Country Club Bank launched a Facebook page about two years ago — and then deleted it.
"At that time examiners were cautious about banks having a presence out there, so we took it down," says Scott Lute, the Kansas City, Mo., bank's assistant vice president of e-marketing.
Country Club spent the past two years doing research and determining how to improve its monitoring of social media, he says.
This time around, it's starting with professional network LinkedIn instead of Facebook. By June, Country Club will encourage its bankers to make connections on LinkedIn with business owners and other professionals who might be interested in the bank's commercial products, Lute says.
The regional bank, which has about $1 billion in assets and 20 branches, finally feels assured it has a mechanism in place to monitor and control conversations and to ensure the bank stays compliant when communicating with current and prospective customers, he says.
Even large banks have struggled with social media, deferring to their lawyers before posting even the blandest messages. The problems are even greater for smaller banks, many of which still think of social media as too risky.
About a dozen start-ups offer to help banks manage their social media programs. Country Club will use a hosted service from SocialVolt of Overland Park, Kan. Other vendors include Hearsay Social, SocialWare, and CoTweet.
Some vendors specialize in workflow management; others monitor correspondence for possible compliance or regulatory issues. Yet others archive communications and conduct sentiment monitoring about the brand.
"The big question is: how many of these companies will there be, and will we start to see mergers and acquisitions among them, and will they start to come together to offer more robust solutions across the board?" says Nicole Sturgill, a research director at CEB TowerGroup.
Country Club says it's found a good partner with SocialVolt, which archives communication, monitors for compliance issues and mines the Internet for sentiment about its clients, among other things.
"Up until now, the compliance officer has had to say 'No' to social media … we give [banks] the means to deploy social in a way that allows them to control the risk," says Scott Oppliger, chief executive of SocialVolt.
Country Club will filter communications through SocialVolt, which will also help the bank track the things people say about the bank online.
"We view [LinkedIn] as a jumping off point and will make sure our policy is in place and working and make sure we are prepared to take the next step," Lute says.
Its next steps will likely include Twitter and a second attempt at Facebook, Lute says.
Since LinkedIn conversations are largely private, Country Club bank is returning to social media carefully, Sturgill says.
However, there is a disadvantage to using LinkedIn, she says.
"One of the complaints of LinkedIn is that it is so often used for sales, and that people want to connect with you because they want to sell you something," Sturgill says.
Just a year-and-a-half ago, banks devoted less than 2% of their marketing budgets to social media, according Aite Group. That's changed dramatically, as social media has influenced many parts of the bank, including IT and customer service.
"To a large extent, banks realize social media is not a stand-alone channel they create," says Ron Shevlin, a senior analyst at Aite.
Still, there are challenges, as even the largest banks are struggling with how best to respond to their customers using social media.
First, consumers are still hesitant to mix banking and social media, with a majority saying they would be unlikely to check balances, get answers to customer service questions, or receive information on current or new products, according to research conducted in 2011 by Javelin Strategy & Research.
"You have to have a policy about how you cultivate public conversations and then private conversations in a public format," says Mark Schwanhausser, a senior analyst for Javelin, of Pleasanton, Calif.