Bankers have come to view America Online, Prodigy, and Compuserve - the three traditional on-line service networks - as additional options for being wherever and whenever customers want to do banking. They are part of a delivery-system continuum that begins, and circles back to, the branch.
In September, Sanwa Bank of California filled its branches with free America Online T-shirts and computer disks. The hoopla coincided with the launch of BankNow, the home banking service created for AOL by Intuit Inc.
"We did it to remind people that we are a player in PC banking," said Doug Stewart, first executive vice president of the $8 billion-asset, Japanese-owned bank. "A bit of a halo effect" carries over, he said, from the bank's involvement with the popular new-media company.
The customers' reactions? It has been popular, but not exceeding expectations.
Sanwa isn't alone among banks trying to gain some high-tech glitter by association. By the end of the year, AOL expects 26 institutions in its banking center. Mergers have cut Prodigy's bank providers to a dozen.
While Compuserve has not traditionally focused on bringing banks on board, a spokeswoman said the company this month will announce three to six large-bank partnerships in addition to its relationship with Security First Network Bank of Atlanta.
Banker-believers say they are reaching an audience they could not satisfy through other means.
"We felt a strong affinity with the AOL members," said senior vice president Catherine Graeber at BankAmerica Corp. "They were almost already there and waiting" when the bank began offering transactional services through America Online last June.
BankAmerica has a multi-pronged interactive strategy that, in addition to AOL, includes an ownership stake in the Managing Your Money personal finance software and one of the first and oldest full-service banking sites on the Internet.
AOL members, according to Ms. Graeber, feel they are a part of a community and want to do as many things as possible on-line. She said the high concentration of members in Bank of America's 11-state region means "being on-line is more important than having a branch down the corner."
Like other major banks beginning to provide services through AOL, Bank of America didn't want Intuit's BankNow product between it and its customers. But banks don't seem to be as worried about the on-line services' brand identities drowning theirs out. One reason may be that AOL and Prodigy help banks in understanding consumers' on-line behavior and preferences.
"We have learned a tremendous amount about our home banking customers," said Catherine V. Corby, director of retail strategy for Barnett Banks Inc., which has been on Prodigy since 1993.
Banks cannot establish a channel and not continually update it, said Ms. Corby. Moreover, on-line customers are so comfortable with e-mail that banks need to stay on their toes to meet the standards of responsiveness users expect.
"We have learned that there is no such thing as a consumer market, but that we need different presentations," Ms. Corby said. "Some customers love Prodigy; others do not like Prodigy at all."
First Chicago NBD Corp. adopted Prodigy in 1988 because of its leadership role in the nascent on-line world. Although the service works flawlessly, said on-line services manager Tim M. Kemp, "it has been disappointing to be a part of that launch and to see Prodigy being not as popular as America Online."
First Chicago has since launched BankNow on AOL and has set Internet banking as its top on-line priority. Yet on-line services, Mr. Kemp said, offer a kind of "community feeling" that may be lacking on the World Wide Web.
"One approach is to partner with a diverse range of companies and a wide range of industries," said Mr. Kemp. "A bank, some publishing companies, and retailers could easily get together" and provide in a given geographical area the types of services that historically defined community banking.
But at least for some banks, being on an on-line network boils down to the number of eyeballs viewing the space.
Chase Manhattan Bank is continuing the relationship that Chemical Bank began with Prodigy, said Chase vice president Michael Papantoniou. But while the bank hopes to move that service to the Internet as Prodigy Internet gains popularity, the number of subscribers to the industry- leading service made the decision to connect to AOL all the more obvious.
First Union Corp. spokeswoman Marianna Sheridan agreed, calling AOL's seven million members an "excellent target, in terms of new prospects for the bank." First Union regards it as one of many home banking channels.
Early on-line bank Wells Fargo & Co. jumped into on-line services with Prodigy in 1989 and added a presence on AOL in September. But more and more, the bank is emphasizing direct access to its site through the World Wide Web.
"Anything that you see on AOL, you can get through the Internet," said Wells Fargo spokeswoman Janet Otsuki. "We are listed in their banking center, but it is essentially the same service."
But the bank did try to use Prodigy as a vehicle for reaching a broader audience by conducting a six-month national advertising campaign on the service. It has since curtailed the service, although the bank declined to specify the reasons for their silent withdrawl.
Security First Network Bank has used AOL and Compuserve to broaden its appeal from the hard-core Internet community where it began.
"A year ago, I thought all our customers would be people with pocket protectors," said vice president of marketing Hope Flammer. "The on-line services make it easy for the user, and we are actually moving into much more of a mass market."
The bank has up to 90,000 hits a day on its Internet site, which it calculates is 5,000 individual visits. Each day, the bank opens as many as 60 accounts for Internet users, 20 for AOL users, and 15 for Compuserve users.
"We would like to see the volume on AOL be comparable to Internet," said Ms. Flammer. Security First has been helped by being the only bank available through Compuserve for several months.