Google's latest effort to combat Facebook and Twitter's stranglehold over social networking, Google+, is gaining attention from banks, which are discovering use cases in marketing, branding and customer service.

A new initiative at New Zealand's ASB is demonstrating how Google+ can be leveraged as a communications tool, engaging consumers in real time while accumulating data on a new product rollout. The $5.5 billion-asset bank deployed Google+ to help drive the beta testing for the bank's Android app, which was released about a month ago.

"Google+ complements our existing social media profiles on Facebook and Twitter," says Anna Curzon, general manager of Internet banking for ASB. "When Google+ first launched in June, we asked our Facebook community about which other social networks they used and we found Google+ featured strongly so we knew there was already a community with which we could engage."

The bank's new Android app lets customers access ASB's mobile banking website without needing to open their web browser. Customers can check balances, view transactions, transfer money, and make one-off payments and bill payments. The app also uses GPS to locate the nearest ATM or branch, provides a feed of updated foreign exchange rates, and enables one-touch access to the call center and Facebook and Twitter accounts.

During the test of the new app, Curzon said Google+ has provided more flexibility to speak with multiple people across several locations at once, and at a time that suits the customer. "For example, one of our beta [users] was located in a different city, so we were able to hold a Google 'hangout' with him one evening after work and he showed us how he was using our beta mobile app." A hangout, in Google speak, is a group video chat.

Google+ grew to about 10 million users in its first few weeks, fast growth but still far behind Facebook, which has nearly 800 million users. Yet Google+ has also attracted myriad global businesses, including Volkswagen, Motorola Mobility and Time. Google+ is also starting to catch on with U.S. banks.

For financial institutions, Google+ provides alternative points of contact and a new channel for branding strategies. A bank's contacts or brands can be organized into "circles," which allow the bank to form groups for sharing across various Google products and services — a tool that could be used for customer segmentation. In addition to the hangouts ASB as used in its mobile app beta, Google+ supports "huddles" — group messaging that serves a similar function to a bank's newsletter and "sparks" — a Twitter alternative that lets users identify topics they may be interested in sharing with others.

Additionally, the recently-launched Google+ Pages allows brands, products, companies, businesses, places, groups and others to establish a presence on the service. It's similar to Facebook Pages, and is designed to compete with Facebook in part by including ties to Google's flagship search engine technology.

"It is early days for Google+ Pages and we are looking forward to working alongside our community to use the unique functionality that this platform offers," Curzon says. "We are anticipating that the kinds of conversations on Google+ will be quite different — more in-depth and focused on particular topics of interest, and not necessarily a repetition of our Facebook posts as some of our community will follow us on both networks. We'll watch and learn with our Google community about what they would like to see and as Google develops their platform further, we will be able to explore more ways to use it."