Banks Break Free of Cookie-Cutter Social Media

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U.S. Bank likes to share financial advice. Capital One has posted about promotions with Uber. Umpqua Holdings uses it to spread the word about its podcast about money and stress.

These are just a few instances of how banks are relying on social media to connect with their customers and communities at a time when face-to-face interactions are declining. And it turns out there might be nearly as many social media strategies as there are banks.

"There is no one-size-fits-all," said Terry Golesworthy, president at The Customer Respect Group. Golesworthy's firm last month co-published a study with Troy Janisch, vice president of social intelligence for U.S. Bank, that spotlighted the way banks are using social media. There were two components to the study. One was based on feedback from attendees (mostly representatives from smaller financial institutions) of the BankSocial conference in April. The other part was a study of the Twitter and Facebook content produced by big banks during the first quarter of the year.

There were a few differences between the two groups. For instance, promoting sponsorships was the top driver of content for the community bankers at the conference.

"For community banks, this could best be described as 'look at us,' " the study says. Promoting products was second, while talking up philanthropy was the third driver of content.

Big banks most often posted information about products, with sponsorships being the secondary driver. Philanthropy was fifth, below financial advice and branding.

As Golesworthy sees it, there's no right or wrong method as long as the banks are using social media to help accomplish their big objectives.

Choosing specific focal areas to reflect the brand's mission marks a departure from the early days, when banks just blasted stuff out on Twitter or Facebook simply for the rush of some exposure.

"The social landscape is always changing," said Eve Callahan, executive vice president of communications at Umpqua. "In the last couple of years, it has grown up in a lot of ways for financial services."

Umpqua uses platforms like Twitter and Facebook to champion great things happening in the community, just as it has long done within its branches that it calls stores.

"We try to use social to create community," Callahan said.

That includes tweeting about "random acts of kindness contests" and pushing out content aimed at reducing people's fears about money. For instance, it is airing its second season of its podcast, which tackles the issues of money and stress, and promoting the podcast on its social channels, including by asking followers to be open about things they are avoiding.

"Money is a scary thing," Callahan said. "It's stressful to everybody, but banking doesn't have to be."

And for the bank, the conversation lines up with its core values. Beyond specific campaigns, Umpqua builds out a content calendar every month to address holidays and events such as going back to school.

Although product pitching is one of the most common things banks share, Callahan is not keen on it. Customers "don't want to be sold a product in a personal space," she said. "At least not yet."

That speaks to a larger point: It's doubtful that banking by itself draws eyeballs and clicks.

"I don't think there is such a thing as a bank audience," Golesworthy said. "We are individuals."

Further, Golesworthy says measuring social media success must go deeper than looking at retweets and likes.

"The key is what can we learn from looking at data analysis," Golesworthy said.

For instance, one bank may have more followers than another, but perhaps the one with fewer followers is actually driving more engagement per 1,000 followers.

Additionally, one of the challenges of a successful social media strategy is the need to frequently tweet or post. That's one reason some banks are relying on curated content rather than putting only out their own intel.

"We believe good advice and content is something customers value whether we create it or not," Janisch said.

Banks also have to contend with the evolution of social media. After all, today's hot platform could be tomorrow's Myspace.

More recently, banks like Liberty Bank for Savings in Chicago and U.S. Bank have been monitoring Yelp and other review sites more actively to glean insights.

Liberty is running a campaign that features Yelp review quotes on screens within its branches and on its website – one of the strongest endorsements for a brand, says Kevin Tynan, the bank's senior vice president of marketing.

Likewise, U.S. Bank is also seeking to pay more attention to review sites that usually include more detail than on Twitter or Facebook. U.S. Bank manages reviews for each of its 3,163 branches on Yelp, Google, and Facebook as well as monitoring general review sites and app store reviews.

"We know that online reviews influence the banks that individuals choose," Janisch said. "When people read a branch review that describes a great experience, it raises the expectations of new customers. We want them to have the same quality of experience."

But what catches on next — SnapChat or otherwise — is something that consumers decide, not bankers.

"You need to be aware of what customers are using," Janisch said.

Tynan urges banks to determine its target audience before setting a social strategy. Are they small businesses or consumers? Are they millennials or seniors? Do they live in rural areas or cities? Further, the strategy depends on what the bank's core values are. And the need to do something more than post branch hours is becoming more pronounced at a time when transactions at brick-and-mortar locations continue to decline.

"We have to branch out more because people aren't coming in," Tynan said.

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