Will banks and their customers soon become BFF?
Banks are starting to enhance their Web sites with financial management applications such as spending trackers and budgeting tools, and some executives say the next step in this evolution could be adding social networking services that help their customers trade tips online.
Such online communities are already an important component of several nonbank Web sites that combine personal financial management applications with services such as chat rooms and user-generated reviews of specific banking products, including Geezeo Inc., which is now offering banks a white-label version of its software.
Peter Glyman, a Geezeo co-founder, said that adding social networking features can help banks and credit unions strengthen the bonds with their customers and create a more direct line of communication with them.
Interactive features, such as bulletin boards where people can submit questions about various financial concerns, "can get people talking, being engaged on the site," Mr. Glyman said. "There is a real opportunity to create some good, structured community features."
The company began promoting its software last month to banks that want to duplicate on their own sites the Geezeo model of providing financial management tools and an online community.
Mr. Glyman said the software is available in modules, enabling banks to use either, or both, components. Six to eight financial companies are considering the products, and "about half of them are interested in the community component of it," he said.
Mr. Glyman said community banks and credit unions have been especially receptive. "You can see that being very appropriate for credit unions, because they're so community-oriented," he said.
Wells Fargo & Co., an early backer of online financial management tools, said that adding social networking features could provide a valuable way to help consumers to manage their money.
"In the future I think that there may be opportunities for community aspects," said Richard Weeks, a senior vice president with the San Francisco banking company's Internet services group.
Wells introduced its My Spending Report financial management service in 2005., and Mr. Weeks said the poor economy is driving up demand for financial management tools; enrollment in My Spending Report service jumped 15% from December to January.
"Customers are definitely becoming more focused on their finances," Mr. Weeks said.
Ron Shevlin, a senior analyst at the market research company Aite Group LLC, said banks considering financial management tools should go a step further and incorporate social networking as well.
Financial management tools typically aggregate information from multiple bank accounts to create a comprehensive picture of users' balances and spending, but Mr. Shevlin said this information can be augmented by services that let people ask one another for advice about managing money.
Financial management is "a little easier, inputting stuff with account aggregation, but what does it really do?" Mr. Shevlin said.
"There's a limit to the use and value of that, and a limit to the amount of people that will appeal to," he said. "The thing that's going to take that from limited appeal to broader appeal is the social aspect."
Social networking services are "a different way of building customer relationships" because they prompt customers to interact more often with their bank, he said.
"The banks need to get beyond being a simple provider of transaction-based products … and provide more value," he said.
Intuit Inc. offers personal financial management applications through its online banking unit, and already offers some social networking features to users of its QuickBooks and TurboTax products.
Tobin Lee, an Intuit spokesman, said a social networking component for its FinanceWorks financial management product "is something that we are actively exploring and considering."
One hundred sixty of Intuit's online banking clients have agreed to install the consumer version of FinanceWorks since its September launch, and 35 have signed up for the small-business version, which was rolled out last month.
Some of those customers have said that social networking could help them stand out and will make them more competitive during the current recession, Mr. Lee said. "The idea is now is the time to play offense."