of PenFed’s own interns, with whom that audience identifies.

But when McCarren and her team began working, she found that she had to earn the respect of other PenFed employees, in spite of the journalistic chops her group collectively brought.

“Some people felt social media was goofy and frivolous,” she explains.

An approach that made a good ice-breaker that any institution can try is a three-point mini profile of colleagues.

“I start by asking people three things about themselves: their hometown, their job title and something unique about themselves that even the person sitting next to them might not know,” says McCarren. “They provide some photos and I’ll add a photo of them from my cell phone.”

PenFed twitter ww2 veterans

Tales of two World War Two veterans, one a sailor and the other an Army nurse, make for stories that PenFed’s Andrea McCarren believes appeal beyond the credit union’s traditional military and military family membership.

Voila, a quick post about PenFed people has come together. The hooks can be as diverse as being a devotee of a particular martial art to having run a marathon to adopting a child to interesting volunteer work.

From the get-go, positivity became the underlying current of everything the team does. “I’m not saying we shy away from controversy,” says McCarren, “but we don’t run toward it either.”

Since the team’s work began appearing online, “we’ve done thousands of stories.”

Social Tip:

In the beginning, “bank” a bunch of content before going live, so the stream doesn’t run dry.

Balancing Speed, Interest and Compliance

Part of the idea of bringing on professionals used to the pace of TV news was to boost the volume of posts. Every day McCarren’s group holds “story meetings” to surface ideas much like a newsroom staff.

“Our marketing department works with ad agencies on a long timeline, as a great marketing department should,” says McCarren, “but social media content is very different — and more immediate.”

In fact, says McCarren, “reflecting our background in news, we produce new content lightning fast. From conception to execution is typically within 24 hours. ”

Social Tip:

For social media you want things that are in real time and that are timely and relevant.

The question is, how does that work in a highly regulated environment like a major, very visible credit union subject to a multitude of rules? Social media can be a minefield for reputations and careers.

Every piece of content the team produces that the public sees goes through PenFed’s compliance team. Early on, some education went on concerning general boundaries of what the social team could and couldn’t say, for instance, about rates.

On the flip side, “our compliance team has done an extraordinary job giving us feedback within an hour or two,” says McCarren. “That was a real departure. When we arrived I don’t think they were used to having to provide feedback so quickly.”

The cell phone has revolutionized production, even for PenFed’s professionals. McCarren notes that on a trip to the West Coast she produced video posts that were shot and edited exclusively on her phone. The immediacy of execution has to be balanced with the regulatory obligation, however.

Following the Learning Curve of Financial Social Media

Even with extensive experience, PenFed’s team members had a lot of personal reeducation to accomplish. Running a credit union social media operation is not the same thing as running the nightly news or a news website.

“When we came to PenFed, we were kind of like steamrollers,” says McCarren. But even steamrollers need to be steered.

Take the matter of video lengths. When the team first started posting them, frequently on channels beyond YouTube, a video of two to three minutes with some text seemed the ideal.

But that was before the pandemic. “As time went on,” says McCarren, “the audience attention span grew shorter and shorter.”

Social Tip:

Now the sweet spot for a financial social media video lies between 30 seconds and a minute.

Rules of thumb don’t last in social media… think back on how Twitter posts, for example, used to be straight text (and 120 characters).

PenFed Dracula spoof

Humor can work, even when done of a shoestring. “Dracula” thought he’d flown into a blood bank. “We’re not a bank, we’re a credit union,” declares the member service representative. Both actors are actually members of the PenFed Digital production team.

So keeping up with current trends for your own institution’s postings is critical. McCarren says newscasters routinely studied the previous day’s Nielsen ratings and the team carried that habit over to its social role.

“With our videos, we find that if we can hold people’s attention for the first ten seconds, they will likely stay until the conclusion,” says McCarren. “So you’ve got to make those opening moments work. That’s because today there is so much multimedia noise that those first moments must be compelling and relevant.”

Social Tip:

“Relevance” of social media posts can be very subjective depending on age, interests and more. Don’t peg decisions on just one person’s like or dislike of an idea. Ask the team.

“I am a real advocate of taking some chances with content,” says McCarren. “Every idea is on the table.” Hence the importance of second opinions in the room.

Anecdotal feedback also counts. McCarren notes that Human Resources has told her than a significant amount of younger candidates mention PenFed’s social posts as a reason for being interested in working there.

Understanding Where You Stand in Social Realms

Part of the ROI obtained at the end of the process hinges on decisions made early on, regarding what channels to emphasize for what type of content. Part of attention to metrics is to know not only how strong the following is on a given channel, but how much people engage with the brand there.

PenFed became open to anyone through the acquisition of another credit union in early 2019, expanding substantially from its historical base of military and Defense Department staff. While military themes still flavor its posts strongly, other themes are frequently explored.

PenFed twitter 911 gallery

“Facebook and LinkedIn are our biggest platforms,” says McCarren. On the former, PenFed reaches over 12 million people a month. Twitter, on the other hand, is the weakest platform for the credit union. McCarren says Twitter is especially news focused, so people tend to go there looking for real-time content.

LinkedIn, being business oriented, gets a special focus. “It’s a great place to showcase James Schenck, our President & CEO, ” says McCarren. “We do thought leadership pieces for him and demonstrate that he’s not one dimensional. He’s a pilot, and a former Army Blackhawk helicopter pilot, for example.” Other officers have also been featured on that platform. So have feeds that are shared from other channels.

Instagram posts tend to be focused on a younger demographic and to help assure relevance, McCarren says she tends to rely on her younger staffers and interns to keep that effort appropriately focused.

Overall, McCarren says it is important to understand your institution’s following. PenFed has found that the strongest interest in its social media comes from Puerto Rico. As a result the credit union decided to make some posts bilingual when they are tailored for Puerto Rican followers.

One hole in the menu so far is TikTok. “We had TikTok for a minute,” says McCarren, “but when the Department of Defense pulled it down for security concerns, we did so too.” PenFed is keeping its eye on that channel for now, as it represents a potential way beyond Instagram to reach young prospects.

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