Community banks continue to discover innovative ways to attract small-business customers.

Since the financial crisis, smaller banks have been looking for creative ways to stand out as they aim to engage local businesses. Doing so has become an important way to distinguish individual institutions from their competitors as banks aggressively vie for more loans.

"Banks have been part of community events as sponsors and participants forever," said Nick Miller, president of Clarity Advantage. "You're seeing an amplified version, with new twists because small-business owners ... seem more and more time starved. At the same time, they have the unprecedented ability to find answers themselves online."

A number of larger banks, by and large, have pulled back from serving businesses with less than $10 million in annual sales, instead focusing more on midsize firms, providing an opportunity for community banks, said Steven Reider, founder of Bancography.

Generally, small business owners are six to eight times more profitable than the median retail customer, making them an attractive market, though the process of luring those prospects can be slow with uneven results. "Customers are still won or lost one relationship at a time," Reider added.

A number of community banks are experimenting with concepts that go beyond a traditional sales pitch. Citizens Bank of Edmond in Oklahoma, for instance, gives employees $10 from time to time to spend at a designated local business. The $251 million-asset bank then posts about its efforts on social media.

The $166 million-asset Brattleboro Savings & Loan in Vermont recently ran "Brattorama," a Monopoly inspired game that encouraged people to pick up a game board from a branch or download it from its website. Participants were then required to visit local businesses to collect game pieces. Customers could be entered into different drawings, depending on how many pieces they collected.

Brattleboro, which recently opened a branch in a well-traveled business strip, viewed the game as a way to introduce itself to its new neighbors -- and hopefully future customers -- while making people aware of the new location, said Theresa Masiello, the bank's senior retail officer. More than 30 businesses participated in the game, while roughly 80 people turned in their game boards for a chance to win a prize.

"The thought is that, when the person is in a business, they might see something that catches their eye," Masiello said. "It drives people through their front doors."

This type of marketing is a great way to build trust, said Stewart Rose, president and chief executive of Truebridge Financial Marketing. Banks like Citizens and Brattleboro are doing more than just making a sales pitch; they are engaging with prospective customers.

The bank "is doing something that communicates trust and that's so much more important than just words," Rose said. "You show community involvement and you show businesses you're supporting them."

While creative efforts can generate buzz, there is no guarantee of success, industry experts said.

Such initiatives generate goodwill, but they rarely prompt companies to immediately transfer business, Miller said. Still, a chance to start "a dialogue through a common experience can lead to new business if the bank has prepared its staff regarding how to initiate those discussions and how to follow up," he said.

Brattleboro's executives are hopeful that the bank's Brattorama campaign achieved its goals. More than 90% of the returned entries were brought to its new branch, and the bank was able to introduce itself to area businesses, which will hopefully add new relationships, Masiello said.

"It's a very easy ask now to say, 'You should consider banking with us,'" Masiello said. "Some people might take their time doing that though."

The Porch Cafe & Catering, one of the businesses that participated in Brattorama, is preparing to switch over to Brattleboro once its catering season slows down, said Gretchen Hardy, the company's owner and manager.

"I've been looking at new banks, and Brattleboro Savings & Loan has been such a great supporter of ours since we opened," Hardy said. "We're a new business in the area and really want to be involved as much as possible in the community and I thought the game was a great way to get our name out there."

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