There are myriad ways to round up new customers, from cold calling to direct mail to blanket advertising. Recently, a major credit card company eschewed the usual methods and beta tested the latest extranet technology on affinity

relationship consumers in an effort to collect sales leads in strategically selected customer segments.

KnowledgeFlow, a Bridgeport, PA-based technology firm, worked with the card company to set up virtual communities for targeted groups, like a physicians' association. Using a CD ROM and dial-up extranet-paid for by the card company and housed in KnowledgeFlow's headquarters-individuals could call up a community site and get the latest news about the group or pull down benefit information. At key times, for instance, if a user requests an article on financial planning, a message about the credit card company's financial products appears. "(The individual) clicks on it and it becomes essentially a qualified lead generation program," says Ravi Bala, COO of KnowledgeFlow. "What the affinity with these organizations does is give them an excuse to talk to the membership." The card company declined to reveal its participation because no decision has been made about proceeding with a national rollout, Bala says.

Whether this extranet model can produce enough revenue to justify the costs of writing the software, producing the CDs and maintaining the Windows NT server that supports the system is not yet known. But KnowledgeFlow executives believe that in the electronic age, where many former bank functions can be performed by other companies, or directly by customers, banks need to shift their focus from conducting transactions to disseminating knowledge through private communities, like Citibank's virtual global village. "There are a number of (financial services) alternatives for the customer to choose from," says KnowledgeFlow CEO Dana Hoffer. "By building a community and by sharing value with their customers the banks can attract the customers," and prevent them from getting financial information and products from someone else.

And though KnowledgeFlow creates Internet applications, Bala says financial institutions enhance their trust image more by using an extranet. "Think of it from a bank's viewpoint," Bala says. "Am I going to ask you to come meet me in a mall, or...in a conference room? The extranet is an electronic version of the conference room."

-sausner tfn.com

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