In 2016, Ontario’s Northern Credit Union (70,000 members, $1.2 billion in assets) rolled out an ambitious, online account-opening program aimed at small businesses. The package took off immediately, a heady combination of great software and a niche marketing campaign paying huge dividends for the credit union in just one short year. And so it was an exhilarating day this past spring for staff at Northern when they took home a coveted Innovation Award at the 2017 National Conference for Canada’s Credit Unions, held in Toronto.
The award recognized the acuity of pairing the new software with an education campaign through Small Business Rocks, a fun evening of knowledge and networking for small business owners held at local bars and restaurants in key cities and towns around northern Ontario. Indeed, the success of the campaign has rejuvenated the organization, says Tony Dunham, senior vice-president, Innovation and Operations. “We knew from surveys that people wanted more online banking tools but the success of Small Business Rocks was the proof,” Dunham says. Staff, he adds, are excited to work on these new tools, which have rapidly moved beyond the business niche. Already, individual consumers can open various types of accounts from their home computers and will soon be able to apply online for mortgages.
Business and music mixer
The hard sell is never popular. A big part of what made Small Business Rocks so successful was its soft-sell format — a casual evening event with no pressure to buy. “We weren’t trying to sell a product or pushing to sell our online tool; the event simply focused on building literacy,” Dunham says. Each Small Business Rocks evening took place at a popular bar or restaurant and launched with four or five expert local panellists: lawyers, accountants, marketing experts and IT specialists, who discussed key, small-business issues before opening up the floor to questions.
The format was a way for Northern to give back to the community by sponsoring a night of advice and networking. It also showed that the credit union was supporting its local restaurant owners, business experts and local music bands. And because everyone at each event was from the immediate community, networking flourished between panellists, small business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs.
Keep the momentum
Not only has Small Business Rocks generated new membership and hundreds of applications through the Small Business Rocks Line of Credit program, it has also produced a host of ideas for Northern
to further improve its services. “People were so excited that we had many requests to stream the event,” says Dunham. Live streaming is now on the agenda for 2018, as are plans to meet small-business demand by increasing the frequency beyond the three events that were held in 2016 and this year.
Participant feedback has also prompted staff to keep honing and improving Northern’s online account opening tools, adding a live-chat function this year that allows members to ask for help if they get stuck at any point in the process. In 2018, video chat will complement the live-chat option, says Dunham. “One of the big benefits of the Small Business Rocks programs has been building awareness that credit unions have just as many tools as the larger financial institutions and that we’re sometimes more agile, nimble and innovative.” ◊