Banks have heavily invested over the years in Web tools-chat, wizards, re-search comparisons, etc.-that help cross-sell new products and services to online customers. They also own interactive marketing budgets that balloon like soufflés each year trying to entice new accounts from Googlers and the Yahoo! citizenry from across the Web.

Where they've often lagged, though, is getting off on the right foot with visitors who come knocking on the front door, out of the blue.

When registered users and account holders log in, financial institutions already have a good idea what that person might be reasonably pitched. The surfers who ride the rails of click-through banner ads arrive on the premise of a mortgage refinance or an attractive CD rate. But for the hundreds of millions of visitors who navigate directly to major bank Web sites, the industry has struggled to devise a capture strategy that brings in a significant number of conversions.

It's "the No.1 or No.2 question I get," says Forrester Research principal analyst Brad Strothkamp, in his coverage of online banking and financial products. "The (best) use of online chat, 'click-to-call', what I call interactive help, mainly on the sales and acquisition side." Led by Bank of America and Wells Fargo, and rapidly attracting direct lenders like E-LOAN and Quicken Loans, "it's very, very big and getting bigger," says Strothkamp.

ATG's eStara Connections and LivePerson Business Solutions are among the service providers who strive to give banks a better way to target the customer and the unknown guest, and are being joined by a new competitor, InQ chatCommerce, which is porting over its chat-based marketing and sales-conversion service from the wireless and e-tailer field.

Out of the billions of sightseers who come across financial sites, "there are relatively few sales to that volume [of visitors] that come out of the other end," says Jeff Stiefler, InQ's chairman and former AmEx and Digital Insight executive, despite the fact that "there have been billions of dollars spent in programs designed to optimize this outcome."

Much of these efforts turn to engagement, often with a live sales agent through chat or through click-to-call features that bring prospects directly into the sales channel. Without engagement, many customers wouldn't find or perhaps wouldn't finish applications for cards, loans or DDAs. These are usually promising prospects, says Stiefler, because they are actively researching or looking for products.

These real-time help engines track visitors for signs of product interest or site-navigation confusion. There's also the click-to-call or chat features in which site visitors can commence a conversation to carry through with an online purchase, or prompt an offline excursion to a branch or office. According to an eStara-commissioned analysis by Forrester Consulting, return on investment for the startup costs-fees, support, training and site integration-of an interactive system like 'click-to-call' can be less than six months, thanks to a 12 percent conversion rate.

Improving the conversion of site visitors would seem to link up with the industry's ever-increasing appetite for interactive marketing, despite the dark clouds in the economy. According to a Forrester Research analysts Shar VanBoskirk and Zachariah Hofer-Shall, U.S. financial services companies [including brokerages] will nearly double the amount of spend on interactive marketing tools by 2012, to $5.9 billion. Financial services will account for 10 percent of the interactive marketing pie by 2012.

InQ, which planned a name change to TouchCommerce at the end of October, will fully host the service, unlike competitors, according to Strothkamp. That includes fielding trained agents that verse themselves in a bank's strategy and services menu, and minimizing upfront investment costs for banks-which could be attractive to mid-tier institutions that have not moved heavily into chat, instant-messaging and other Web 2.0 tools. "It can be a completely outsourced model," says Strothkamp.

InQ will initially target larger, top 100 institutions, according to Stiefler, who as chairman, president and CEO of Digital Insight, oversaw an online banking platform used by more than 700 banks.

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.