In 1995, ancient history by Internet standards, the few dozen banks with World Wide Web sites were considered revolutionaries. Today, it's hard to find a decent-sized financial institution without a home page.
The rapid move onto the Internet by such a historically conservative industry could be seen as the ultimate endorsement of a medium that only a few years ago was populated mainly by techno-nerds and tweedy academics.
Many of the few big institutions that still lack a Web site see a need to get on the Net pronto.
A search for bank Web sites using Internet engines Yahoo and Alta Vista found that of the top 300 U.S. commercial banks, only about 30 had no Web presence.
While many of the Web-less ones have less than $3 billion in assets, there are a handful of larger regional banks that don't have Web sites, including Chase Manhattan Corp.'s $23 billion-asset Texas Commerce Bank unit, $13 billion-asset Old Kent Financial Corp. of Michigan, and First Security Bank of Utah, with $12 billion in assets.
What has taken them so long? Even for small banks, the cost of launching a Web site is fast becoming a nonissue-a basic, nontransactional Web site can be set up for a few thousand dollars.
The answer, it turns out, has more to do with how the Web's capabilities match up with a particular bank's organizational structure and marketing strategy rather than any fear of an unproved or insecure technology, bankers said.
"We have a task force working on our Internet strategy right now," said Tanya Berg, vice president for marketing communications at Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Old Kent. She added that the bank hopes to have its Web site up and running by the end of this year.
Ms. Berg said one reason Old Kent waited to launch itself into cyberspace was "prioritization and resource deployment," as the bank underwent a major reengineering effort last year.
"Also, frankly, we wanted to make sure we invested significant time up front to evaluate exactly what our strategy should be before we just threw something out on the Web," Ms. Berg said, noting that in addition to its banking business in Michigan and Illinois, Old Kent also has a nationwide mortgage servicing business. "There are issues related to pricing strategy . . . and other dynamics that we wanted to make sure we thought through before we put the site up."
This prudence was mirrored at $2 billion-asset Columbus Bank and Trust Co., the lead bank of Columbus, Ga.-based Synovus Financial Corp.
Synovus is no technology laggard-it is the majority owner of Total System Services Inc., a leading provider of bank card processing services. Synovus and Total System both set up Web sites over a year ago, although the holding company's home page is more oriented toward investor relations than marketing to customers.
The bank purposely cut its virtual teeth with an investor-relations Web site, said Lisa White, senior vice president. "It was an opportunity for us to get our feet wet and gain some experience in what the Internet could bring to the table," Ms. White said, noting that Synovus was able to try out some of the Internet's interactive capabilities. It held a "chat room" where Wall Street analysts and investors recently posed questions to Synovus chairman James H. Blanchard.
For Synovus, the issue of effectively using the Web was complicated by the fact that the holding company's 34 affiliate banks have a good deal of autonomy in pricing and marketing.
"The centralized banks have had an easier approach-one name, one set of products and pricing," Ms. White said.
Despite the hurdles, Synovus officials said Columbus Bank and Trust should have its consumer-focused home page on the Web later this summer, with other affiliate banks coming thereafter.