Whereas most financial companies use Facebook and Twitter solely for branding and customer service, some have taken the next step and designed financial products that are meant to be interacted with primarily through social networks and online games.
This trend is reminiscent of initiatives undertaken several years ago by several banks to establish a presence in Second Life, an online game that let users build homes and businesses in cyberspace. Such "virtual worlds" had large audiences, but were not as mainstream as the communities on Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites today.
"Customers are increasingly leveraging social media … and companies need to meet their customers in their channel of choice," Jack Forestell, executive vice president for digital at Capital One Financial Corp., of Mclean, Va., said in an email.
Capital One has made two forays into the popular interactive game FarmVille this year. It has since branched out to other virtual games like CityVille and Pioneer Trail. Gamers in CityVille can build Capital One branches. Capital One's mascots — such as its Visigoths and its sunglass-wearing goat — are now characters inside these games.
But this level of immersion in the gaming world is slim compared to what some other companies are doing.
Bobber Interactive Corp., of Seattle, offers a prepaid card built around a Facebook app that uses the social media site as a gaming and goal-sharing platform.
"We are trying to build a solution for the Facebook generation that speaks their language, which is about gaming and social networks," says Scott Dodson, a co-founder and the chief operating officer of Bobber.
Users set up their accounts and access funds with a Visa debit card issued by Meta Financial Group Inc.'s MetaBank Inc. and offered by Plastyc Inc. They are encouraged to share their financial goals with their Facebook friends, and they get points and rewards for transacting and sharing the application with others.
"Bobber is going beyond [marketing] by tying [social media] to savings," says Nicole Sturgill, a research director at TowerGroup.
Financial companies must also contend with Facebook itself. Its Facebook Credits system is used on many apps to facilitate spending real money on virtual items.
Previously, banks limited their virtual activities to education and branding exercises. Those that built branches in Second Life did so to attract the next wave of customers. The banks largely abandoned their efforts a few years later, because the territory seemed too unruly.
Wells Fargo & Co. launched Stagecoach Island, a self-contained game world based on Second Life, in 2005. Stagecoach Island still exists today, though it has long operated as a separate entity from Second Life.
The island largely focuses on financial education, Wells also created its own virtual currency, called "shells," which players earn by answering questions about money management.
More recently, Altra Federal Credit Union in La Crosse, Wis., has worked with Thwakk Inc. to offer its consumers a version of a banking game called Mo'doh Island. In it, customers create avatars to perform different tasks at virtual branches.
To a lesser degree, banks like ING Group NV's ING Direct and some community banks have attempted to attract new customers with online games targeted at children. Those games are educational, teaching children financial basics, and they encourage players to open a children's checking account.
"Adding a gamification element to personal financial management can help people become more engaged with the process," Ron Shevlin, senior analyst for Aite Group, wrote in an email.
Younger consumers are especially likely to respond, as they are cynical about older forms of advertising, experts say.
"If you have pure utility engagement with the customer, it is saying to the customer you have to cross a barrier to engage with us before we give you something," says Jaidev Shergill, chief executive of Bundle Corp.
Bundle, which is backed by Citigroup Inc., analyzes card transaction data to help customers track their spending. It also compares their spending to various demographic groups based on aggregated data provided by Citi and other sources.
Comparisons and sharing are important because they can spur desired consumer behavior, Shevlin says.
"Awarding points and badges for behavior change creates competition to drive that behavior change," Shevlin wrote.
That is, up to a point. Consumers are potentially more willing to share information about their financial situations and share goals in social media settings when they are younger, because their situations tend to be more homogenous, experts say.
"It becomes a lot more difficult to share your information when you go up the age and income bell curve," Shergill says.