Do banks belong on Snapchat?

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Snapchat, once dismissed as just a sexting app, has become banks' latest playground for connecting with millennials over playful filters, emojis and videos.

In July, Bank of America paid for a sponsored lens that turned willing users into llamas to promote its mobile app. To woo young talent, JPMorgan Chase has advertised on the app. Citigroup is using the company's trendy sunglasses to make short videos that illustrate the bank's culture.

Community banks are fiddling with the filters, too. CenterState Banks in Davenport, Fla., has been testing how different content ideas could potentially resonate with the app's users.

CenterState's conclusion so far on banks having Snapchat accounts, however, is grim: it is likely a waste of time, said Chris Nichols, the chief strategy officer for the bank. CenterState is still exploring if it can create useful content on the app, but Nichols said he is skeptical.

"It is a great medium, but it is just not conducive for most banks," he said.

"If you had a bank that specialized in banking professional athletes or celebrities, or if a bank had a CEO with a really big personality, it might be a different story."

That's a path some are exploring. For instance, the Bank of Ireland is hiring celebrity Snapchat personalities to share money savings tips with students.

Still, Nichols said the effort has not been in vain — banks have to be constantly thinking of new ways of connecting with people.

"My job is to look at different tech and channels and see what works," he said. "For instance, Pokémon Go. We were one of the first banks to use it for marketing. Snapchat is no different."

With more than 150 million people — particularly 18 to 24-year olds — using it every day to send or watch messages, it is important for banks to understand the platform as they seek to reach potential customers, too.

"You can't ignore it," said Terry Golesworthy, president of The Customer Respect Group, a research and consultancy firm. "It's the channel to the audience you are struggling to reach.

Also, there are lessons in communication that bankers can learn from Snapchat, similar to learning to get a point across in 140 characters for Twitter.

The trend toward short videos and transparent social messages on Snapchat — or whatever popular app comes next — is only getting stronger, said Stessa Cohen, a research director at Gartner.

"Banks need to understand how these things work," said Cohen.

It is also a great playground because the stakes are low. The content is temporary and, unlike so many other social media platforms, the number of followers a user has is not published.

"You are not going to be embarrassed if you don't get traction," Nichols said.

Snapchat, like any newer platform, requires some fresh thinking of bankers. Snapchat messages are intended to disappear. That raises compliance questions for banks that have to record communications. Also, visuals take center stage on the app — for an industry that sells intangible products and services, and historically, has relied on corporate-looking stock imagery, that's not a strong suit.

"There are only so many pictures of money you can show," Nichols said.

Using the app as a recruitment tool is an easy initial use case for a bank, Golesworthy said. Banks can use Snapchat as a modern — and visual — "About Us" section to woo young talent

"Recruitment is the easy place to play now," he said.

Already Citi, has been using Spectacles — sunglasses sold by Snap to record things — to offer a glimpse of what life is like at the bank.

Citi equipped a handful of employees with the sunglasses to record short videos of their days. The big idea, of course, is to show off the culture in a different manner than reading about it or hearing about it from someone else. After all, banks are struggling to recruit younger talent.

"It allows for the end-person to watch a quick, bird's eye view of what's going on at the firm," said Courtney Storz, head of global campus recruitment and program management at Citi.

Citi does not have a Snapchat account, but the institution shares the videos on other social platforms like Twitter and Facebook. JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs, meanwhile, have advertised on Snapchat for a similar end goal: to woo recent college graduates.

Early Lessons — the Dutch Bank Example

As banks in the U.S. explore using products from Snapchat, ABN Amro in the Netherlands is getting feedback in using the app as a customer support tool.

In 12 months on Snapchat, the bank said it has gained about 2,000 followers, and typically receives one question per day. If the Dutch bank posts a story, it may get a handful of questions in response, said spokeswoman Brigitte Seegers. Most questions are about interest rates, online banking and opening hours. Among the learnings so far? Adjust the brand to Snapchat.

"Don't be too serious (unless people ask serious questions), use photos, videos, emojis and filters instead of screen shots, seek for interaction and ask questions," Seegers said in an email.

That echoes CenterState's experience. Nichols said his team has posted behind-the-scenes footage at the bank, including playing pranks on one another and that has garnered some interest. But until the bank cracks the nut of producing compelling content on a regular basis, Nichols said the bank won't formally launch a Snapchat account.

Either way, it isn't costing the bank anything additional to explore the platform.

"While we have an R&D budget, we spent nothing on exploring Snapchat," Nichols said. "The bank does have money for social media that is measured in thousands — fairly immaterial given the bang for our buck. We explore any new social media that we believe is getting major traction."

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