Telling your co-operative story – expert views on connecting with members

'There is no right and wrong when it comes to stories ... but it is important to keep your messaging clear, timely, relevant and emotive'

For Co-operatives Fortnight 2017 (17 June to 1 July), Co-operatives UK is encouraging people to share stories of how working together has made a difference. Connecting with members is one of the most important tasks of a co-operative.

For expert guidance on how to connect with members each day, and for ideas on how co-ops can reach out to stakeholders, we spoke to:

Howard Brodsky, chair and chief executive of CCA Global Partners: More than 3,500 locations in North America and abroad benefit from CCA’s 14 purchasing co-ops, which sell flooring, lighting products, biking and more.

Katie Miller, senior vice president of membership at Navy Federal, the biggest credit union in the world: Since 1933, Navy Federal has grown from seven members to over seven million members and operates over 300 branches globally.

Sarah Ashton, PR manager at Central England Co-operative: One of the largest retail co-ops in the UK, with over 400 trading outlets, a family of around 8,600 colleagues and more than 330,000 regular trading members.

Connecting with members: how do you do it?

Sarah Ashton from Central England Co-op

Sarah: We use a variety of methods to engage with customers and members. A mix of expertise in journalism, marketing and PR are used to find out exciting and interesting stories which are then used in a variety of methods from traditional press releases to bespoke films. Our engagement is amplified with our use of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, which includes everything from offering customer competitions to hosting native video based on a variety of subjects from recipes to the community. We also continue this journey by talking about our stories in and around our stores, funeral homes and travel shops via posters and with our members’ newspaper and also by communicating via targeted emails.

Katie: We connect with our members at our nearly 300 branches around the globe, online, on the phone via our 24/7 contact centre, and through our mobile app and social media channels. We listen to our members’ stories and provide them financial help and guidance to meet their unique needs.

Howard: We connect with customers through our websites, blogs and social media. We encourage our members to share their local story through these avenues as well. We know through research that consumers respond to stories 40 times more than to facts. With that in mind, we aim to connect through inspiring stories. We connect with our customers through everything from engaging social content to stellar charitable programs that create a sense of community and really make a difference.

Goals: What are you trying to achieve when you speak to members?

Sarah: We are trying to educate about co-op values and principles and how our aims and objectives align with them. We also aim to encourage our membership to take an active part in the many benefits the society offers to members and the wider community, whether that be by highlighting the products we have for sale, new or refitted stores or the activities and events we are hosting to support or boost the area.

Howard Brodsky, from CCA Global Partners

Howard: Our number one goal is to help them be as successful as possible. Helping the member understand the ‘why’ behind our recommendations is essential so that they’re not only benefiting from the co-operative’s programs but understanding the benefits. As we speak with members, we want to make a lasting connection with them and help in any way that we can.

Katie: Our goal is to make sure we provide the best member service, experience, and the best financial products to fit our members’ needs. That way they can go about their busy lives knowing their finances are being taken care of by a financial institution they can trust.

Sharing: how can members share their stories? Or how do you collect member stories?

Howard: We find that having members share their stories at conventions and through other communications is the best way to communicate so we encourage this any time it is possible. Our members participate on panels, share best practices and help each other through networking opportunities available through the co-operative. We actively reach out to members to collect stories and encourage them to share during networking events and through social networking.

Katie: We encourage our members to share their stories with us and other members.  For example, many of our members share their stories through social media channels. Our members share everything from why they’re proud to serve, to how Navy Federal helped them get their first car or buy their dream home.

Central England’s My Co-op Voice platform

Sarah: We regularly interact with members via a variety of methods. We regularly survey our customers and members in order to ensure we are always listening to their feedback and provide a relevant membership offering to all areas of the society. This activity has recently been supplemented by our new customer feedback platform, My Co-op Voice, which allows for instant feedback and reaction from colleagues, customers and members of new products, new concepts and decisions by the society. This is supported by social media to gauge opinion, reaction and interaction, in-store POS and till receipt footers.

How do you talk to members?

Katie Miller from Navy Federal

Katie: Knowing our members better than anyone enables us to connect with our members. We’ve served military families for over 80 years and many of our employees have also served. As a result, we truly understand our members, and we’re able to form a partnership with them based on shared values and experiences. When speaking with members, we’re able to understand their challenges as a military family, and their distinct approach to financial planning and decision making.

Sarah: Keeping it simple. If you are trying to inform people about membership benefits, then the message has to be clear about benefits and value – segmentation of your audience is key, as is understanding the needs and aspirations of your communities. The same methods can also be applied when encouraging members to take a more active role in their communities.  You need to find out what really matters to people locally and find ways to build co-operative links and networks for members to join and thrive within. This is why, when it comes to community, the best way to encourage participation and inspire membership is through the use of real life human interest stories, featuring relatable people and backed up with strong imagery, video and promotion.

Howard: It has to be a combination – members take in information differently. In most instances, we are not their number one priority so we must hit them with a combination of communication vehicles to get the most engagement. We find that bringing our members together to support a cause is also very compelling. By sharing stories of those in need that we as a group are able to help, we find that our members are more passionate and driven to work together and help.

What doesn’t work?

Howard: Live webinars are hard to get our members to attend because they all have different schedules and don’t want to take time away from their business during working hours.

Sarah: There is no right and wrong when it comes to stories that illustrate your membership message, but it is important to keep your messaging clear, timely, relevant and emotive. So, for example, if you are talking about membership who are you aiming at – are you looking to recruit new members or speak to existing members? An approach for new members would be to provide more context, whereas if you are speaking to existing members they will most likely know of the benefits and are more interested in what is happening within the society and how it impacts them as a member.

Your board gives you an unlimited budget to connect with members. What do you do?

Sarah: With an unlimited budget, it would be great to showcase the excellent films we put together on everything from community dividend to our funeral business on a wider scale via mainstream television and social media and showcase us as a co-operative and what we do in the very best light.

Howard: We would encourage more face-to-face interactions between members and with the management team. To reach our customers with the co-operative message, a full awareness campaign with media support would certainly be beneficial and help our customers understand our business. We would also highlight each and every member of our co-op. Our members all have such inspiring stories and we’d like to tell them. Their lives and legacies deserve to be shared with the world especially in their surrounding communities. We would create more video stories of our members and know that by hearing how other members have been successful, the entire membership would benefit. We would also create a dedicated app for our members to share stories and best practices.

CCA’s Design for a Difference campaign

Sharing best practice: how have you connected with members?

Howard: One of our most successful initiatives is Design for a Difference. This one really hits home in our members’ local communities. Design for a Difference is the first-ever community-driven designer movement that brings our socially conscious showrooms together with interior designers and other businesses to makeover spaces at local charities. The makeovers have been performed in well over 20 local communities – and this number is growing.

Navy Federal’s #ProudToServeChallenge

Katie: We’re currently celebrating Military Appreciation Month with a special social media challenge. Members and prospective members are sharing videos with us on Instagram for a chance to win up to $5,000. It’s our #ProudToServeChallenge, and we’re receiving creative submissions sharing stories of service and thanking those who serve.

The story of Central England member Mary Norton

Sarah: The story that has had the most impact and reaches for the society recently involved our member Mary Norton. Mrs Norton has been visiting the same food store in Leicester every day for 80 years. She spoke to us about her story and we used a press release, media pitching and social media to talk about her story. The story was picked up by regional and national print media, radio and television. The story also resonated with our online audience as over 10,000 people reacted to the story via Facebook and Twitter from just one post. Mrs Norton’s family were the ones to contact us via our enquiries team to tell us her story, as they wanted to show their appreciation for the store colleagues who interact with her every day and make her membership meaningful. It was a great way of interacting with a long-standing member to hear their story and then using that message to showcase our co-operative values and the importance of membership to people.

In this article

Join the Conversation