When Wells Fargo offered text-message banking services to both online and non-online banking customers in a recent offering, it revealed a major step in distinguishing mobile from Web banking, a goal long discussed and now being put into practice.

"There's a whole group of customers for whom text banking is very attractive, and these are customers whose lives don't revolve around a PC," says Arah Erickson, Wells Fargo's head of retail mobile banking.

Like many banks, Wells initially offered mobile services as a feature of its online banking site. To access account balances and other information through text-message commands sent from a phone, customers first had to sign up online. Erickson says the shift to allow any customer to sign up for text banking resulted from a realization that there is far less overlap between text users and online users than the company had originally assumed.

When Wells introduced its mobile banking service three years ago, online customers "really made sense as the primary launching point," particularly as the new service was paired with a mobile version of Wells' Web site, Erickson says. But some mobile users took to texting heavily. Erickson says the average text user sends about 19 text commands a month.

As the service evolved, Wells realized that those customers considered texting to be not a useful feature of online banking but a channel all its own. "It's really been a process of listening to our customers," Erickson says.

Donald MacCormick, vp of product and engineering at ClairMail, says the Novato, Calif., financial technology vendor's text banking service is currently used by all of its customers as a feature of online banking-but that attitude is quickly changing. With text message services, "people are starting to talk about it as a feature of the product, rather than a feature of online banking," he says.

Banks are taking steps to make mobile a separate channel, MacCormick says. For example, some banks want to make it possible to enroll in the text service through a call center instead of a Web site, but those discussions are in the early stages. MacCormick was hesitant to project when such a switch would take place, but was certain some banks would make the switch by yearend.

Nicole Sturgill, the research director for delivery channels at TowerGroup, says banks will "have mobile banking customers who are not necessarily online banking customers," so making online banking enrollment a prerequisite could be a deterrent to some people who want to bank by text. "I've heard a lot of people talking about the fact that it's not necessarily the same crowd," she says, though Wells one of the first banks she's seen to divide the channels.

Sturgill says it makes sense that mobile-even the text-only version of mobile-is perceived as a distinct channel. For a channel to find an audience "doesn't necessarily mean that each channel has to be all things to all people," she says.


Daniel Wolfe is a writer for American Banker.

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