Cbanc Network Inc. is aspiring to be the Facebook, Amazon.com and Craigslist of the community banking world.
The company operates a social networking Web site that bankers can use to trade tips, post and read reviews of vendors, share documents and solicit advice. It said last week that it expects to unveil several major enhancements in the next few months.
A growing number of financial companies and software providers are offering similar online services, but cbanc, a unit of the banking technology provider CBG Holdings Inc. of Austin, said interest in its community-bank-oriented site has surged this year.
Users say trading information through the cbancnetwork.com site can help community bankers learn from peers all over the country, but without sharing competitive secrets with local rivals.
"Traditionally we would call the two or three local banks that we know and say, 'Hey, what are you using?' " when evaluating a vendor, said Steve Vawser, the remote deposit merchant services representative for Farmers National Bank in Buhl, Idaho. "This allows us to get so much more."
Farmers has been using the cbanc site for six months, and Vawser said it has helped him refine Farmers National's remote deposit contracts with clients. For example, Vawser downloaded another company's contract that had specific details on image-quality requirements and later decided to include similar specifications in Farmers' client agreements.
Myers Dupuy, cbanc's president, said his company is signing up four to seven new participants each week, and the amount of data on his site is growing as a result.
Fifteen beta users tested it last summer, it went live in July, and as of last week 70 banks were enrolled. The name cbanc is short for "collaborative banking network," Dupuy said.
Many of the site's features, such as a question-and-answer section and the contract management tools, were added in recent weeks.
In January there were 167 vendor reviews on the site, and as of last week there were about 310, Dupuy said. "They've almost doubled in a two-month period."
The service is targeted squarely at community institutions, he said. "Each of them has their own little niche knowledge … this definitely is a community FI play."
Bankers wary of sharing their strategic goals with regional rivals can choose to hide the data they provide from other users in the same area.
Banks pay an annual membership fee. Companies that enroll before the end of June will pay $250 for the first year and $1,500 for the second, plus a one-time setup charge of $100, according to cbanc's pricing schedule. The rates will increase over the next few years, as more content is expected to become available. By mid-2011 cbanc will cost $2,500 a year.
Franklin Weber, the cashier and a vice president of State National Bank of Big Spring in Texas said these rates are appropriate given the Web site's current state and its anticipated growth. "The pricing probably reflects the available content right now," he said.
Weber said that cbanc modernizes the types of intellectual exchanges that are already taking place between bankers.
"Rather than having to call 10 people who were at a compliance school I went to three years ago who may or may not be in the business anymore, this would be my first choice," he said.
State National has been using cbanc for about a month, and Weber said the Web site would have been very useful when the company set up its remote deposit program a few months earlier.
"We've already purchased from a vendor the kind of policies and procedures" needed "to get us set up so we didn't have to write it," he said. But if State National had been able to download similar documents from cbanc instead, it "would have probably saved us $400 to $500 right off the bat."
In addition to exchanging documents, bankers can rate vendors, and in the next few months cbanc plans to let vendors read anonymized versions of their clients' reviews. And in response to user requests, cbanc expects to introduce soon an online marketplace for selling various goods, such as branch furniture.
All of this is driven by a virtual currency system. To download contracts and other documents, bankers must spend a certain number of points, which they earn through such activities as writing vendor reviews or offering their own documents to others.
"We're sharing the stuff that we've already invested time in," Weber said. "If we share it" on cbanc, the bank earns "a return on that stagnant product."
Cbanc's parent, CBG, owns the bank technology companies Q2 Software Inc. and Cardinal Software Inc. It is not the first to create a social Web site for bankers; S1 Corp. and the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication also operate social networking sites for bankers, and some banks, including Bank of America Corp., have developed similar sites for small businesses.
Rodney Nelsestuen, a senior research director at TowerGroup Inc., an independent research firm owned by MasterCard Inc., said the banking industry is becoming more intrigued with social networking. This is "the direction we're seeing the industry" headed.
The virtual currency that facilitates the exchange of ideas is "a creative application of an idea that's been around since before money," he said, creating what is essentially "a barter economy" for community banking knowledge.
Whether cbanc succeeds depends on the company's commitment to the Web site, since it cannot rely on its users to sustain the site on their own. He predicted that cbanc will likely suffer from the "80/20 rule," in which the majority of the content is created by the minority of users.
"I think it has some potential, but unless the sponsors of this site have a serious bent to continue to migrate this to better, deeper, higher quality over time," he said, "It's going to come down to a handful of users."
Corrected April 21, 2009 at 7:34PM: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of cbanc Network Inc. An editing error was to blame.