Two credit unions are planning to offer their members access to online communities developed at third-party personal financial management Web sites.
The community features would permit the members to interact with one another online or with the broader communities already established at the Web sites run by the software providers Wesabe Inc. of San Francisco and Geezeo Inc. of Framingham, Mass.
The credit unions will also be able to add such features as account aggregation, budgeting tools and mobile banking to their online services.
Delta Community Credit Union in Atlanta, with 186,000 members, plans to launch many of these tools from Wesabe within three to four months.
The 46,000-member Stanford Federal Credit Union, in Palo Alto, Calif., is expected to announce Monday that it is working with Geezeo. Stanford plans to roll out some elements of Geezeo's software by the end of August and will implement the social elements by the start of the fourth quarter.
Bill Mesplay, Delta's chief information officer, said the ability to interact with other people holds particular appeal to credit unions.
"The credit union philosophy was built upon people helping people, so we just see that fitting really well with the social aspect [of Wesabe], where people are offering up advice on how they reach certain goals," he said in an interview. "We want our members to be successful and manage their money well and we really think this offering will help them."
Mesplay said that sharing financial tips online is the natural evolution of online banking, reflecting the increasingly social aspect of the Internet. "As things converge in the online world, I think people expect more, as they should, and we just want to be here to deliver it," he said.
Joining an established online community makes more sense than trying to build one from scratch, Mesplay said. "We could have obviously attempted to set up some type of community ourselves but I don't think it would have been near as effective or near as broad," he said.
Ali Shafai, Stanford's vice president of e-commerce, said his company has a more localized membership base and is taking a more cautious approach to the community elements from Geezeo.
"I do see some benefits in bringing in some outside influences," he said, but "since this is our first take at doing a social feature like a community, we want to be able to take a look at it and review what it means for our membership."
Stanford's first priority with its relationship with Geezeo is replacing its aggregation system, which it bought four years ago from Teknowledge Corp. In 2005, Teknowledge sold that technology to Intuit Inc., which Stanford said began urging it to switch to its own online banking platform.
"We didn't want to go that route, because we have a highly customized online banking platform that's homegrown, with a lot of rich feature functionality," Shafai said.
Shafai asked Geezeo to not only replace his current aggregation system, but to also build a transactional mobile banking system that builds upon those features.
Though Geezeo does not bill itself as a mobile banking vendor, Shafai said that ordering a custom product from Geezeo was easier than going to a vendor that specializes in such products. "If Geezeo's already tied in to our core software provider through our API, then extending that capability into the mobile arena makes sense and cuts down on the complexity of having to work with different business partners," he said.
George Tubin, a senior research director at TowerGroup Inc., and , independent research unit of MasterCard Inc., said the established online communities accessible through Wesabe and Geezeo offer benefits.
"Opening up to a larger audience certainly provides a lot more input and a lot more value," he said. That said, Stanford is not wrong for wanting to start small, he said. "I would see how a smaller institution would want to continue to create their own community. A lot of times, when individuals join communities, they're looking for peer groups."
Building a community from scratch may be a challenge, and it is hard to predict the growth of such communities because so much depends on the enthusiasm of the target audience, Tubin said. "You need to hope that members are taking an active role."
Beyond the community elements, there is value to providing these services through a bank or credit union Web site. "The biggest shortcoming to these online personal finance sites is that they're not transactional," Tubin said. Integrating these with online banking addresses this, he said.
Since neither customer is live yet, he did not want to say how the implementation of these features would work out for Wesabe, Geezeo and the credit unions.
"Adding this in is great, but I think the next step to this is going to be tighter integration" than has been demonstrated with past attempts to add such features to online banking, Tubin said.
Even given this hurdle, what the credit unions have committed to do is "a great first step and it's the direction the entire industry is going to go," he said.