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It was the early days of e-marketing. It was the turn of the new century-and some credit unions were signing exclusive partnerships with then omnipotent Internet service provider AOL.

Three years later, e-marketing has matured- but not soon enough to save the relationships at least five credit unions had as AOL "Premier Partners."

Bellco Credit Union was one of those partners, flashing banner ads on local AOL sites for one year starting in late 2000.

"We experienced declining click-throughs over our time advertising on AOL," said Kathleen Demma, director of marketing at the $1.3-billion CU. By the end of the CU's AOL contract in 2001, the rate of AOL users who actually clicked on the ads was .15%.

In Washington, Watermark Credit Union (formerly Seattle Telco CU) started shooting at the same blurry target in October 2000. "In a year, our banner ad was shown on the Internet around 14-million times" to the area's 400,000 AOL subscribers, said Jerry Sparrow, marketing director.

Results were not impressive, he said. "We had 7,500 click-throughs."

Brent Evans, vice president of IT at Watermark, said that AOL actually sought out Watermark as a sponsor. But the partnership "wasn't everything AOL said it would be. The space they gave us was random and you couldn't see our ad very often."

The first credit union in the country to sign as a Premier Partner, $380-million Watermark couldn't track the number of accounts opened as a result of that click-through rate. "We gave it a good try for a year," Sparrow continued, "but we think the partnership didn't produce the number of new accounts that we had hoped."

Bellco's Demma agreed. "It's true that there was no way to measure the effects of the partnership, which is true with any advertising. It's hard to say what creates a new member with the CU."

The original idea wasn't a bad one, as far as marketing initiatives go. Credit unions could advertise across AOL brands on local Internet markets, including AOL.com, MapQuest, CompuServe and Netscape.

Watermark and Bellco were joined quickly by Selco CU, Eugene, Ore; SAFE CU, North Highlands, Calif; and Firstmark Credit Union (formerly San Antonio Teachers CU) in becoming local AOL partners.

Firstmark CU's products and services were advertised to more than 250,000 area subscribers, or one-third of the market.

But like many early e-marketing strategies, the message "may have been to broad," said Bellco's Demma.

Quite a few of those AOL users may not have even known about credit unions, said Sparrow. "Many people might have thought, 'What's a credit union? Is that like a labor union?'"

Though Demma still can't be sure about what works, she said that Bellco has "learned a lot about e-marketing in the past few years."

"We've learned that we can choose our audience a little bit through the media we buy," she explained. "With any kind of mass media the message may be too broad."

Marketing campaigns aimed at potential members are narrowing in on what makes a credit union, she said. "We're backing up and explaining what a credit union is. We're doing a lot of awareness campaigns."

And Bellco is doing something right. Last year, the credit union saw its membership size grow by 10% at a time when CUNA reported a 2% average growth across the industry, Demma said.

"That's pretty impressive, I dare say."

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