Getting customers to bank on-line is hard enough. Now some banks are turning to the difficult task of keeping customers on-line.
"Loyalty is about performance. You have to earn it every day," said Robert Shay, executive director of electronic banking at BankBoston Corp.
Banks are experimenting with free services, sweepstakes, sophisticated software-based incentives, and other programs to earn customer loyalty.
"It's possible you'll want to offer some sort of a program that would encourage clients to use the on-line service more and more often," said Chuck Wilson, vice president of electronic services at Royal Bank of Canada. "But that has to translate into value and retention. And it's still very difficult to price out."
To get people in, Royal Bank offers three free months of on-line banking. After that, the monthly fee is $4.95 Canadian and there are discounts when customers make large deposits or use a wide range of services.
About 3% of Royal Bank's nearly nine million customers use its two-year- old on-line banking service. About 1.5 million use the bank's telephone service. Users have logged onto the Web site about 850,000 times this year, up from 150,000 a year ago.
The Toronto-based bank also has experimented with a sweepstakes, where consumers who sign on become eligible to win $5,000.
Perhaps the most basic and best way to keep customers is to develop more meaningful interactive services, Mr. Wilson said.
Royal Bank, for example, has integrated its Internet banking services with brokerage and research information.
Canadian laws make such a mix easier than in the United States, the Royal officer said, but the message is the same. "If you can personalize to the individual or the small business, you'll have a better success rate at attracting and maintaining customers."
BankBoston has used promotions of cash and merchandise to lure customers on-line and get them to upgrade to other products. Prizes have included laptop computers and a PalmPilot hand-held digital assistant.
Mr. Shay said cash rewards work best. So far the bank has 319,000 customers on-line.
Citibank is offering $25 to customers who open a checking account and pay two bills on-line by Jan. 31. The offer applies to users of Citibank's Internet and its dial-up PC-banking software.
Mark Rogers, a bank spokesman, said the offer, which ends Dec. 31, is doing well, but did not elaborate. Citibank has about 300,000 customers for its free Internet service.
In the United Kingdom, Citibank is wrapping up a program that lets customers gain free access to Virgin Net, an Internet service provider. Customers must open a new account and check their balances on-line at least once a month.
"With only three branches, we're already set up as a remote banking proposition," said Alyson West of Citibank UK. "The Internet is one of our key drivers, so we're going to be looking at other ways to bring people in."
Citibank is pleased with the results, Mr. West said.
Customers must make at least $53,000 a year to be eligible for an account. As a result, the customer base is more likely to have access to necessary technology and be willing to adopt it.
One of the industry's most sophisticated incentive programs is being developed by Wells Fargo & Co. The San Francisco-based bank is experimenting with ClickMiles, a reward and incentive program developed by Netcentives.
The "currency" of ClickMiles is points, not cash. Customers who join Netcentives' ClickRewards program become eligible for ClickMiles every time they interact with participating vendors on the Web.
Customers can trade in accumulated ClickMiles for frequent-flier miles with seven different airlines. They can also earn credit toward products from ClickRewards member vendors.
Wells Fargo offers Click Miles to get consumers to try its free on-line banking services as well as its on-line bill payment, which costs $5 a month.
Susan Weinstein, a vice president in the bank's on-line financial service group, said she was generally satisfied with the results of the ClickMiles program. She said Wells Fargo was testing programs, including offers of cash and merchandise.
"We picked ClickMiles because it was easy to implement on a short-term basis. They do the tracking, they do the rewards."
She added, "There's a development effort required to do a more efficient effort in the long term."
Executives at San Francisco-based Netcentives maintain frequent-flier miles-or an incentive currency like ClickMiles that's tied to them-are the most-effective affinity tool for on-line services.
There is a huge overlap between frequent fliers and users of on-line services, they say.
A competing company, Cybergold, deals chiefly with cash rewards. As with ClickMiles, consumers earn Cybergold-one-to-one point credits toward cash- when they look on-line at an ad, visit a Web site, sign up for a service, or purchase a product.
"Selling banking services requires furious attention by those you're trying to attract," said Cybergold's president and founder, Nat Goldhaber. "You want them to understand why your services are better. And you want to get them to come and look."
He added, "I think the whole world is going to be an environment where you have to pay people to pay attention. Cybergold simply makes that explicit."
Cybergold gets consumers to act with targeted e-mails, as well as banner ads on partner sites and its own. The points accumulate in an on-line account, administered by Cybergold. Consumers can credit the funds to a Visa card, bank account, or a nonprofit organization through an off-line electronic fund transfer.
Berkeley, Calif.-based Cybergold, founded in 1995, has a reported 900,000 members. It does not disclose annual sales.
A current promotion for Visa gives consumers $2 in Cybergold if they apply for a Visa future card. "We're very pleased with the results from the Cybergold program, " said Allen A. Schenhom, marketing director at Visa Future Card Inc.
Another entrant in the on-line rewards market is Intellipost of Berkeley, Calif., which recently acquired MyPoints, an on-line rewards program developed by Experian, the consumer data base giant.
MyPoints has about 750,000 members, and through Experian it can gain access to almost two million consumers. It lets users accumulate points that can be traded for a variety of merchandise from participating members.
Intellipost plans to combine MyPoints' infrastructure with Intellipost's expertise in conducting direct marketing via electronic mail, said Steve Markowitz, chairman and chief executive officer of Intellipost.
Points-based programs will become more important as more of the mass market begins using on-line services, Mr. Markowitz said.
Currently, Intellipost is conducting a promotion with the Internet credit card marketer Nextcard.
The value of points-based incentive programs already is being debated.
Fiona Swerdlow, an analyst at New York's Jupiter Communications, said banks could use incentives "to get consumers to learn more about their on- line products."
She points to America Online and the reward points members earn for using new software tutorials.
James McQuivey, an on-line retailing analyst at Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass., said, "Banking institutions already have an advantage. They move money around already. They don't have to create a separate currency to create loyalty."
He added, "They can create loyalty by giving customers a better experience-through better customer service and less complicated pricing."
Anthea Raymond is a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based freelance writer.