Security Savings Bank in Henderson, NV, has historically never asked its customers for their email addresses because, like many community banks, it preferred to converse with customers face-to-face, not, as former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens once put it, through a series of tubes.

But that is changing now that the $250 million-asset bank has gotten in on the social-networking craze. The bank established a page on Facebook in October, and now it is busily gathering email addresses, in part to market products, but also to create discussions about such topics as how to start a new business, and spread the word about bank-sponsored programs, such as a foreclosure investment seminar.

"It's funny how this has turned on us," said Jesse Torres, the bank's president and chief operating officer. "Now in order for us to become even more effective in meeting [customer] needs, we have to collect their email information."

While traffic to the bank's page has been limited, Torres said he expects 10 percent to 15 percent of the bank's customer base will visit the site by the end of the first quarter.

Torres, who authored an ebook titled "Community Banker's Guide to Social Network Marketing," said that social network use has grown 25 percent from June 2007 to June 2008 and that 67 percent of all Internet users belong to social networks. Many companies - outside of financial services - are paying attention. Ad spending on social networks will grow 180 percent from $900 million in 2007 to $2.5 billion in 2011, according to the Corporate Executive Board.

Many of the nation's largest banks have entered the fray, but among community banks, Security Savings is in the minority. "The financial services industry, and community bankers specifically, are slow adopters; we don't like being on the bleeding edge," Torres says. "We like to see other folks make those mistakes, and then once they have figured them out, we come in behind them and make use of those best practices. As a result, there are very few community banks that are ahead of the curve."

The challenge for most companies is driving traffic to the community. But the financial crisis has given the banks an opening to communicate with customers who are trying to make sense of the latest headlines. Torres' bank, for example, recently hosted a discussion on the media's lack of understanding about deposit insurance.

One of the most successful online communities in the financial world is "Young & Free Alberta," run by is Servus Credit Union in Alberta, Canada. The site, which was launched in October 2007, receives 300 visitors per day on average and specifically targets 17 to 25 year olds in the province. Not everything posted on the site is positive - but the traffic is generating business for the credit union. The number of new accounts opened by 19- to 25 year-olds increased 960 percent in the first nine months after the site's debut, generating more than $3 million in new deposits, says Kim Crockett, the site's manager. "Our goal is for Young & Free to be an authentic Web site and if there is a negative comment on the site, that isn't necessarily a bad thing," he says. "We would see that as an opportunity to address something [even] if that means potentially changing a way that we do business. I think that's fabulous that we can show that we are a responsive organization."

That's what makes online communities such an appropriate forum for community banks. While complaints or suggestions made on a large bank's site might go largely unheard, small banks are nimble enough that they could actually heed customers' advice and change a business practice - if it makes sense.

Nor does setting up a social networking site have to be an expensive endeavor. The beauty of social network marketing is it allows you to decide how big or small you want to go with it, "which isn't the case with other, more traditional, forms of communication," says Shari Storm, vp and chief marketing officer of Verity Credit Union in Seattle. The institution's online community "Our Voices" dates to December 2004 and was one of the first blogs launched by a financial institution. It receives over 1,000 unique visitors per month, and is so well read that 14 staffers now write for it.

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