Eighty-two thousand of PNC's more than one million Virtual Wallet account customers participate in a blog that can be accessed only from within an online banking session, providing the bank with valuable and focused feedback.
The "Inside the Wallet" blog has played a key role in the evolution of Virtual Wallet, a group of checking and savings accounts that lets users track their spending using online-specific features such as a calendar view of their spending.
"I can remember the day we first turned Virtual Wallet on, when we had zero customers and we didn't know what we were creating or how popular it would be," says Mike Ley, vice president of e-business and payments at PNC Financial Services Group (PNC). PNC announced Tuesday that it has reached a million Virtual Wallet accounts.
The blog provides a more valuable level of feedback than PNC gets through other communication channels such as Twitter and Facebook (FB), he says.
"From our perspective, it's a little more in-depth, the kinds of questions and the kinds of insight you can get from people who have used the product and are engaged and are invested in it," Ley says.
Feedback on Twitter and Facebook, by comparison, is delivered in "shorter spurts," he says. "In the blog, people will take the time to be a little more explicit and give us ideas … it's kind of that protected environment of being logged in … rather than out in the general public."
The blog has helped PNC fine-tune things like the names it gives to certain account functions.
PNC can also use the blog to address user concerns without broadcasting those concerns to the entire Internet, says Mark Schwanhausser, a senior analyst for Javelin Strategy and Research of Pleasanton, Calif.
"You want to segment your message, and this one is segmented in a way that makes folks feel like they're preferred customers," he says. PNC is "using people who read the blog as almost a beta testing feedback loop … that's a great group to talk to."
By contrast, a lot of the bank blogs that are public "either don't get a lot of traffic or they don't get a lot of content posted frequently," says Jacob Jegher, a senior analyst at Celent. "There's some value in having a tighter rein on the content that's showcased to clients."
PNC launched Virtual Wallet in 2008 as an online-focused account with personal financial management features. It is a cluster of three accounts: a "Spend" account for check use and bill payments, a "Reserve" account for emergency expenses and a "Growth" account for long-term savings.
In 2009 PNC split off a version for students, adding features such as a method for customers to ask their parents to reimburse them for certain expenses.
In 2011, as debit regulations began chipping away at bank revenue and many banks began cutting features for customers across the board, PNC took a different approach with Virtual Wallet customers. Rather than take away features, the bank asked its customers to choose which ones they wanted to keep.
To keep the account's more expensive features, such as debit rewards and ATM fee reimbursements, customers had to agree to use the "Performance" version of the Virtual Wallet's Spend account, which attaches a $10 monthly fee if customers do not maintain a minimum balance or deposits.
"Banks are trying to figure out how to change behavior to maintain the free checking or to offset the cost of services that customers may or may not be willing to pay for," Schwanhausser says.
Since Virtual Wallet users already favor cheaper channels, such as the Web, they might be more receptive to changes the bank makes to save money, he says. "Those people are already oriented this way, so why not craft the services for the way they are already going to act anyway?" he says.
The switch to a Performance account has "been kind of a personal decision for everybody," Ley says. "We haven't noticed many people that have upgraded switching back to regular Virtual Wallet. That would indicate to me that those that have made the switch are … getting value from" the account they chose.