Firm: SEB

Lead Exec: Hakan Aldrin, director, The Benche

Innovation: A free social media site for finance pros

Getting customers to engage in a corporate-sponsored online community is a major feat, but Sweden's SEB (Skandinaviska Enskilda Banken) mastered the task by taking a no-sell approach on its online community for treasury and finance professionals.

The Benche (www.thebenche.com) is free, and makes no attempt to push users to become SEB clients. It has attracted 3,300 members from 130 countries since its launch in November 2008, and averages 13,000-14,000 hits a month. In March 2010, SEB added cash management as the second topic on The Benche, which initially only covered trade finance.

"SEB is a fairly small bank on the world scene, but it serves some big clients. SEB can't answer all the questions these clients might have about trade finance or cash management. So we created a place where anybody-not just SEB corporate clients but also other banks' clients-can get together in a community and ask each other for advice," says Hâkan Aldrin, The Benche's director. SEB opted for subtle branding. Its logo appears on each page, but without a link to the bank's site. "Prominently branding the site as being owned by 'SEB, a Scandinavian bank,' might have deterred people outside Scandinavia who had no interest in SEB," Aldrin says.

There are 'soft' benefits for SEB, such as being seen as a thought leader. "There's definitely value in getting specific answers or networking with executives who have similar jobs in the industry you serve," says Forrester Research principal analyst Brad Strothkamp.

Aldrin says the institution is getting a lot of publicity as a bank for using social media. "We can gain an early insight into what is happening in the market from what people say on The Benche. Also, SEB is able to cement its relationship with its corporate clients by referring them to The Benche." Aldrin also says The Benche has triggered creative thinking by SEB staff about social media, which has inspired ideas about new functionalities to offer the bank's clients as well as to use internally. "We'll see some of these new functionalities being launched by early 2011," he says.

SEB plans to add additional topics to the two themes already available on the site, each of which has its own sub-community. It also wants to promote The Benche's networking capability to its members, now that it has upgraded the site's software platform.

"We use vBulletin, and the latest version, vBulletin 4, allows you to send direct messages to other members, add friends, write on a member's wall, and add pictures," Aldrin says. "However, it's not our intention for The Benche to become a new 'Linked In,' as this isn't the site's purpose."

The Benche can be found on Facebook, YouTube and on Twitter. So far, The Benche has 233 friends on Facebook, Aldrin says. "I select comments and blogs posted on The Benche and feed them onto our Facebook page, which then streams onto our friends' Facebook walls. The plan is to automate this feed."

Given the site's mission as a venue for discussion and idea sharing, Aldrin doesn't see treasury sites such as CFO Zone or the Association for Financial Professionals' GT News as competitors. "Like these sites, we post contributed articles and we have webinars, but our primary goal is to be a community," he says. "GT News provides a lot of news content and only has a small social networking forum."

Forrester Research senior analyst Ellen Carney gave The Benche glowing reviews. "I get a bunch of inquiries from banks wanting to help their corporate clients find new treasury systems and from corporate treasurers looking to replace their treasury supplier. It's great that I can direct them to The Benche for advice and information."

Stessa Cohen, research director, banking industry advisory services at Gartner, says SEB "really gets the idea of social networking with The Benche. Social media is a hard concept for banks to get. They're used to being in the centre of the town, and people coming to them for service. Now with social media, the bank's behind the scenes."

Carney suggests SEB could add a small business incubator hub to the site that would link small business owners with financing and resources to help build business plans.

"There's a lot SEB can do with this platform," she says. "The limit is only whether the ideas fit with SEB's mission and strategy."

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