Bank of Ann Arbor Gets Customers to Mock Competitors on Facebook

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The CEO of Bank of Ann Arbor was driving through the Michigan college town recently when a billboard made him laugh. Fortunately, the billboard was one of his own.

"The billboard said, 'Non-local banks think Community High is when we're all feeling really good,'" Tim Marshall recalls. Community High, as you may have guessed, is the name of the local high school.

The $1.4 billion-assets bank is trying to drive up social media participation and tell one of the oldest tales in bank marketing: community banks know their local communities better than larger national banks because they are actually part of the community. In the case of Bank of Ann Arbor, the new twist is it's inviting local people to help out on Facebook by answering the question: "What do non-local banks not know about Ann Arbor?"

The idea is to get people to absorb advertising by having them actively participate. And there are some signs that it's working: The bank received more than 700 submissions for its "build a billboard contest" on Facebook in a recent six-week span, and has gotten 16,000 new members on Facebook (up from a few hundred) during the same period from a related donation program in which people were invited to vote via Facebook on the bank's choices for charitable contributions. The bank's latest advertising program evaluates local non-profit and school projects for grants via its Facebook page. That program has attracted 2,000 new "likes" and 10,000 votes in the past week. The answers to the "what non-local banks don't know" queries are meant to be funny and memorable more than actual detailed answers, or even accurate — it's certain that the local national bank branch managers know local landmarks.

While using humor in ads is tricky, and can backfire if not done well, Marshall says the irreverent content and use of Facebook is a better mix than traditional bank advertising, which he claims is staid and too similar from one bank to the next.

"What we had done in the old days was what a lot of other banks do. We put pictures of bankers and customers in testimonials and tried to sell products with low rates, which is what bankers typically do," he says. "But if you really want to create something memorable and identifiable, you have to figure out what your perception is going to be in the community."

With help from ad agency Perich, the bank built a Facebook app in which people could write their messages on virtual billboards, which are posted to the bank's wall. Examples include: "Non-local banks think The Big Ten has ten teams" (it has 12); and "Non-local banks think Purple Rose is a Prince song" (it's actually a theater.) Winning billboards — based on votes and the bank's input — become actual billboards or are incorporated into radio spots, with the Facebook user getting a byline credit. Some recent winners: "Non-local banks think The Brides Project is a new show on Bravo" (it's actually a bridal gown/cancer support group); and "Non-local banks think the Jerk Pit is a singles bar" (it's a jerk chicken establishment).

Banks for the past few years have worked on strategies to tap social media for advertising and marketing with mixed results. Ernie Perich, president and creative director at Perich Advertising, says Facebook is a way to use new digital media as a way to get people in interact with the content, rather than be passive receivers. And in the case of Bank of Ann Arbor, the goal was to tap into lingering resentments of large banks stemming from the financial crisis and the debit fee controversy from last fall. "There's a big bank on every corner. On some intersections there are three banks. It's a marketing challenge to try to differentiate one bank from every other," Perich says.

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