Credit unions, particularly those with less than $100 million in assets, are missing the boat when it comes to using social media websites like Facebook and Twitter to interact with clients and grow their customer base and profits.

That's the key takeaway from a new survey released this week by financial services research firm Aite Group, which queried 50 credit union executives between August and October to determine exactly how-- or if-- they've been able to capitalize on consumers' obsession with social networking sites.

Six in 10 credit unions identified themselves as social media "beginners" or "novices," and the overwhelming majority of these neophytes said it was a lack of time and personnel -- not necessarily marketing budget-- that thus far has limited their social media initiatives.

Of the larger credit unions, defined as those with more than $1 billion in assets, 71% gave themselves and "intermediate" rating in social media competency while another 14% described themselves as "advanced." Midsized credit unions with between $100 million and $250 million assets were a mixed bag with 29% calling themselves "intermediate" and another 36%, respectively, rating themselves either "novices" or "beginners."

Ron Shevlin, a senior analyst at Aite Group and author of the report, said credit unions and other financial institutions and advisors cannot afford to take half measures if they're going to realize any substantial benefits from a social media marketing campaign.

"The absolute impact on overall profitability is marginal at relatively low levels of investment," he said. "For social media marketing to have a major impact on profitability, credit unions must invest a significant percentage of their marketing budgets into social media."

Shevlin said credit unions on average invest only a paltry 2% of their total marketing budget on social media, although those figures are a bit skewed because nearly half of these institutions said their social media spending to date was simply too small to measure.

"Among intermediate and advanced firms, many are spending 10% to 25% of their overall marketing budget on social media efforts," he said.

Among these first adopters, which enjoy the benefit of both more marketing dollars and larger staffs that can be deployed specifically for social media, these projects are delivering immediate, measurable results.

Intermediate and advanced firms are integrating their social media efforts with other marketing endeavors-- particularly in email and outbound marketing campaigns -- and integrating social media data with customer databases.

"The beginners, on the other hand, tend to execute social media efforts that are standalone efforts and may be more experimental in nature," Shevlin said, adding that larger credit unions have implemented a more robust set of measurement tools to gauge the success of their social media efforts.

In March, an On Wall Street and LederMark Communications survey found that 85% of financial services professionals under the age of 50 are using social media to grow their business. That figure-- as well as the demographics of advisors using these tools-- will surely expand in the coming months and years as financial advisors and their firms become more comfortable and capable of securely tapping into the social networking community.

"We absolutely expect to see a shift of attitude on the part of smaller credit unions," Shevlin said. "Personally, I believe social media tools are very well suited for enabling engagement and communication with existing members and all credit unions, large or small, can benefit from better member engagement.

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