I met William Azaroff, Head of Online Strategy & Community Engagement for Vancity, Canada's largest credit union, more than a year ago, subsequently did some work with Vancity and not only have I been impressed with his efforts on behalf of Vancity but also now consider him a good friend and truly one of the most passionate guys in getting online customer experience and community building right. If your interested in his musings, he runs a pretty cool blog as well named appropriately Azaroff.com. Thankfully we were able to bridge Vancouver and Toronto and caught up in person at the recent CMA "From Mass to Grass" Conference.
1) Vancity is an interesting enterprise, it talks about a triple bottom line - improve your money, your community and your world - does that ethos have a big effect on how you practice day-to-day? Examples?
It does, in that a site like ChangeEverything.ca doesn't have to prove a positive ROI, but it still gets a lot of love from Vancity because it speaks to a more inclusive measurement of success. We do a ton of community activities, from granting to becoming carbon neutral, to creating products that have a real positive benefit for the environment or the community, such as reducing poverty. ChangeEverything.ca fits well into that landscape.
2) Given its rankings as one of B.C.'s best employers, how much of VanCity's word of mouth is driven by what you do and stand for vs. what you say you do?
One of the things that's interesting about Vancity (and the 'C' is lower-case), is that as much as we do in the community, we're actually quite modest. So much of what we do isn't well promoted. So I think it's definitely based on how much we do, the fact that it's genuine and authentic, and as a result we are rightfully perceived as a great employer.
3) A couple of years ago, you launched something called Change Everything to help connect people who wanted to improve their local communities, what is this and has anybody told you financial institutions don't need to be so caring? :)
Nobody has told me that. Perhaps people have said it behind my back, but maybe I'm just too enthusiastic about it for someone to say it to my face. Simply put, ChangeEverything.ca is a community for people in Metro Vancouver and Southern Vancouver Island, where we do business, to connect about changes they want to make in their lives, their communities or the world. As a result, people connect and take action on climate change and social justice issues. It's an amazingly inspiring and positive environment to discuss what change means and how to make it happen.
4) Change Everything has become an award-winning and Webby-nominated cause-related social network but it remains principally a non-branded site with no profit-driven motive, how would a CEO reconcile on its value to the company?
In a more traditional company, I think it would be a tough sell. I do think the branding is strong enough that people who spend much time on the site know we were behind it, and that creates great awareness and goodwill. In the end, how do we justify giving 30% of our net profits back to our members and the community? How do we justify creating products that might reduce our profits just a little bit in favour of improving our society. We're a financial co-operative, and so we follow a different, and I would argue a better, set of rules.
5) In a still reasonably sized company of 2,300 people and 46 branches, it must be difficult to translate a consistent brand and customer experience that lives up to expectations of a compassionate, community-focused brand, how do you do it?
We're far from perfect. We're very good at delivering great experiences, but we do make mistakes, and there are areas I believe we could be more consistent. But I think people who work at Vancity know what we're about and that we make great effort to deliver on that promise. We stand for something, and so the values come from deep within, rather than being layered on top through an external branding exercise. That puts us in a much better position to market ourselves, because it's authentic and genuine.
It can also create such high expectations that when mistakes inevitably
happen, people are far more disappointed in us than they might be in
another financial institution. That's the flip side of our coin.
6) Cynics might say that this only works because of the granola, green-loving, community-activist fishbowl of B.C. - do you think your brand of cause-related word of mouth - exportable elsewhere?
Increasingly, I believe it is. In B.C., we're a bellwether of what's to come as more Canadians and even just consumers in general want to create more meaning in their lives and have a better environment and society. Bill Moyers once put it something like seeing ourselves as citizens and not just consumers. I think that's happening and is very powerful.
7) So you've become the poster boy for grassroots marketing behind Change Everything, what do you now do for an encore?
A great question. The pressure is definitely on. We're exploring ways
to create meaningful connections between and among our members, staff
and community. Using the online toolkit is a more efficient way of
doing that, and so stay tuned for more great stuff.