How co-operatives are performing in the world of digital

An international review of how the co-op sector performs in the digital world, published by Co-operative News, in association with French researcher Olivier Frey, looks at how digital technology has changed businesses over the past decade, and what it means for co-operatives.

Digital technologies are changing the lives of consumers. Social Media provides them with a new voice. Mobile devices and online platforms alter what people expect from businesses. And ‘big data’ is giving organisations the opportunity to understand and fully engage with their stakeholders – whether these are members or customers.

In light of this, it is important to ask how co-ops around the world use digital tools. The study conducted a survey of 89 co-ops, talked to another 12 in depth and analysed the performance of the world’s 300 largest co-ops.

It looked at how co-operatives are performing in four areas: social media; mobile and digital customers; big data; and governance.

Social media impact

The co-operatives interviewed emphasised that social media is not a one-stop solution. The digital revolution is developing so quickly that it is essential for businesses to stay on top of developments and trends. In a fast-moving world, it is easy to get left behind.

Social media can help co-ops build their brand. Interviewees indicated that it enabled them to go beyond corporate messages and communicate specific and everyday activities directly to customers, members and the wider public.

“Social media is a brand-building tool, a communications channel and an important part of our engagement strategy for customers,” says Fiona Nixon, communications manager at Australia’s Bankmecu. “We see it as a natural evolution – our customers are on social media and their expectations about being able to interact with the companies whose products and services they buy are also rising, so we need to go where they are and provide those channels of communication.”

Co-operatives, particularly those with a membership that includes employees or suppliers, also use social media as a means of getting closer to members. In smaller co-ops, social media tools enable members to talk and collaborate more regularly. In larger co-ops, where direct engagement is often limited, social media offers a new opportunity.

Lindsay Jongbloed, governance project manager at Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC) in Canada, says: “It is very important that we go to where our members are and communicate with them in a timely way. Social media has strengthened our communication with members and allowed us to be more far-reaching with our messages.”

Other co-ops have turned to the use of blogs. Claire Michaut, of  French payment technology co-op Chèque Déjeuner, says: “We needed a place where we could publish longer content because on social networks it is only short formats and the corporate website is still very  institutional and is not suitable for  this type of communication. So we created a blog, which works better and better and also helps support the work we are doing in terms of  personal branding.”

To gain a better understanding of the online presence of co-operatives on social media, the study undertook a detailed analysis of the 300 biggest co-operatives and mutuals, using the World Co-operative Monitor.

Across those co-operatives, 96% have a website, while 31% do not have a social media account. The majority of the co-operatives are either on Facebook (58%) or Twitter (54%). Only 32% are on YouTube, while 43% have a LinkedIn account.

Those companies in the Fortune 500 list have a stronger presence on social media, with 97% on LinkedIn, 83% on Twitter and 80% on Facebook.

The most important Facebook and Twitter accounts of the Global 300 in 2014

Rank co-ops Facebook likes co-ops Twitter followers
1 Farmers Insurance Group 2 246 572 REI 214 269
2 Liberty Mutual Insurance 1 904 859 John Lewis 147 990
3 State Farm Group 1 764 916 New York Life Group 146 491
4 Navy Federal Credit Union 1 091 665 Liberty Mutual Insurance 94 996
5 Ocean Spray 937 220 Rabobank 90 328
6 REI 838 959 Usaa Group 70 639
7 John Lewis 768 043 Navy Federal Credit Union 65 037
8 Usaa Group 694 203 Ace Hardware Corp 62 274
9 E. Leclerc 572 118 State Farm Group 54 948
10 New York Life Group 563 008 The Co-operative Group 34 015
11 Ace Hardware Corp 483 705 Co-operative Insurance 34 015
12 Thrivent Financial Lutherans 368 444 American Family Insurance Group 32 154
13 Southern States co-operative 342 028 Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company 31 941
14 Edeka Zentrale 295 007 Farmers Insurance Group 29 110
15 American Family Insurance Group 241 980 Mutual of Omaha 29 056
16 Migros 202 197 Migros 28 204
17 Rewe Group 197 966 Crédit Agricole 26 628
18 True Value Company 190 473 Ocean Spray 17 929
19 Valio 183 364 Eroski 16 447
20 Rabobank 176 088 Southern States Cooperative 11 870

Source: Co-operative News, as of August 27 2014.

Digital innovations

Mobile technology has had a big impact in the banking sector. With mobile banking on the rise, there are now more points of contact with customers and members than ever before. For co-operative banks, mobile has clearly begun to change the relationship with customers and members. A number of those banks interviewed have created smartphone apps to respond to customers’ wishes for easy access to their bank account via their smartphone.

An additional challenge to traditional banking is crowdsourcing and peer-to peer lending. Enabled by new digital platforms, individuals can now find loans online, without access to banks. Largely, co-operative banks and finance organisations are still dealing with the question of how to react to new innovations in the industry.

However, French bank Crédit Coopératif has taken a pioneering route, launching a peer-to-peer lending platform to sit alongside its own lending portfolio. It launched Agir&Co in June.

“With Agir&Co, the idea is to build a link between social networks and financing platforms – and to remain profitable with these exchanges,” says Aurélie Hussard, banking distribution manager. “Crowdfunding is also a complementary solution. When the project is too small – for example, a student who wants to finance their dissertation – or does not correspond to the core target of Crédit Coopératif, we orientate the client towards our crowdfunding platform. Agir&Co is open to everyone. It is a crowdfunding platform but it remains focused on the social and solidarity economy.”

For retail co-operatives, the biggest opportunity is the huge rise in consumers searching and shopping online. Retail co-ops are at different stages in relation to e-commerce, but of those interviewed, two co-ops stood out.

MEC is a leader not just in the co-operative sector, but in wider e-commerce. It has transformed itself from a bulk-buying co-op, selling to members through a catalogue, to a fully integrated and market-leading online shop.

French retailer Système U has developed its e-commerce services with Drive, an online platform that enables customers to order their groceries online and pick up from stores. This is an alternative model in which the connection between the store and online is kept central.

Thierry Desouches from Système U adds: “Drive spread very quickly and now represents 4% of our overall retail market. It has become something essential and every store has to have Drive. At Système U, Drive was built as an additional service for the consumer.

“The idea is to prevent customers going to competitors, but it is also a service that some customers value. The profitability of Drive is not obvious because the prices are the same whether you do your own shopping in the store or if you order online and pick your groceries up. With Drive, we can offer the same choices that are available in the store.”

While the development of mobile platforms may be most obvious for  the banking and retail sectors,

it is impacting agricultural co-operatives too, enabling farmers to connect with one another and their co-op, and run their businesses more efficiently.

Agricultural co-ops are engaging with members via mobile technology in different ways, from simple operations such as checking weather forecasts and the price of grain, to managing data about livestock, plots and finance on the farm.

Some have also developed their own mobile apps to support the work of their farm advisors, although poor internet and 3G connectivity in rural areas hampers the use of mobile.

Mathias Sexe, director of development at agricultural co-op EMC2, says: “We created an app for smartphones called the Grain Exchange, which allows our members access to grain prices and to set the price at which they want to sell their cereals, directly with the technician or by using an electronic signature. We  are also developing an advisory tool for technicians.”

While the larger co-operatives interviewed have been adapting to mobile, the wider survey indicated that mobile is less of a consideration.

Only 44% of respondents used digital channels of any kind to provide their customers and members with services online, indicating that the use of mobile technology evident among organisations such as Bankmecu, MEC and Desjardins (the largest association of credit unions in North America) is in a minority.

Digital governance

If consumers have become more digitally connected, so have co-operative members.

The questionnaire revealed that nearly half of co-ops (43%) use digital tools to engage their members in governance and decision-making. This was also the case with the
co-ops that were interviewed.

For many larger co-ops, the use of digital tools is an effective way to give members a sense of proximity to the business. This is of most pressing significance for big co-operatives which cannot provide simple or regular ways for members to meet or physically interact with the co-operative. But it is just as important for smaller co-operatives, giving members more opportunities to engage and interact with the business and with one another.

A crucial ingredient of member democracy in a co-operative is an informed membership that can be in regular communication with the executive and governing bodies. Many co-ops have identified social media as a means of communicating with members. For many, the flow of information is one-way – from co-op to member – but two-way interaction is also possible.

A spokesman for iCoop Korea explains how the consumer co-op sees its online role. “Through digital tools, we provide all information under the principle of disclosure of information. Members can trust our business and activities through the process, and this information connects to strengthen their loyalty.

“Moreover, people can access our information easily through digital tools that result in more interest.”

Most went further, using digital tools to allow members to vote online and facilitate discussion and decision-making among board members. Most co-ops interviewed are using digital tools for decision-making within the governance structure. For some, this largely involved allowing members to view general assemblies online.

Julien Didry, communications director at EMC2, says: “For the last general assembly, we broadcast it on our WebTV. On that day, there were 700 members in the room and over 300 members who watched it on the internet. We will never have all the members being present and participating in the general assembly, but with digital it allows us to have 300 to 400 more members, which is not negligible.”

Digital tools, it seems, are proving an important part of co-operative governance. What the co-ops interviewed told us, however, is that the importance of digital tools is even more significant for the future.

Whether it’s engaging with customers and members, running daily operations or governing the co-op, digital tools will play a vital – and increasingly important – role in the future of co-operatives.



  • Conduct a digital audit – look across the whole business, not just marketing/communications.
  • Appoint a senior digital lead to champion digital across the whole organisation
  • Invest in training to strengthen digital skills
  • Co-operatives should together co-ordinate action online to promote the co-operative message
  • An innovation lab can develop projects specifically catered for the co-op business model
  • A digital dashboard should be developed to benchmark the performance of co-operatives


Read the full Digital Co-operative Report 2014: