Lots of financial institutions use social media as a marketing and customer service tool, but few have figured out how to actually make money from it. Now some credit unions think they may have found an answer.

A Berkeley, Calif., startup called Shastic has created a simple financial calculator application that several credit unions have installed on their Facebook pages to help customers quickly calculate the cost of mortgage or car loan. The Facebook calculator also works as a lead generator, immediately directing consumers to a financial institution's online loan applications.

"It's generating quite a few mortgage applications that are turning into funded loans," Shannon Doiron, the director of marketing at the $3.1 billion-asset Kinecta Federal Credit Union in Manhattan Beach, Calif.

Ariel Gomez, the 27-year-old chief executive of Shastic, says he started the company three years ago with the intention of building a suite of consumer apps specifically for Facebook primarily to reach the largest possible audience. He began researching how banks and credit unions were using social media and found that while many had Facebook pages most were not fully engaging with consumers.

"Facebook is a two-way conversation, but banks were using it to push information," Gomez says. "If you make it easy for a consumer to shop and play with tools, then you can deploy a robust business initiative on Facebook."

The company began testing its MortgageCalcubot app earlier this year with a handful of credit unions primarily because it has a partnership with AccessSoftek, a Berkeley-based provider of mobile banking products whose clients include several credit unions. Its goal is to eventually offer the service to banks as well.

The app comes with a few "bells and whistles" including the ability to pull interest rate information daily from a financial institution. It also has an "Alert Me" feature that monitors interest rate changes and notifies consumers if rates drop. Moreover, the apps are cheap, at $99 a month each.

"It's really a no brainer," says Doiron. "One funded loan application pays for the app."

Doiron says Kinecta has been working on a social media strategy for a couple of years "trying to build up an audience" and installed the app on its Facebook page in June "to see how we could monetize that."

The app allows a lender "to start that transaction through Facebook and finish it up through your own channel," says Doiron, who branded the app the Kinecta Facebook Calculator.

Until it installed the calculator, Kinecta used Facebook mostly as a marketing tool. "We would post certain banners on Facebook that would link to landing pages but it was for short-term rate specials not a sustainable ongoing thing. There's no shelf life on [the mortgage calculator] because it's a constant learning tool and people shopping for a mortgage want to use tools."

Shastic's Gomez says Kinecta received 21 loan applications in the first three months that it used the mortgage calculator, eight of which got funded.

Numerica Credit Union in Spokane, Wash., was the first credit union to pilot Shastic's app earlier this year and so far 763 consumers have used the app and 28 clicked on the link to fill out a loan application, according to Gomez.

The $1.1 billion-asset Numerica used to post special loan promotions on Facebook, but Brittanie Young, a communications specialist in charge of social media, says the financial calculator is now feature prominently on its page. Just this week Shastic launched a calculator for car loans, dubbed AutoCalcubot, and Young says Numerica plans to add that app to its Facebook page as well.

While many banks have financial calculators on their own web sites, reinventing one for Facebook could represent a fundamental change in the way consumers interact and conduct transactions, says Stephen Applebaum, a senior analyst at Aite Group.

"I do think it's actually disruptive technology in the technical sense in that it allows vendors in banking or insurance companies or credit unions to link the growing number of users of social media back to their web sites in a very simplistic way," he says.

Customers are responding because they use social media and also want to get loan information at any time, "even quickly in the middle of the night," says Applebaum.

"Nobody wants to go into a bank office and fill out a loan application," he says. "As each year goes by, and the number of consumers using social media swells, banks and others better get on board."