Bankers and others find the Internet inviting in part because it is inexpensive. So inexpensive, some have found, that it doesn't pay not to get their World Wide Web feet at least a little wet.
But many of the 1,000 or so banking sites worldwide are still static home pages or simple billboards. They don't stack up well against some of the glitzier, more animated creations of sophisticated media designers. Which raises the question: How much should it cost to do the Web right?
Two studies this year found most banks getting into the Internet business on the cheap. Possibly too cheap.
Booz-Allen & Hamilton's survey of 56 financial institutions on the Internet showed 72% spent $25,000 or less to establish an on-line presence. Another 8% were under $50,000. Only 8% were spending as much as $100,000 a year to keep their operations going; 6 out of 10 planned no more than $50,000 in expansion investments.
A 44-bank poll by Grant Thornton, the Chicago-based accounting and consulting firm, yielded similar start-up numbers: 75% spent less than $20,000 to put up their Web sites; 14% were between $20,000 and $50,000; only 2% spent $100,000 or more.
The optimistic view is that the entry barriers are low and "it is easy to act first and plan later," said Diane M. Casey, Grant Thornton's national financial services director. Prompt action is necessary because "in five years or less virtually every bank will be using the Internet to attract new customers and deliver services."
"When compared with the $1.5 million to $2 million required to set up a traditional branch and the $350,000 to $500,000 a year required to operate it, Internet banking clearly represents an extremely cost-effective alternative," said Bill Burnham, leader of the Booz-Allen survey project.
Vendors like Five Paces Inc. and Checkfree Corp. appeal to smaller and midsize institutions with relatively affordable Internet banking packages - $25,000 is Five Paces' start-up fee. But dollar amounts can be relative. There are people at the high end of the market saying they have to make bigger commitments and expect a long-term payoff.
In a recent conference presentation citing Booz-Allen's numbers, Thomas C. Byrne, Sanwa Bank California's senior vice president for retail marketing, said, "You have to spend more (than most banks have been spending) on initial design."
Yearly operating costs below $25,000 are "too little," Mr. Byrne said; $75,000 and up is "more realistic," he said.
"You can't fund it on the cheap and expect much success."
Ms. Casey said that customers "will quickly discriminate between (bank sites) that provide true value and those that are merely electronic billboards." Banks must learn "to avoid the easy route and make sure they understand why they are on the Internet before they go there," she said.