Banks are spending on marketing again, but some are going about it differently than before the recession.

Lenders big and small, like Fifth Third Bancorp and Berkshire Hills Bancorp, are spending more online, and they are shying away from mass marketing in favor of campaigns aimed at more tightly defined groups — such as broke college students or first-time homebuyers.

What's different this time around? Marketing budgets are still relatively tight, and accountability and efficiency are being emphasized more than ever. Bank marketers said it is easier to tell whether online and niche ads are working than it is to track the success of print or broadcast ads for everybody.

Steve Treppo, a principal in the Booz & Co. consultancy, said that banks have historically been lousy at gauging returns on their marketing dollars outside of direct marketing for credit cards. Treppo, who gives marketing advice to large banks, said his clients are looking to get more bang for their marketing buck. As a result, billboards and high-profile, stadium-naming rights deals are out. Blogs and viral videos are in.

"What they are getting away from is the mass marketing that is very nonpersonal," Treppo said. "Those are better ways to reach today's set of consumers."

Rich Weissman, the president and chief executive officer of DMA, a marketing consultancy in Portland, Ore., said the recession gives banks a chance to reboot their marketing strategies. Banks' ad budgets plunged this year but seem to be rebounding. Data from SNL Financial showed that advertising spending at 70 of the largest commercial banks rose more than 10% in the third quarter, to $2.12 billion, from the previous quarter. But ad spending was still lower than a year earlier.

Weissman said more banks want to ensure that their ad dollars are generating higher profits. This was not as big a concern, he said, during the boom times.

"People are beginning to ask the question: Does this add to my bottom line?" he said. "We're seeing much less mass marketing. Let's be smarter — let's sell to particular segments that are going to generate the kind of profits we need."

Those segments vary from bank to bank.

Wells Fargo & Co. has a blog called the "Student Loan Down" for college borrowers. Huntington Bancshares Inc. unveiled a new feature on its Web site this week that helps unemployed or cash-strapped consumers manage their holiday spending.

Fifth Third has had at least two niche-specific campaigns this year, one aimed at homebuyers and another at college students. The online-heavy student campaign was a particular success, officials said, citing student bank accounts up 25% from last year through the first nine months of 2009.

Larry Magnesen, Fifth Third's chief marketing officer, said online ads are preferable because it is easier to tell how effective they are. For instance, Fifth Third can track how many people saw its search-engine-related ads, how many followed the links to its home page and how many eventually opened an online account.

"We like the accountability," he said.

About 8% to 10% of Fifth Third's marketing budget was allocated to online expenses this year, he said. He expects this share to grow to 15% next year.

"Bank marketing is going where customers are going," he said. "Increasingly, that's online."

Another large player, U.S. Bancorp, rolled out a national campaign this year aimed at senior executives with large and midsize businesses. Though the campaign had staples of a traditional advertising blitz in the form of mainstream print and television ads, it was targeted in its approach, said Jenny Powell, director of corporate marketing for the Minneapolis company.

She said U.S. Bancorp sought to raise its brand awareness with corporate executives with ads noting that it does business with 472 of the Fortune 500 companies.

"We're selling U.S. Bank," she said." It was important to us that businesses looking to borrow money [know] that we're very much open for business."

U.S. Bancorp will try and gauge the success of the campaign with a survey of potential customers later this year, she said.

Large banks aren't the only ones changing marketing strategies.

Fedelina Madrid, vice president of marketing for Berkshire Hills Bancorp Inc. in Pittsfield, Mass., said the $2.7 billion-asset banking company has been doing less traditional marketing and more online marketing for women and young people. The goal is to engage people so they feel invested in the bank, she said. For instance, on its Web site it has a section where people can vote on what kinds of nonprofit groups the company should donate $20,000 to. Marketing online "costs us less money," she said. "It reaches people on a level that is more personal, and it allows them to tell us what they want and what's important to them."

Country Bank for Savings, a $1.3 billion-asset lender in Ware, Mass., has drastically pulled back on its print and broadcast advertising in the last year. It has instead tried to reach its new and existing customers with a magazine-style direct mailing.

"If we can get it directly in their post office box they can read it - it's really about them," said Patti Mitchell, Country Bank's first vice president of marketing. "Throw it in the newspaper and you're there with 10 other banks."

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