07/12/2010 11:27 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Credit Unions Must Win Young Consumers

A colleague of mine was recently at an industry conference for credit unions (CUNA) and was startled by all the white hair in the audience. It doesn't surprise me because I speak (loudly) to many of these folks during the course of my day. A 2005 study by Filene Research Institute found only 6% of credit union board members were under 40 while 42% were over 60. Five years probably hasn't changed this picture.

The average age of a credit union member is 47 - nearly 10 years older than the median age of people in the US (Source: US Census). This older average age means many of their members are past their prime borrowing years. Importantly, over 27% of the US population is under 20 (Source: US Census).

Just because you're old, doesn't mean you need to be old-fashioned. How do you think today's kids will learn about financial products and services? On the radio? By reading the newspaper?

Credit unions' survival requires that they attract younger consumers. That's why I'm mystified by how many credit union executives are unable to articulate an online strategy for their organization. They all have websites, but many are third-rate and do not appeal to younger consumers.

Credit unions are not moving quickly enough. The financial crisis and the attention given to the greed and hubris of big banks has created a window of opportunity for smaller institutions to win some customers - especially younger consumers who aren't heavily invested with a bank. But most credit unions are blowing it because they're not winning this younger set.

Here's my to-do list for credit unions:

  1. Make appealing to younger consumers a primary part of your mission -- even if it alienates some of your older members.
  2. Update your websites (seriously, most are horrible).
  3. Offer features that younger consumers want - for example, mobile banking, ATM fee rebates, remote deposit, expedited bill payment, online chat for customer service, online account opening.
  4. Start "socializing" online. Yes, many credit unions have Twitter accounts and Facebook pages, but most of those are used to broadcast information. Have 2-way conversations.
  5. Reach people who use the Internet to do research. People can be drawn to you from other online resources (like FindABetterBank).

Signing younger consumers up as members is essential for credit unions to survive. Therefore, failing to recognize that a coherent online strategy is mission-critical does not serve the long-term needs of your membership. That's my 2-cents.