The provocative title of this blog post will draw two kinds of people: People who know of USAA's social media reputation and hope to gain inside information, and former peers of mine from USAA who think, "What the heck is Augie doing?" The former will be a little disappointed and the latter much relieved, because the secrets of USAA's success are not that secret. But they are still incredibly powerful.
I was lucky to work at USAA and be part of their social media program for the past year and a half. I loved my job at USAA, but I left it because my wife and I wish to return to the lifestyle of living in a big city. (I hope to share some news about my next step within a couple weeks.)
USAA has been lauded by many for its progress in social media, particularly within the highly regulated financial services industry. (It's a heck of a lot easier to embrace social media when your product is shoes or laptops than insurance and mutual funds.) Despite the challenges, USAA is routinely cited for doing social media right. It was ranked among the top banks in its use of social media, has been featured in a Forrester case study about how to drive sales with social media, and a financial publication recently noted, "Pound for pound, USAA trumps all other financial institutions in social channels."
So what's the secret? Here the the five ingredients in USAA's not-so-secret sauce:
- Do Everything Else Right: I'm not trying to be trite here, although I am trying to make a point. Success in social media isn't primarily created by your firm's content strategies, its Pinterest boards or its tweets. The best social media strategies cannot save a company that offers products and services that fail to meet customers' expectations, because word-of-mouth success comes from giving people experiences worth talking about and recommending. The operational excellence that creates USAA's social media success is the same thing that drives its business success and has resulted in USAA being named the top company at customer service and experience by J.D. Power, Forrester and Temkin Group.
- Focus On An Audience: It is the first step in Forrester's POST methodology and every other brand and marketing process: Focus on the needs and characteristics of a specific audience. You cannot be all things to all people, and that means not just including some but excluding others. USAA focuses on a specific audience, not just in marketing or social media strategies, but with every tactic, product and service throughout the enterprise. Although anyone can open a USAA bank account, the organization doesn't try to acquire just anyone--it stays true to its mission of focusing on the financial needs of those who have served in the US military and their families. Focusing on this one audience allows the organization to prioritize products and services, sharpen messaging and media buys and, most importantly for social media, participate and support existing communities of people with similar needs and attitudes.
- Have a Higher Calling: No matter what it says in corporate employee manuals or annual reports, consumers know the mission of most companies: Make money for shareholders. It should not be surprising that this mission fails to motivate affinity and advocacy. Some companies, however, live by a higher calling. Apple, Google, Coca-Cola and Wal-Mart all stand for something. They might not appeal to you specifically (see prior bullet point), but these companies believe they have a mission beyond selling products. USAA has a mission, and it's not just on its website. This mission is the first slide in virtually every deck I saw as an employee. USAA's CEO begins every Board meeting by reading it aloud. Employees can recite it. And I've seen ideas killed when someone asks, "Does this fit our mission?" USAA's mission is a way of life, and USAA members know this. It's why USAA has the highest Net Promoter Score of any company in America.
- Hire the Right People or Make Them the Right People: One of the benefits of defining your brand's audience isn't just that you know who to sell to--it also helps you know who to hire. Out of approximately 24,000 employees, 12% are veterans, another 8% are military spouses and many more are family members of current or former service members. Many USAA employees know firsthand the sacrifices and commitment made by the people they serve, and those that don't quickly learn. I did not have a strong affinity with the US military when I joined USAA, but the organization quickly changed that. Every new employee's first week at USAA is dedicated to training, not just about products or how to find your way around the massive USAA complex, but about what it means to serve. You eat a military MRE (Meal Ready to Eat). You stand at attention when a senior officer enters the room. You get deployment orders and consider what it feels like to prepare your family financially and emotionally for the fact you won't be a part of their daily lives for a lengthy period. You may enter new employee orientation thinking of USAA's audience as customers, but you leave it thinking of them as people who deserve the best you can give.
- Focus on What Matters in Social Media: USAA didn't enter social media thinking of it as a marketing channel. The organization's first forays into social were about fostering community, educating people to make better financial decisions and responding to customer service needs. In other words, USAA dedicated itself to doing right by members rather than investing in what it could get from members. And members responded by making USAA the most popular Facebook fan page in the insurance industry--for a while. USAA has since been eclipsed by brands that used sweepstakes and game freebies to collect more fans. Despite the smaller fan base, I invite you to check out the likes, shares and comments on another insurance or bank fan page and then visit USAA's. Right now (Monday the 23rd at 5 pm), USAA has over 27,000 people "talking about this" (and doing so positively, I might add) while few of the top insurance companies or banks in the US cracks even a few thousand people "talking about this."
There you have it--five "secrets" to USAA's success. Nothing but good old-fashioned customer-oriented business. In fact, some might even call this basic blocking and tackling. I just hope my next employer can block and tackle like this!