Ask two community bankers what they think of the Internet and you're likely to get two quite different answers.

Some think having a World Wide Web site is mandatory today for the community bank.

Others say: "Why be among the first? Let others pay the price of experimenting. We'll jump on the bandwagon when it becomes profitable to do so."

I tend to be on the nay-sayer side. I think that much of our new technology is solutions looking for problems.

And many bankers who have taken first steps on the Net agree with me. Their Web pages are just places to advertise their services and, at most, provide depositors with balance information and other data. Customers can't even pay bills through these sites, or move money from one account to another.

But Nebraska banker Alice Dittman says Internet skeptics like me are short-sighted.

Ms. Dittman, president and chief executive of Cornhusker Bank in Lincoln, heads the electronic delivery steering committee of the American Bankers Association's 110-member Community Bankers Council. She writes:

"The Internet allows any institution to market its services and gain exposure in our communities. A larger competitor's presence on the Internet should be no less a concern to our bank than if we found the bigger rival trolling for customers via ads in our local newspaper.

"Many community bankers have already developed Web sites on the Internet and consider it a wonderful move. True, community banks can't pour the kinds of dollars and resources into technology that large banks can. But there's no reason for community banks to wait indefinitely or consider themselves non-candidates for technology leadership.

"Because many people assume that smaller banks are sleepier and less sophisticated than their larger brethren when it comes to technology, community banks that choose to wait do so at their own risk. Internet users tend to be more educated and more affluent than typical consumers and are ripe for the picking by larger banks and nonbank competitors.

"A presence on the Internet reaches those consumers, as well as younger folks (who one day may become the customers of our dreams), and it also puts employees on notice that the bank expects to keep up with the times and the tastes of its changing markets.

"I'm convinced that community banks must keep an open mind about where technology will fit at their banks. In many cases, we can be more nimble in implementing new technologies, which is an advantage in today's world of warp-speed technological change.

"The best news is that new technologies, including the Internet, need not cost an arm and a leg. ABA is working with a vendor who will set up an attractive Web site for ABA members for less than $3,000."

Letters like this made me want to take a second look at how banks are using the Internet so their customers can do from home what formerly involved a visit to the bank. I will report on some of these developments next week in this space.

But our readers could probably learn a lot more about the subject from you. One great advantage of community banking is that small banks don't consider all other small banks to be rivals, so they're willing to share the secrets of success.

So please write to tell us how your bank is using the Internet in ways others might want to imitate. The best response will earn the writer at day at the helm of Schmidlap National Bank, with a certificate to prove it. Mr. Nadler is a contributing editor of the American Banker and professor of finance at Rutgers University Graduate School of Management.

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