One tactic that Citigroup's Women & Co. uses to help women achieve financial success is to offer networking opportunities. So it seems only fitting that a photo shoot for its latest marketing campaign turned into just that.

The ad agency Womenkind started work on the campaign—which includes members of Women & Co.—amid the dismal economy last fall. "Two of the women in the print ads have now become good friends," says Sandy Sabean, chief creative officer of Womenkind. "They both lost their jobs. They're both not married and they found somebody to share this with. And they met at the photo shoot."

Experiences like these define what Women & Co. is all about-"more women, less co." is its mantra. The organization doesn't provide any products orservices that come with a bill. It trades in social currency.

The main objectives are to educate women on financial topics and bring together a network of experts and peers for insightful discussion.

"We talk about the issues, the process of planning, the important considerations that influence how you plan," says Linda Descano, president of Women & Co. and a certified financial planner.

Seminars held every few months in major cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles are devoid of sales pitches. Similarly, members who use the financial planning tools on the Women & Co. website don't see product promos pop up.

Membership is free with certain retail banking and brokerage products, including the Premier Citigold Checking account. Others—Citi customers whose accounts don't include membership and those without a Citi account of any kind—can pay $125 annually to participate.

Despite the no-sell strategy, Women & Co. serves a broader function in Citi's business plan. Descano says the initiative helps her company stand out from the competition and fosters loyalty and goodwill. Feedback from the members is also valuable for shaping products and services.

"The more we understand about what's top of mind for women, what their needs are, the more effectively we can work with our business partners to bring products and services in a relevant way to women," Descano says.

With women's growing economic power, it is an opportune time to target them with advice, she adds. "Today we're really seeing a much larger role that women are playing as the CFO of their household," she says, "and not only dealing with the chores, but really driving much of the investment decisions."

Observers say those who want to appeal more to women can learn from what Citi is doing. Dori Molitor, chief executive at the consulting firm WomanWise in Minneapolis, agrees that women are increasingly taking the reins of household finances and are looking for advice on their unique challenges—such as retirement income shortages after taking time away from careers to raise a family.

"I think Citi is very wise to be targeting women and providing information and a community in a way that is relevant to women," she says. "Women are a huge opportunity and so much that is happening in the financial services industry has left women feeling that these companies don't understand them."

The approach of Women & Co., which celebrates its 10th anniversary this month, also fits in well with the recent trends in social media. "There is a different expectation on the part of consumers," Descano says. "It's more of a collaborative experience and they want to be actively engaged and shape the conversation, and they want their voices heard."

But it's in this regard that Molitor thinks Women & Co. could do an even better job. Adding the ability for members to start their own chat groups and engage each other on the company's website is a crucial next step, she says. "I would like to see more interaction between women. Right now it is more Citi putting out the information; you can come, you can listen, you can go to the seminar."

Women & Co. is adding a blog to the website in the fourth quarter, which Descano says is one way the company is already working to create better two-way dialogue online. She also points to the "Ask Women & Co." section of the website, which includes answers to frequently asked questions, plus community polls.

The organization prominently features the members and their personal stories in its advertising and collateral material as well. Four print ads featuring a total of 33 members are the centerpiece of the campaign that launched in the first quarter. They are running as two-page spreads in major consumer magazines, including Martha Stewart Living, More and Self.

Each ad features a group photo and a theme based around an action verb. One uses the word "balancing" with phrases connected to individual women in the ads: "Balancing her dreams and realities" and "Balancing her family with her ambitions," among other things. Another ad uses the verb "runs" with phrases like "Runs after three kids, "Runs a yoga studio," and "Runs the finances for her family."

The women featured in the ads are of varied backgrounds, ages and ethnicities to represent the diverse membership. They were approached at events and asked to participate. Interactive versions of the print ads on Women & Co.'s website feature links to 15-second videos of the women talking about why they joined.

WomanWise's Molitor says highlighting members in the marketing materials is an excellent idea because real testimonials are more effective than crafted sales pitches. But she thinks going deeper into the women's stories would be better than the short sound bites. She also suggests that presenting the women as they are in daily life might be preferable to the fancy attire and upscale backdrops in the campaign. "I think the magic in using real women is to have them look like real women," she says. "And we don't look like that every day."

Feedback from members indicates that they see themselves in the ads and appreciate the portrayal of women as successful and savvy.

Molitor says the intent was for the ads and the women in them to appear elegant. For some ads, the women were asked to dress like they would on a night out; for others, they wore work attire. "These women who are part of Women and Co. have this desire to better themselves, further their education. So it kind of goes with the territory of wanting to be their best and look their best," Sabean says.

Citi won't say how many members belong to Women & Co. Descano says the company's research shows that the initiative drives business resultsand creates a positive impression of the Citi brand in people's minds.

"Let's face it," Descano says, "we would still not be around today, 10 years later, if we were not adding value to the client experience."

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