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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Adjust sales incentives. Consider tweaking incentive plans to reward front-line sales people for their customer activation efforts.
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.
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.
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.
Recent banking industry news continues to highlight growth in self-service channel usage, and an ongoing shift away from branch channels.
The latest data from the FDIC shows that there were 96,684 domestic branches at the end of March 2014, a net decline of 672 branches from the end of March 2013. While the y/y decline is less than 1%, the number of branches has been steadily declining in recent years.
In a recent presentation, Regions reported that branch transactions fell 8% in 2013, while mobile banking interactions rose 59%.
A report by Bernstein Research found that Fifth Third could close nearly 600 branches, based on their deposit levels and proximity to other branches.
These trends point to a need for a significant reinvention of the branch channel if it is to remain relevant for consumers, and strategically important for banks. Here are five areas that banks can focus on in order to achieve this:
Avoid both inertia and “following the crowd.” There is a danger that banks avoid making necessary changes to their branch networks because of internal resistance and a cultural predilection to carry on as before. Equally, banks may be inclined to close a significant portion of their branches because they perceive that it the prevailing industry trend. Both of these tendencies should be avoided. Decisions on branch numbers, density, design, staffing and support should be based on strategic analysis of market trends, competitive threats and overall company objectives.
Don’t make branch decisions based solely on cost. Branches represent a significant cost for banks, and with declining branch usage as consumers gravitate to other channels for everyday banking transactions, the tendency will be to cut branches. However, this is a narrow view that does not take into account the sales, service and branding roles that branches play. Although Regions reported an 8% decline in branch transactions in 2013, it also claimed that 80% of sales came through the branch. And while Bernstein Research claimed that Fifth Third could close 47% of its branches, a Fifth Third spokesperson said that the branch remains the most visible brand identifier in their communities.
Test different branch formats. Some of the leading U.S. banks have been piloting different branch formats in their markets. In February 2014, Capital One opened a new Capital One 360 Cafe in Boston (these cafes raise awareness of Capital One’s online bank unit). In May, PNC opened a pop-up branch in Chicago, and SunTrust opened an innovation branch in Atlanta. And banks like Bank of America and Citibank have opened flagship (or “destination”) branches. Banks are looking at these new branch formats not only to assess how they resonate with different customer segments, but also to determine optimal staffing levels and the impact of these branches on overall branch density within markets.
Overhaul branch staffing. Changes in average branch size and format, as well as in the role of the branch, have important implications for branch staffing. Smaller branches require fewer staff, and staff activities will shift from handling everyday transactions to selling and providing specialized service and advice. This has important implications for recruiting, training, compensation, support and internal communications, and banks need an integrated branch personnel strategy with input from multiple functions within the bank, including HR, sales, service, marketing and product.
Leverage branches to build beachheads in new markets. Traditionally, branches have marked a bank’s footprint within defined geographies. Now, some banks are moving beyond these geographic constraints to open branches in out-of-footprint markets to focus on specific segments (such as commercial, private banking and wealth management clients). BBVA Compass has been opening loan-production offices along the East Coast. BMO Harris opened a corporate banking office in Atlanta, well away from its traditional Midwest footprint. As these branches do not target the mass market, product expertise and service quality are more important factors that having strong branch density in a market.
BBVA Compass recently promoted its new Visa Business Rewards credit card on its Facebook page. The card offers 5,000 points in each of the first 6 months if the new cardholder spends at least $500 on the card in that month, so a total of 30,000 points.
This is consistent with a wider trend among leading small business card issuers to offer bonuses of 10,000+ points to encourage small business cardholders in order to activate and continue to use their cards. Small business cards still have a relatively small share of small business spending, and issuers see significant growth opportunities.
Other small business cards that feature with aggressive bonus offers include: