10 Considerations to Boost Credit Card Activation Rates

In recent years, leading U.S. credit card issuers have changed their focus from simply acquiring new customers to optimizing relationships with existing cardholders.  A key element to the overall success of this strategy is the ability to motivate newly-acquired cardholders to start—and continue—to use the card.  According to The Nilson Report, the average credit card activation rate (active accounts as a percentage of total accounts) for the top 50 Visa and Mastercard issuers was 57% in 2017.  However, there is significant variation among issuers. For example, Citibank had a credit card activation rate of 68%, while Fifth Third’s was just 49%.  Low activation rates represent a lost opportunity in optimizing customer lifetime value, as well as a waste of marketing resources expended in cardholder acquisition.

Here are 10 key considerations for boosting credit card activation rates.

  1. Benchmark current credit card activation performance.  The starting point involves gaining a strong understanding of your current activation rate, how this rate has changed over time, and how it compares to competitors’ rates.  Also study previous and current activation rates to identify the primary factors contributing to the current rate.
  2. Conduct customer research.  Analyze customer data to size and profile the inactive cardholder base.  Conduct additional primary research to identify key card activation triggers and barriers.
  3. Develop a credit card activation plan.  With input from all relevant stakeholders in the organization, develop an integrated credit card activation plan.  Create a team dedicated to implementing the plan, and assign roles and responsibilities.  Develop an integrated series of initiatives, and establish a timeline to roll out these initiatives and measure progress against plan objectives.
  4. Create bonus offers.  Most credit card bonus offers are based on acquisition and activation, with the cardholder receiving the bonus (points, miles, cashback) if they meet a certain spending threshold within a period following acquisition (typically 60-90 days).  Higher-end cards (many of which carry annual fees) have larger bonus offers.  Chase recently launched the Marriott Rewards Premier Plus Card, featuring 100,000 bonus points if the cardholder spends $5,000 within three months of account opening.  A variation on the bonus offer is to have higher earn rates on specific spending categories for an initial period.
  5. Develop pricing to drive activation.  Set pricing levels (interest rates and fees) to encourage the cardholders to start using the card.  One common approach is to have 0% introductory rates on balances transfers for transfers made within an initial period.  For example, the new BBVA Compass Rewards Card has a 0% introductory rate for 13 months for balance transfers made with 60 days of account opening.
  6. Focus on cardholder onboarding. Develop a communications plan to engage with new cardholders during the crucial initial 90-day period.  These communications should welcome the cardholder, reinforce the card’s key strengths and differentiating features, highlight incentives, and encourage card usage.
  7. Adjust sales incentives.  Consider tweaking incentive plans to reward front-line sales people for their customer activation efforts.
  8. Leverage cardholder usage of different service channels.  Many cardholders use multiple channels (desktop, mobile, branch, call center, social media) to engage with their financial services provider.  Develop messaging across these channels to promote card benefits and highlight the need for activation.
  9. Create financial education tools. Many financial firms are investing in financial education tools using multiple media to boost overall financial literacy and to enable consumers made smart decisions in using a variety of financial products and services, including credit cards.  Developing and sharing content around managing a credit card effectively can both build affinity with your company and encourage the cardholder to use the card responsibly.
  10. Review performance. Following the launch of your credit card activation initiatives, identify and address any issues in implementation, track performance relative to objectives, and incorporate learnings into ongoing card activation efforts.

Credit Card Issuers Experiencing Loan Growth Across FICO Spectrum…But Face Rising Charge-Offs

Most leading U.S. credit card issuers reported relatively strong y/y growth in outstandings in the first quarter of 2018.

Breaking these growth rates out by FICO Score segment, we see that issuers generated growth across multiple FICO Score categories.

  • There are important differences in the FICO composition of card portfolios.  The <660 FICO Score segment accounted for 34% of Capital One’s portfolio, a much higher percentage than other issuers, such as Fifth Third (3%), Chase (7%), KeyBank (11%), Citi (16%) and Discover (19%).
  • Among the largest issuers, one of the most notable trends was strong growth in the low-prime/sub-prime and super-prime segments, but low/no growth in their prime portfolio.  Bank of America grew its sub-prime (<620) outstandings by 6% and its super-prime (>720) increased 8%.  However, its loan portfolio held by consumers with FICO scores between 620 and 739 only increased by 2%.
  • Most regional bank card issuers (such as PNC, SunTrust and Regions) reported strong growth in their sub-prime and near-prime portfolios.  Fifth Third’s <660 FICO Score portfolio rose 43%, but this category only accounts for 3% of the bank’s credit card portfolio, so growth was from a very low base.

As issuers enjoy strong growth in their credit card outstandings—especially for sub-prime and near-prime consumer segments—it is worth noting that charge-offs are also on the increase.  Most issuers reported double-digit y/y basis-point growth in their credit card net charge-off rates.  Four of the 12 issuers below now have charge-off rates of more than 4%, and only one (American Express) has a charge-off rate of less than 3%.

So, while issuers want to grow credit card loans across the FICO Score spectrum, they need to ensure that various functions are all calibrated to ensure that cardholder delinquencies and charge-offs remain at manageable levels.  These functions include:

  • Underwriting
  • Marketing: targeting, offer development, and messaging
  • Pricing: fees and APRs need to be set at levels that balance cardholder ability to pay with an appropriate margin to offset potentially higher charge offs
  • Customer support: onboarding, financial education, as well as early engagement in cases where cardholders experience payment challenges

Issuers Report Strong Credit Card Loan Growth Across FICO Segments in 2017

According to the latest FDIC Quarterly Banking Profile, U.S. credit card loan growth accelerated in 4Q17, rising 8.2% to $865 billion.

Given the strong overall growth in credit card receivables, are issuers focusing their growth ambitions on particular FICO Score categories? To address this question, EMI analyzed 10K SEC filings for leading credit card issuers.  Overall, we found that issuers reported strong credit card loan growth across their FICO Score segments. We also studied trends in different issuer categories.

  • In the aftermath of the Financial Crisis, the three leading issuersChase, Bank of America and Citi—focused attention away from near-prime and sub-prime segments and towards superprime consumers.  This led to significant declines in both outstandings and charge-off rates.  More recently, as economic growth and consumer confidence returned, these issuers have refocused on loan growth and are once again targeting lower FICO Score segments.  This is seen in the chart below that shows changes in outstandings by FICO Score segment between end-2016 and end-2017.  As these issuers are pursuing loan growth, their credit card net charge-off rates have also increased (+26 bps y/y at Bank of America, +30 bps to at Chase, +59 bps at Citi-Branded Cards North America).  However, charge-off rates remained below 3% for each of these issuers in 4Q17, and issuers should continue to focus on loan growth while charge-off rates continue at these low levels.

  • Second-tier national credit card issuers—Discover, Capital One and Synchrony—reported relatively strong growth, but with different FICO Score segment trends.  Discover reported 9% y/y growth, with no y/y change in share of outstandings for the <660 and 600+ segments.  Capital One had a similar overall growth rate (8%), but this was driven in part by the acquisition of the Cabela’s card portfolio, which boosted the >660 FICO segment’s share of outstandings.  It is also worth noting that the <660 FICO segment accounted for 34% of Capital One’s credit card portfolio at the end of 2017, compared to 25% of Synchrony’s portfolio, and 18% at Discover.

  • Regional credit card issuers present a mixed picture when it comes to the FICO Score segment composition of their credit card portfolios. This is driven by a number of factors, including a large variation in portfolio sizes, as well as their credit card underwriting standards.  Most issuers report growth across their portfolios, with strong growth rates in the low FICO Score segments.  Fifth Third reported very strong growth for its <660 segment, but this segment only accounts for 3% of its portfolio.  Regions’ 20% growth in its <620 FICO segment was driven by its launch of a credit secured card in July 2017.

Finally, as most issuers reported strong growth in their credit card portfolios in 2017, charge-off rates are also on the rise, growing 45 bps y/y to 3.61% at the end of 2017.  While the overall charge-off rate has risen from a low of 2.19% in 3Q15, it is down both from post-recessionary highs of 13.13% in 1Q10, and even the 4% levels in 2007, prior to the Financial Crisis.  With charge-off rates still below 4%, the leading issuers continue to be comfortable with promoting credit card loan growth.