You Can Kill All Those Trees-Or Try Going Out On A Limb

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About a month from now a small forest of trees and a tall mountain of opportunity are both going to go to waste. And it will all be in cooperative tribute to International Credit Union Day and Week.

My reference is to those newspaper inserts that many credit unions around the country band together to produce the third week of every October. In many cases it's in the midsize and smaller markets where the media buy is affordable-and where credit unions still share a greater sense of cooperative spirit. But while the intentions are admirable and the potential enormous, the execution is neither. At the heart of the problem is a Perfect Storm of conditions: Committees, vanity, and a lack of humble analysis.

Let's start with the last one, because it's really the most important. Every person involved in assembling a newspaper insert should ask themselves two questions throughout the process. First, would the average reader's eyeballs stop here? In the case of nearly every insert I've seen, the answer is a plain no. Or rethink this question in different terms: Do I stop and read those newspaper inserts from local hospitals or car dealers or the women's auxiliary? Most scream, "I'm a fluffy piece of self-promotion. Please insert me in your bird or gerbil cage," where discerning birds and gerbils know precisely what to do. Most readers-especially men-fish out of the newspaper all the inserts, flyers and coupons and promptly trash them. The only people with time to burn on boring inserts are the unemployed, the homeless and senior citizens-and while serving the underserved is an admirable goal of credit unions, it's likely not the goal of your insert.

The second question to ask yourself is related to the first: What's in this for the reader? In most cases, very little to nothing. If you can't catch the eye and prick the interest of someone quickly thumbing through the newspaper, your budget is getting the thumb.

The second storm front sinking the good ship Credit Union Insert is how these inserts come about. Because costs need to be shared, a large committee is formed that often includes every credit union that ponies up. The various participants produce various ads with various messages, all independent of each other. Some of the ads are well done, but many look amateurish due to budget constraints, which hurts both types of advertiser. No one on the committee wants to insult anyone else, so nothing is said about some of the ads and, besides, the committee is made up of volunteers who really just want to get the materials in by deadline. As a result, making the deadline becomes the goal, not making an impression.

Most of the credit union newspaper inserts I've seen are feel-good tributes to self. That's the third and final weather pattern contributing to this storm. Feel-good tributes are great if your goal is to boost your own self-esteem, but a whole lot less than swell if you are expecting to see some ROI or build recall. Ever wonder how it is that despite the significant costs of mass media, and especially budget-busters like the Super Bowl, you still see TV or slick magazine advertisements that make an impression only because they're awful? The reason is that sponsors become so blinded at seeing their names on TV or in glossy ads that they can't take an objective view. How else to explain an Internet company's talking sock puppet or that Burger King "Herb" campaign.

It's probably too late to make many changes to any inserts planned for this year, but here are five ideas:

1. Whether it's for information or for entertainment, readers have one thought in mind: "What's in this for me." Studies show how readers' eyes scan over headlines on the front page and over all the pages inside until something stops them. The question you pose on that insert (and it should be a question, not some nebulous "Credit Unions: Gosh, We're Neat" headline) has to be the stopper-as does every story inside.

2. When it comes to that attention-grabber, credit unions are fortunate to have an innate advantage. Unlike, say, a hospital(s)- sponsored insert -do people really skip the closest emergency room to get to the one they read about?- in which someone has to be in the market at the time to be interested, everyone's looking to do better financially. Without sensationalizing, those inserts should leverage people's fears of misspending money, not having enough for retirement, getting ripped off on credit cards, etc. Those are serious concerns and serious problems-position the credit union as a solution.

3. Dump the text in which individual CUs talk about themselves, and stick to some of the issues outlined above-with various credit unions offering advice and insight. Perhaps it's part of the agreement that insert sponsors can toot their own horns, but it's self-defeating. Maybe you really are the friendliest credit union in the world-the question remains, "What's in it for the reader?" Good publications are like mirrors, but there's a Mirror Paradox: They shouldn't reflect your interests, but those of the reader. So get focused. Fifty credit unions in Los Angeles just did, and it's paying off (see story, pages 1, 12).

4. Don't forget to explain and stress what a credit union is. That's the ultimate "What's in it for me" story. Presented right, the concept can be fascinating and an eye-opener for most folks, who don't know.

5. Tap the trade groups and leagues. They have gobs of information, text, stats and data on "what's in it" for the average consumer. Use it.

Frank J. Diekmann is editor of The Credit Union Juornal and can be reached at fdiekmann

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