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A Digital Branch Case Study: How Webster First Got Digital to Outperform its Physical Branches

Digital Transformation

There’s a lot of talk about “digital transformation” in the financial services industry, but what does that actually look like in practice? John Cournoyer, VP of Marketing at Webster First Federal Credit Union in Massachusetts, joins us to talk about the challenges and opportunities of their ambitious digital strategy.

Top 3 Key Takeaways:

  1. Make sure you are using an apples-to-apples comparison when measuring the performance of your digital branch against your physical branches. That’s going to mean, in practical terms, measuring transactions and applications. For instance, if 26% of all real estate applications occur online, how many physical branches’ worth of volume does that comprise? (Hint, about 5.)
  2. Reading digital case studies will push you towards better ideas. Make sure someone on your team owns that task and is accountable for it. 
  3. Member experience happens in branches and online. That’s why we think of ourselves as an Experience Department, not a Marketing Department.

Read the full transcript below: 

Cameron Madill: Hello, and welcome to another episode of the “Remarkable Credit Union” podcast. We created our podcast to help leaders and marketers think outside of the box about marketing, technology, and community impact.

Cameron Madill: Each episode, we bring on expert guests for conversations about innovation. Our goal is to challenge your preconceptions about business as usual, provide you with actual takeaways that you can use to grow your membership, and help you increase your shared wallet and magnify the positive impact in your community.

Cameron Madill: Today’s big question: how can a Credit Union build a digital branch that will out-perform its physical branches, when our dollars are so much less than the megabanks and FEN-TECH companies?

Cameron Madill: Today I’m very excited to welcome John Cournoyer. John is the VP of Marketing at Webster First in Massachusetts. He was the 2016 “Rising Star,” I know I’m going to get this acronym wrong, for NEFMA, which was the New England Association of Financial Marketers, for his work, and he’s been happily married for the last two years, owns a little dog, and loves riding his motorcycle.

Cameron Madill: John, thanks for joining us.

John Cournoyer: Hey, Cameron, thanks for having me.

Cameron Madill: I’d love to start off with one of the more intriguing things that I learned about you, which was that early in your career, you mentioned that you had attended a workshop about how to get your CEO invested in Marketing by speaking the CEO’s language. Can you tell me a little more about what was in that workshop, and how you use that knowledge at your Credit Union to improve your marketing efforts?

John Cournoyer: Well, the workshop really focused on something that I think a lot of marketers struggle with in the Financial industry where, you’re marketers, and you’re spending money on advertising campaigns and whatnot, and your CEO, CFO, they’re all pretty much accountants, and they’re looking at, how do you maximize your dollars and reduce expenses where you can.

John Cournoyer: The workshop really focused on specifically speaking your CEO’s language, in a way of just very high-level, how do you get more of an apples-to-apples comparison, so you’re not getting into the granular details of all these marketing metrics and website data, and everything else like that, when you can actually compare it to something that they relate to.

John Cournoyer: In my experience, it was, okay, I know that our strategy at Webster First had typically been very much focused on the branch experience. Looking into a lot of the numbers, such as branch transaction volume, how each branch is performing. We have a very detailed retail banking program that treats each location as if it’s its own separate company with each branch manager being the respective CEO.

John Cournoyer: What we did is, as a team, I sat down, got the Marketing thinking caps on. “Okay, how do we approach this? What do we do to get our CEO to see things the way that we’re seeing things?” We took a look at a lot of the website data, saw where there was some good information there that we thought could be, with the way that we adjusted the narrative, be something that’s more relatable to our CEO.

John Cournoyer: What we ended up doing is taking a look at just website traffic, because we knew that branch traffic was being looked at significantly, especially in the Retail Banking program. And we broke it down, we combed through the data, and in the end, ended up identifying how many people were visiting our website that were unique visitors, and then comparing that to people that were actually visiting our branches.

John Cournoyer: For us, it was a pretty eye-opening experience, because we were able to see that, oh okay, in this given quarter, we were actually driving as much unique visitors and traffic to our website who are performing sessions on our website, whether that’s for online banking, or applying, or looking up locations, and it was actually greater than the branch traffic that we had for all 15 of our locations combined.

John Cournoyer: We saw that, we’re like, okay, this is good, this is a really good starting point for us to build that conversation with our CEO as far as, how do we invest more into our digital experience at Webster First Federal Credit Union?

John Cournoyer: The other part of that, as far as speaking the CEO’s language was, how do we simplify that where he’s a very busy guy, and very much into numbers, and we didn’t want to completely inundate him with all these detailed marketing metrics. We actually went through and came up with a nice chart that compared quarter-to-quarter, briefly explained what sessions were and the data that we were looking at, and we actually condensed everything all into one page that, when we came down to presenting it to him, it was a one-page summary of everything that we had been working on for the past couple weeks that just showed the point where, this is the traffic, and this is what’s going on with your website, and this is why we think it’s important to acknowledge this and to invest more into it; because ultimately this is where we’re seeing a lot of traffic coming from, and where we could improve our member experience by investing a little more time, energy, resources, and whatnot into it.

Cameron Madill: That’s great. It almost sounds like you did the classic Marketing exercise of building personas out for your key stakeholders. My experience with CEOs has been very similar. They’re mostly from a finance background, and trying to get them to understand a whole new language, sessions, bounces, conversions, funnel analysis, is really tough. I think that’s very sharp that you guys just tweaked the language and focused numbers in a way that is already relatable for them.

John Cournoyer: Yeah. That’s in a way how we looked at it. It was, we’re marketers, and we’re really good at selling that Webster First experience, and we’re really good at just coming up with that narrative to highlight what we do really well.

John Cournoyer: Instead of going in there, like you had said, you go in there with these highly-detailed website analysis, we understand who he is. Here’s some key data that we think would be something that’s more apples-to-apples comparison, and just focusing in on that.

Cameron Madill: Yeah, I love that. Very sharp. You had mentioned that your digital properties are outperforming your branches currently. Can you share a little more specifically about how they’re outperforming and some of the things that you and your team did to get them to outperform the physical branches?

John Cournoyer: Yeah. I tapped into a little before in the last question where we’re really starting to see the digital performance outperform the branch performance is as far as unique visitors and transactional volume on the website, compared to the entire branch network.

John Cournoyer: What we’ve seen, again, like in 2018, we had more people actually going through and conducting business on our website. We tend to look at it where, at the branch side, we’re looking at a transaction and figuring out, this is the data we’re trying to fine-tune as much as we can, where, okay, we don’t know exactly how many people are going into the branch, but we know how many transactions that we’re getting.

John Cournoyer: The whole apples-to-apples comparison where, okay, let’s look at how many transactions, or what we consider a transaction, on our website, so we have a more comparable metric. What we’re seeing is, again, working together with our retail team, working together with our accounting team, our IT team, getting everyone together, it’s like, how do we approach this, and how do we show this?

John Cournoyer: We’ve seen that branch transactions, especially over the last quarter, the website number of sessions we were having was outperforming the number of transactions that we were having at the branch. That includes the entire branch network.

John Cournoyer: Another metric that we’re starting to look into as far as performance, and we’re just “going down the rabbit hole,” if you will, is that looking at how many people tried applying with us online versus people applying within the branches, which has lead to a whole nother conversation about how we do business, and the logistics of how those processes work.

John Cournoyer: For us, what we’re seeing is that, for years we’ve looked at the online application process. It’s just something that’s been secondary, all the branches are really the big drivers of the business. But we’re starting to see this big up-tick in activity that’s coming through online.

John Cournoyer: To give you a good example, we looked at Real Estate applications generated throughout the entire first quarter of 2018. In years past, we looked at it as a company where, this is total applications generated, and this is loans generated off of those applications. Now we’re breaking that down. Which channels did they come from? And it turns out that we’re having over 26 percent of all that application volume is coming through our online channel.

John Cournoyer: Then we start breaking that down where, if you look at that apples-to-apples comparison, how many branches worth of applications does that actually equate to? And it starts giving meaning to just how much volume that we’re driving through the website.

John Cournoyer: To go back and answer your question, right now we’ve been looking at transactions at the branch level versus on the website level, and we’re starting to transition that into more of the application volume generated, accounts opened online, and really trying to create that apples-to-apples comparison so that supporting the narrative is getting the CEO to become invested and everyone else become invested. Really looking at your website is one of your top performing branches.

Cameron Madill: Let’s transition to a related topic, which is one of my favorite ones. I mentioned to you, John, I just got back from a program at MIT, and it was a bunch of entrepreneurs, and entrepreneurs maybe more than most humans love to brag about things.

Cameron Madill: Sometimes I feel like that’s all good and well, but what we really learn the most from is from our failures. Anytime someone tells me they’re killing it, they’re doing amazing, I’m always a little skeptical. But when I feel like someone’s comfortable sharing an area where they failed, they had good intentions and it just didn’t work out, I feel like we can learn as much from that as anything else.

Cameron Madill: I’d love to hear, within this whole digital ecosystem, whether it’s online advertising, or website landing pages, or something related to your third-party tools, what are some of the things over the last couple of years that you’ve tried and you look back on and you say, “Man. I learned a lot, but in hindsight I would not do that.”

John Cournoyer: Yeah, that’s actually a philosophy of ours in the Marketing department, is not be afraid to experiment, not be afraid to fail. And if we do fail, learn from it. That’s something that we’re constantly doing.

John Cournoyer: And over the past few years, we’ve had many different instances where we’ve tried something, and it just didn’t happen to work. One that comes to mind, for me, is just even in the whole online application software. For us, we were looking at the numbers, we’re like, all right. Great. We’re driving in a lot of traffic. We’re seeing a lot of people click through on these links. We know this is a lot of opportunity here, but we’re not capturing it. We’re seeing that it’s just, it gets to the application process and it’s just not translating to what we think would happen.

John Cournoyer: So we went back and forth and were like, you know what? We need to invest more into online loan application software. Went, talked to our consumer lending team. They were onboard. IT got involved. We went through. Launched this whole online … this new platform. And what ended up happening is, we got the results back after the first quarter and we took at look at it, and it was like, “Okay. Application values went up, the loan volume didn’t go up at all. And it led to just months of going back and forth, like what’s going on?

John Cournoyer: Is it the software? Is it the communication? Like, what exactly is at play here? And it turns out that while looking into the software might have been the first step, like okay, you want to improve that, but what about the entire process? Who’s actually going to be handling these online applications? Who’s actually going to be following up with them? What’s Marketing’s involvement? How does IT get involved? How is our call center involved?

John Cournoyer: And for us, it was just kind of a very good learning point for us, where we were like, you know what, we looked at it, it’s just the software. And we were totally off base. There’s so much more to that. It’s the, how is the experience for someone who’s going through this process going to work? Who needs to get involved? When someone applies online, do we outsource it to a branch? Again, does it go to our loan department, is it going to our call center? How do we get everyone on board with this? How does the training work?

John Cournoyer: And it ended up turning into something that we thought oh, we’ll just launch this software and roll it out, and we should see the numbers go up. And we were just way off the mark with it, where it was so much more involved. And that was a couple years ago, and looking back on it now, we’ve gone through similar things.

John Cournoyer: I mean, another one that comes to mind is just even online reviews on our website, where we went through and invested into this third party software that allowed us to implement third party, like just like customer reviews, like five star ratings for checking accounts. You know, four and a half star rating for a loan.

John Cournoyer: Because we saw that, all the data we were looking at, oh, this makes a lot of sense. This is something we should be doing. And then it turns out that, you know, on the technological side, that, you know, our website had certain limitations. We’re not getting the SEO that we thought we’d be getting from these reviews. So a huge component of what we thought we’d be getting from launching that, just wasn’t there.

John Cournoyer: So again, for us, we looked at it where you know what, this is something we should be doing, like how do we go through and do it? And then, kind of once we were in the weeds a little bit, we realized that there’s so much more involved, and that it’s more than just marketing, pushing a needle and trying to do something. Like we need to get everyone else on board with us to do that.

John Cournoyer: And just even circling back to the online application software, we’re still going through that conversation. Like, how do we figure out the logistics of this, and is this something that is going to be outsourced to the branch? Is this something that’s going to be sent to our loan department?

John Cournoyer: And now, again, just looking back on it, to me it’s like I look at myself as like a little bit naive to think that I could go through and just upgrade our software, and it would fix everything. Realizing that there’s so much more involved to it.

John Cournoyer: Plus side is, is that again, through that failure and through that whole learning experience where we thought it would be this and it ended up being that, we’re still involved, and we’re focusing in on the customer experience. And how do we … Okay, well, we got the software upgraded. How do we get the logistics and everything else up to speed, so that we’re delivering that best experience that we can.

John Cournoyer: We’ve had a lot of other similar failings and just things where, even this past weekend, this Memorial Day weekend, and we’re looking into … You know, the big narrative is learning more about these stories of our membership and people that do business with us. So we thought, it’s Memorial Day Weekend, let’s go through and roll out a campaign. Like we came up with it in a couple of days, just a social media campaign of people taking pictures of what they were doing this weekend, out for Memorial Day, and just letting us know. Hey, what are you up to? What are you plans?

John Cournoyer: And we didn’t throw a ton of advertising into it. I want to say like maybe 40 to 50 bucks on say like Facebook advertising. We just wanted to see what we could get from it. We looked at the results this morning. Didn’t really get much of a response as far as submissions. We got some engagement as far as people liking and commenting on it. We didn’t really get any of the photo submissions that we thought.

John Cournoyer: So for us, that attempt was a failure. But at the same time, we went into it thinking okay, well, we’ll go through and roll this out. Low cost investment, and see what we kind of get. And then, I think that’s the most important part, to go out and experiment, and acknowledge that you’re not going to get everything right the first time.

John Cournoyer: Now we sit back and take a look at it and go okay, how do we adapt? What other opportunities are coming up in the next couple months where we can learn from this, and then apply it to campaigns down the road?

John Cournoyer: As far as failures, I mean, I totally … Like I say, it’s a philosophy here in our marketing department where I preach that to my team, and you kind of, you’ve got to get out of your comfort zone a little bit, but just go out there and try something. Experiment. Use data to justify, and if, you know, maybe you had the right idea and it was just executed wrong, but understanding that, and then coming up, adapting and coming up with a more viable solution and then ultimately moving forward.

Cameron Madill: Yeah, that is the core of the continuing improvement process, and I think that’s great that you’re … All too often I’ve seen marketing say we’ll try something and it doesn’t work, and then they just assume it was a failure, instead of understanding that it’s part of a larger ecosystem, and continuing that dialogue and digging deeper.

Cameron Madill: Tell me a little bit about maybe some of the success stories. If you look back over the last several years, what are maybe the top two or three things that really moved the needle to get your digital properties performing at such a high standard?

John Cournoyer: I think one of the most important things that we were able to do as a team is do our due diligence and go through and put together a lot of great research points, to ultimately change the marketing strategy at Webster First. I’ve been here about 10 years now, and Caroline, who oversees a lot of our digital marketing strategy, has been here over six years.

John Cournoyer: And what we’ve done is, we look back, when we … Six years ago, where we were with our website, it wasn’t mobile responsive, we were barely spending any money on digital advertising. It was more tied up in a lot of these traditional media sources such as newspaper, radio, TV.

John Cournoyer: And I think one of the best things that we did is just started going to conferences, started reaching out to financial institutions, or just businesses that are outside the financial industry, that we saw were on point as far as the digital strategy, or talking to marketing research firms where, okay, well, this is the state of the industry now. Where do you think it’s going to be in the next five years?

John Cournoyer: And were able to take a lot of that data and just put it together in a way that we could present things to our C Suite, like our CEO, our COO, our CFO, in a way that, hey, this is what we’re doing, and it’s working now, but it’s not going to be working in the next couple years. And this is what, really where we see the marketing industry going. This is the data that supports it, these are the case studies that support it, so this is ultimately what we need to do in order to move the needle in the marketing department.

John Cournoyer: And it was really a complete, just stripping everything down that we had done for years, and then building it all back up again. That led to so many different things, where I want to say five, six years ago, when I first started at the credit union, we were spending over … For us, we were spending I think 30 to 40% of our overall marketing budget on one newspaper in central Massachusetts. Granted, it was one of the biggest newspapers at the time.

John Cournoyer: And we were spending no money whatsoever on any digital marketing. Our website wasn’t mobile responsive. It was very basic. It didn’t really have … It was just a general offerings of products and services, such as mortgages, loans, and not really getting into too detailed of anything else other than that. And the whole platform itself was just looked like well, we have a website because we need a website and everyone else kind of has one.

John Cournoyer: So for us, like I said, we just stripped everything down and just rebuilt the entire strategy. The marketing budget, where we looked at it, well this is what we’re spending money on here. How do we take funds from here and move it over to, you know, digital marketing.

John Cournoyer: Or, okay, we have a good understanding of who our members are and who our market is, so, and you know, there’s a heavy listenership as far as like radio. What are our radio options? What kind of radio are they listening to? Is TV viable, is it not? Who’s actually still reading the newspaper? Does it make sense for some of our core segments who do business with us to have limited newspaper advertising?

John Cournoyer: Overall, what we did was just, for us, I think one of the biggest mistakes that we realize we could have made is just kind of doing what we’ve always done, and acknowledging the need for us as a department to change and to, in order for us to be as successful in the future, that we needed to make some radical changes, and needed to make them quickly.

John Cournoyer: And that’s also tied into what we’re going through right now, where we’ve realized over the past couple years, just through going to conferences and being part of that research, one of my key responsibilities here, and my team can totally relate to this, I spend so much time just reading case studies, and acknowledging what’s going on in the industry. They kind of joke around with me. Like it will be, I’ll be down on my coffee break, you know, I get like 15, 20 minutes, and I’ll be sitting down there reading a case study presented from like Forrester Research on what’s going on with digital experiences for customers.

John Cournoyer: And that’s also part of how our marketing strategy’s continuing to change, where we’re not just focused on the marketing anymore. Even a lot of these metrics that …

John Cournoyer: … is focused on the marketing anymore. Even a lot of these metrics that we’re looking at, before we were talking about the digital performance versus branch performance, we’re looking at overall as the customer experience, where we’ve actually acknowledge it on our digital channels that, okay the at the branch channel, we’ve seen it. Our members love doing business with us. They have such a great experience at the branch level. How do we get that customer experience level, how do we take that bar that’s been set by the branches and apply that to our digital experience?

John Cournoyer: And so, for us that’s led to a higher degree of involvement and meetings and what not with other departments here at the credit union. It’s actually about three, four years ago, we went through and combined our call center department with our marketing department so that when we’re going through and doing these campaigns, we actually have a fully prepared sales team that can do things such as onboarding, collecting survey responses, and eventually we’re moving it toward, kind of what I was saying before with the whole online application process, where ideally the longterm plan is to have it so when we’re running these marketing campaigns, we actually have a trained call center staff that can tie in with the marketing software that we have, follow up with people that are in the process of trying to get a loan with us.

John Cournoyer: We’re looking into things like chat bubbles that pop up in the middle of an application to keep that abandonment from an application as low as we possibly can. And ultimately, just the goal to provide the best customer experience that we can, whether that’s through a branch channel or digital channel, and that’s something where years ago, if we just kind of stuck in the same marketing mindset of we do this, advertise in this newspaper, no we advertise on this radio station, and didn’t really rethink what we were about and start doing that research and start planning for the future, I don’t think we’d be in the position that we are in now.

John Cournoyer: And for me, it’s been unique. Again, I’ve been here 10 years, just seeing how much that changed, like what we’ve done internally, how it’s reflected into the performance of the credit union, but even the customer service experience, where we’re seeing our customer satisfaction levels raise up. The survey information that we’re collecting on the customer service side, we’re applying to marketing concepts. So, it’s really just for us, as far as how we continue to move the needle and how we wanna move forward, really looking at it as more and more of an experience department, where when someone’s going through and having an experience at Webster First or the Webster First brand, how was that experience, how could marketing do a better job, how can we communicate those, what we did well or what we didn’t do well to other departments and ultimately improve the process.

Cameron Madill: All right, so I wanna try something really pithy here. You’ve got all these deep thoughtful well reasoned questions, like answers to all the questions, but I’d love to hear if you was to go like bam, bam, bam, one, two, three. What would your top pithy recommendations be to another credit union executive, marketer, who sees this digital transformation happening, but doesn’t know, what are the top three things to start with?

John Cournoyer: I would say for anyone else that’s in the financial industry and tied in with focusing on marketing strategy, it really starts for us it’s understand your brand, understand your markets, understand your customers, and that’s really what we do here, is just having an understanding of who are customers are, what our brand actually means to them, and what we represent, and how the people in the markets that we serve. And for us, knowing that data allows us to go out and experiment. We set goals, we fail, and we learn, and the point I brought up before, it’s like just look at marketing as an experiment. You go out there, be a little bit more flexible in your budgeting, be more flexible in your planning, but if you fail, learn from that experience.

John Cournoyer: And also, know that failure is going to happen and as long as you’re learning from it, and as long as you’re improving that overall experience, you’re ultimately moving in the right direction.

Cameron Madill: Awesome. Let’s give you a chance just for a final take. Is there anything you’d like to leave our audience with, either to reiterate something you already said or anything you didn’t get to?

John Cournoyer: Well, I’d actually just like to say that for me, everything that we’ve accomplished and everything that we’ve done, it really just starts with your team. I’m fortunate enough to have a great marketing team, a great call center team. We all get together. I feel like we’ve hired the right people in a way that we can just openly communicate with each other, share ideas. We have problems we think through, what’s the problem, focusing on that and how do we as a team get together and fix that. For me, it’s really just I’m very, very fortunate to have such a great team that’s just been supportive and they’ve also just keep their eye on the prize, know what the goals are, we all work toward it. Everyone takes accountability and none of this would have worked in the way that it would have if it wasn’t for the great team that I have.

John Cournoyer: So, I really appreciate them and that’s also just something that when you’re in a marketing profession, you’re looking at it, just open communication goes a long way, and I feel that just for us, we have a good size team here and we’re all able to talk to each other and it’s worked really well. So, I wouldn’t be where I am without my team.

Cameron Madill: Fantastic. John, thanks so much for joining us today.

John Cournoyer: Really appreciate it Cameron. Thanks for having me.

Cameron Madill: Okay. Another great episode. I’d like to thank John for joining us and share some of my key take aways from today’s conversation.

Cameron Madill: The first key takeaway I had was John’s insight that executives are almost always from a finance background, and they’re gonna need an apples to apples comparison using language they’re familiar with. And what that means practically, is gonna be transactions and applications and using those to benchmark your digital branch against your physical branches. I really loved his example, how he talked about getting 26% of all real estate applications online, and then taking the extra step to not just say what percentage it was, but how many physical branches worth of volume that is. He said he has 15 branches, so that’s about five physical branches worth of volume.

Cameron Madill: The second takeaway I really liked was how he kept repeating something to the equivalent of fail fast, which is a famous mantra from Nike’s marketing agency. So I think of that as fail fast and don’t be afraid to fail. Failure’s gonna lead to learning and learning with lead to growth.

Cameron Madill: The third takeaway that really struck me was toward the end how John talked about how important it is to have someone who owns reading digital case studies inside of your marketing department so that you keep pushing yourself towards better ideas from leader both inside and outside of the industry.

Cameron Madill: The fourth takeaway I had was when John talked about marketing, he quickly transitioned to experience a lot, if you noticed, and towards the end he said, “We like to think of ourselves as an experience department” remember experience is gonna happen both in branches and online. And if your branch experience is great, then you need to look at your digital experience in the same way. And ultimately, he talked about they ended up integrating their call center into their marketing department as a result of this.

Cameron Madill: And then lastly, I loved how John landed the plan by talking about how everything you’re gonna accomplish and achieve will be because of your team. Having the right people in the right seats, as Jim Collins famously said in Good To Great, and a culture where people can share, be honest, and collaborate is what leads to success.

Cameron Madill: Okay folks, that’s all for today. Have a great rest of your day, and I wish you the best of luck in making your credit union remarkable.