As financial institutions struggle to find revenue-generating social media strategies, a Chicago credit union has achieved a surprising level of success from a simple tool: a loan calculator app on its Facebook page. Calcubot, the name of the calculator tool that connects to one running on its website, has helped generate nearly $1 million of auto loans for Alliant Credit Union since its November debut.

The tool, which lets people determine their monthly loan payments and optionally share them with friends and family, drove 478 prospects to Alliant's online auto loan application within the first four months, when the credit union actively promoted the tool on its website's homepage and through posts written on its social media channels. The credit union plans to prominently feature Calcubot again in coming months to grow sales leads.

"We are looking to increase engagement with social media and to drive more traffic to loan applications," says George Balchev, manager of digital channels for Alliant, an $8.1 billion-asset financial institution.

Alliant Credit Union, which has more than 270,000 members, created its Facebook page in 2009 and now counts more than 13,000 page likes.

Calcubot, created by a Berkeley, Calif.- based company called Shastic, estimates loan payments once a person enters in information like the selling price and down payment. It directs those interested to websites where they can apply for a loan.

Research shows the majority of U.S. car buyers use Facebook in their research.

Like Alliant, a handful of financial institutions worldwide have been experimenting with social media efforts to uncover return on investment.

Tangerine, formerly ING Direct Canada, lets customers use Facebook to refer a friend to get cash bonuses if the referral turns into a customer for the direct bank, among other things.

ASB Bank, operating in New Zealand, launched a "Like Loan" promotion where three users won reduced rates on home loans based on their number of likes. The 2013 campaign generated more than 27,000 total entries, and 65% of participants were not ASB customers.

Alliant is satisfied with Calcubot and plans to promote it in future marketing campaigns. It also plans to introduce other interactive tools in its digital channels to better engage with prospects.

Calcubot appealed to Alliant because of its simplicity. The app, which can be installed within minutes, lets consumers select durations and down payments for mortgage or auto loans, set up alerts for interest rate changes and share estimates with whomever they wish in addition to beginning the loan application process.

The cloud-based tool, for example, uses cookies to save a user's calculation results, so when he visits the bank website he can avoid having to resubmit his data.

To be sure, financial institutions have long made calculators available. Some, like USAA, now include them within their mobile banking apps. But introducing the pricing tool on Facebook is meant to target new prospects, particularly younger consumers.

Alliant is one of 60 credit unions nationwide that has made available Shastic's tool and the vendor says it's in conversations with community banks that want to roll it out. It says it charges most banks less than $125 per month for the app.

Joseariel Gomez, chief executive of Shastic, views the tool as a consultative service that is designed to help get people comfortable with credit.

"It makes loans simple and easy to explore," says Gomez, adding he will make Calcubot available on other platforms like Pinterest, should a financial institution partner wish.

Gomez's growth plans also underscore how financial institutions nationwide are adding in advice-centered digital gadgets meant to help people shop in more informed ways, and at the same time, help the provider know who's in the market for what.

Comerica, for example, launched an online quiz powered by Ignite Sales that recommends products to people based on their responses. The bank will ask customers or prospective ones what channel they prefer to use for banking and features they like such as online bill payment, and then recommend a product that suits their preferences. America First Credit Union in Utah lets consumers price out, and apply for, auto loans on its mobile app.

"Banks are chasing sales on digital channels," says Jacob Jegher, senior analyst with Celent.