How Banks Can Better Connect With Online Customers

In the world of social media, there are some industries that are simply behind the curve. Banking is certainly one. The regulatory issues, lack of clarity in FINRA policies and security concerns on both the technology and communications front have left bank marketers in the grey, if not the dark, about moving forward with social media marketing efforts.

But as consumer behavior continues to shift to include more time and attention on social networks like Facebook and Twitter, banks have been forced to evolve. Fortunately, so have the regulations. FINRA’s updates of early 2010 brought some clarity to what banks could and could not say and do on the social web. As a result, more banks are diving into social. But are they doing so well?

Large brands like Citi, with its hiring of social media customer service pioneer Frank Eliason away from Comcast, and Wells Fargo, with an innovative group blog strategy, have won some early fans from customers in the online space. AMEX’s Open Forum is a solidified business resource for many, offering the brand valuable exposure and trust from online audiences. Even small banks like 1st Mariner in Baltimore have caught the eye of analysts and storytellers from the social media world.

So what can your bank do to better connect with online consumers? Having spent the last few months researching online conversations around banks and bank products, I discovered five core tactics every bank can execute to improve its online credibility with customers.

1. Nail Down Your Policies
No one in your organization will know what to do with online conversations until you tell them what they can do. Whether you empower the entire organization to engage online or just one person from your marketing team, developing a solid social media policy that addresses who, how and why you’ll engage customers online is the first and fundamental step in connecting with customers online.

2. Find The Channel That Matters Most
One of the worst mistakes your bank can make is dividing your attentions among too many channels. You’ll dry up your energy, time and resources tending to a blog, a Facebook page, a Twitter account, a LinkedIn page, a Google+ page and more. Do some research to find where the core customers you’re trying to serve are and focus your energies in those one or two places. Having trouble finding where those customers are? Just ask them. They’ll tell you.

3. Sell Your Expertise, Not Your Catalog
Content is what drives social media success, so you’ll need to come up with information to share on these social channels and sites. Your instinct, as a bank marketer, is going to be to tell your audience all about your low rates and your latest promotion. Brace yourself, but your customers don’t want to hear that. They want helpful tips on managing or saving their money. They want to know what the latest legislations means to their bottom line. They want to know why they should care about the European economic crisis. You and people within your bank are really smart about lots of things besides your latest deal. Focus there.

4. Focus On Nimble Technology
The online consumer is pre-disposed to apps, gadgets and tech. So you’re going to need to make sure your online banking, mobile website and even mobile apps are spit-shined or you’ll need to ready yourself for some explaining. While customers are certainly concerned about their privacy and security around their financial information, innovations like mobile apps that help manage your credit cards and online softwares that make personal finance less like spreadsheet hell and more simple are forcing your hand. You’ll need to be up to speed with quick, easy and mobile technology to satisfy that online customer.

5. Be Clear About Fees
If the September 2011 fee increase announcement by Bank of America taught us anything, it’s that $5 is a big deal to most Americans. Consumer perception is that banks are wealthy because they gouge customers for an additional nickel, dime or dollar anywhere they can. Our online analysis of conversations around fees showed over 60% to be negative, far more than other topic areas reflected. Customers don’t like you taking their money, ever. So be sure to adequately communicate what your fees are and why they’re used so your customers are informed and less likely to complain about them. And if you want to make a big splash, get rid of a few (like ATM fees). It shows up in the online buzz!

Social media practitioners will tell you the best way to connect with consumers online is to just be present, be honest and be consistent. But you also have to make those connections mean something to your bottom line. Whether you approach social media marketing as an effort in customer retention or customer acquisition, that philosophical position will lay a nice foundation. Following the steps above will fine tune your efforts and help you begin to turn conversations into conversions.

Jason Falls is the CEO of Social Media Explorer and author of The Conversation Report: What Consumers Are Saying About Banking, a new market research report from his company. You can find Jason on Twitter @JasonFalls, Facebook or connect with him on his blog, Social Media Explorer.

What Real Customers Are Saying About Banks

If you asked the average American if they felt positively or negatively about their bank, how do you think they would answer? Now consider the same question while keeping in mind the country is currently clawing its way out of a recession, the mortgage crisis is still affecting millions of Americans and their bottom lines and the Occupy Wall Street movement hasn’t exactly disappeared?

Would it shock you to know that most Americans would answer that they feel positively about their bank? That’s what my company’s recent research into online conversations about banks revealed. In fact, looking at conversations that feature the top 25 banks according to assets as ranked by the FDIC, only two have less than 60% positive marks. Even major banks, like Citi and PNC, were above 70% positive in online conversations.

Granted, Bank of America, which in many ways instigated the Occupy Wall Street movement with its September 2011 rate hike (quickly rescinded but not before the public conversation could go awry) dominated online conversations in 2011 among the banks and it was one of the two under that 60% positive threshold. But even with BOA’s miserable year in the public eye, its positive to negative ratio was 1:1. Half of the people talking about Bank of America last year were speaking of the company in positive light.

Anecdotal assumptions like, “no one likes their bank,” or “no one likes Bank of America,” can be more easily overturned today thanks to online monitoring and listening platforms. That’s why we spent the last few months researching what consumers were saying about banks and bank products. Among some of the other surprises we found include:

Customers Are Fickle - Several banks we reviewed got high marks for customer service. But, they also got low marks for it. This tells bank marketers that no matter how good you are, someone will always think you’re bad. Having processes and policies to deal with negative feedback is an imperative.

You Don’t Have To Be Big To Make An Impact – After finding the major products and themes consumers of the top 25 banks discussed, we removed any brand bias and searched the web for conversations about the topics. While analyzing conversations about Automated Teller Machines, First Fidelity Bank (Oklahoma) appeared multiple times. Its ATM fee policy thrilled fans enough to elicit online responses. And ones that were found by a national research focus. The insight for marketers here is that thrilling your customers creates buzz and not many of your competitors are doing that.

Advertising Works – The single biggest online conversation impact we found among the larger banks was the amount of positive conversation that focused on the advertising campaigns for Capital One and HSBC. Capital One’s “What’s In Your Wallet” vikings and Jimmy Fallon ads accounted for over 60% of the positive online conversation around the brand. But it’s not just funny TV spots that emerged as effective in driving online buzz. HSBC’s advertising campaign focuses on posters and billboards primarily placed around airports. The “Different Points of View” campaign accounted for 23% of its positive online buzz. Apparently, good ads are worth the investment.

Certainly, looking at online conversations comes with its own limitations and biases. We were not able to ask direct questions of consumers as with traditional market research made of focus groups and surveys. But with our approach comes certain bias elimination, too. Finding online conversations means the consumer isn’t biased to answer one way or another because they know they’re being monitored or interviewed. We mined raw conversations of people speaking freely on their respective social networking site, forum or blog.

This in-the-wild conversational analysis isn’t necessarily better than other forms of consumer insight. But it sure is different and as revealing. It shows us that our assumptions are often wrong, consumers will always surprise you and there are plenty of opportunities to be had for brands in the online space.

Jason Falls is the CEO of Social Media Explorer and author of The Conversation Report: What Consumers Are Saying About Banking, a new market research report from his company. You can find Jason on Twitter @JasonFalls, Facebook or connect with him on his blog, Social Media Explorer.