Social Banking: The Upcoming Phenomenon?

Spain’s CaixaBank bills itself as the leading financial group in its market for both banking and insurance. It’s also just become quite interesting for another reason: It claims to be the first bank in Europe to develop and release a Facebook app that allows enables customers to check bank accounts and even conduct transactions via the world’s biggest social network. And just to draw a little more mileage out of the innovation, the institution will also support small donations to specific charities with this method.

All in all, this is a relatively small deal for now, but what are the chances it will get bigger in the near future? Here’s a hint: The bank will soon extend these services to include other operations, such as person-to-person payments, according to the bank. Other institutions are jumping on the bandwagon too: The ‘Pockets’ service from India’s ICICI Bank (incidentally also billed as a first of its kind) lets customers perform a range of services on this platform, from tracking accounts to sending money to ‘friends.’

Moving west a little, the banking industry in Ireland is also watching Facebook closely, but for somewhat different reasons. This is because just this spring, the global behemoth formally applied for a license from the nation’s central bank to become an e-money institution, giving it the power to issue its own currency. What this means exactly is still a little fuzzy, but some see it as perhaps a more legitimate version of Bitcoin. Speculation has it that the company will focus on remittances, a gigantic market in serious need of transformation.

For the record, even a corporation as traditional as Wal-Mart recently launched a service that enables unbanked consumers to transfer money. While that could worry Western Union, it’s likely a niche service for a niche market. Facebook, however, is another beast altogether—with its global reach and instant access, even a minor nudge could shake the foundations of the banking industry.

Facebook’s attempted strides into the financial services industry, however tentative, have been explored on this blog before, specifically with regard to Facebook Credits. That refers to the virtual currency members can use to buy virtual goods in any games or apps of the Facebook platform that accept payments. Even without getting extensive coverage, the practice earned prominent mention in the company’s IPO filing.

More recently, the company appears to have been moving away that strategy and towards money. In fact, it has been quite active for some time now in helping application developers work on payment processes that uses local currencies. In other words, like many good innovators, it has been hedging its best.

But if that’s what Facebook is doing, what are corporations on the financial services side doing to ensure they don’t come out on the losing end?

It’s easy to see why social media in general could be a boon for communications and a headache for everything else. J.P. Morgan, for example, recently fielded hundreds of angry Tweets after putting in place policies to identify potentially risky transactions. The thinking is that in the old days, when customers had to actually go online, or even draft a letter, when making a compliant, there were fewer complaints; now, when it can be done with a few stabs on the smartphone, there are far more coming in, and each expects a response.

Sure, most predictions about user adoption of new technologies turn out to be wrong. We have no idea which innovation will take off, what changes it will induce. But it’s probably safe to say that the army of social media channels, including Facebook, has changed everything, and it will change banking. Facebook is clearly doing its part to speed the process, and some banks are doing theirs. But are there many that should be doing more?