Bankers experimenting with online video promotions find the format works best, not as a one-time event, but as an ongoing series.
Think of it as "American Idol" meets free checking.
In these promotions, people submit homemade videos about everything from why they are saving money to what young people want in a financial services company. The bank posts the videos on its Web site and invites customers to vote for their favorites. Finalists post subsequent films, and eventually a winner is chosen.
Bankers say they are giving customers, and prospective customers, a reason to return to their Web sites again and again, just as they would watch new episodes of a favorite television show. In the process, the banks get a boost in online traffic — and deposits.
First National Bank of Omaha is running a contest in which five finalists are keeping a video journal explaining their progress toward meeting a savings goal. Rajive Johri, the First National of Nebraska Inc. unit's president, said the compelling individual stories are attracting repeat visits from fans.
"We are engaging customers," even though "we are not giving away anything" to anyone but the finalists, Mr. Johri said. "We strongly believe that we caught on to something that is really dear in the economic context today, and it is important to individuals. As we build on it more and more, it will stick to our brand."
The contest, which started during the summer, attracted 150 entrants. The bank agreed to match up to $5,000 of deposits made by the five finalists. The winner will be announced in April and will receive a vacation.
Mr. Johri said the buzz has had a striking effect on business; First National Bank's balances have risen 20% since the first half, to $200 million, and account applications have doubled, to about 2,000 a month.
Though he cannot be certain that all the gains are a result of the Pay Yourself First Challenge, Mr. Johri said that he believes the promotion has been a major factor, and that the results are substantially higher than those of past promotions, which were more along the lines of "giving away toasters and bagels."
He compared the contest to the TV show "American Idol," where only a few people get to be on the air, but millions tune in to follow the progress of a favorite contestant. The finalists in the bank's contest all have stories that are "very genuine, touching, and real."
One contestant, Alexa, was adopted from Korea when she was three months old and is saving for a trip back, where she hopes to meet her birth-mother.
Another contestant, Dave, lives with his wife and five daughters in a house with just one bathroom. He is saving to buy a house with more bathrooms.
Each finalist maintains a blog that includes saving strategies, progress toward the finalist's goals, and regular video updates.
First National Bank is already planning a second "season" for its contest, Mr. Johri said, and the current finalists will be asked to make guest appearances, just as popular singers from past seasons of "American Idol" are frequently invited back to perform.
The success of First National Bank's contest mirrors the Young and Free Alberta campaign run by Servus Credit Union Ltd. This week the Lloydminster, Alberta, credit union concluded its second online video contest, in which entrants created short films explaining various financial topics.
The winner, Myles Peterman, an 18-year-old resident of Edmonton, has been hired for a yearlong stint as Servus' online "spokester" to encourage young people to use its youth-themed free checking account.
The Young and Free campaign was masterminded by Tim McAlpine, the president and chief strategist of Currency Marketing of Chilliwack, British Columbia.
His firm has already exported the campaign to the United States. Texas Dow Employees Credit Union announced its first winner last week, and a credit union in another state is planning to launch its own version of the Young and Free contest in February.
Ron Shevlin, a senior analyst at Aite Group LLC of Boston, said these ongoing campaigns can be great for business, but only if the bank or credit union devotes a lot of resources to a campaign's success.
In the case of Servus, "it was a very coordinated, well thought-out business initiative" that involved the creation of a checking product as well as retraining employees, he said. "This represented a commitment from the credit union to attract a new market segment that it believed was underserved."
These campaigns can go on for years, but their greatest risk is their own popularity, he said. "It's not an expiration issue. It's a saturation issue." If too many institutions launch them, "at some point it just gets perceived as a 'me too' effort."
When they do attract an audience, these campaigns can have a long lifespan, Mr. Shevlin said. "Most marketing campaigns last six to eight weeks," but the few that strike a chord with people can last for years.
"The key question is what's the untapped market size when you move from season two to season three," he said; if the demand has been met, then it may be time to cancel the show.