Just a few years ago, bankers assumed their customers would use their mobile phones only to transact on the fly — deposit a check, peek at their balances, maybe pay a bill they forgot about.
They underestimated how much time people would spend basking in the blue light of their device.
The amount of time people spend on their phone presents a potential opportunity for banks — they have the chance to strengthen their relationships with customers if they can just get in front of them. So banks like Wells Fargo are taking a page from their desktop strategies and incorporating informative articles, videos and infographics on mobile sites.
In February, Wells Fargo began optimizing its content for its mobile browser home page as part of a larger remodeling. Visitors to the site or the app can now learn about picking the right IRA or establishing credit, for instance.
The update underscores the growing significance of mobile banking. Consumers are increasingly viewing it as a full-fledged part of the bank, not just merely a service tool. And as banks aim to create a seamless experience, they are incorporating things that have little to do with transacting the same way they've done to their websites.
"Gone are the days when bank executives could succeed by thinking [of] mobile as a limited subset of online banking features and content," said Peter Wannemacher, senior analyst at Forrester Research. "Instead, mobile is the hub of many people's relationship with their bank brand."
Recent Forrester data shows that 42% of U.S. smartphone owners (18 years and older) access finance or banking websites on their mobile phones monthly. On average, they do so about 3.3 days each month and spend four minutes and 15 seconds each visit.
Other giant banks are responding to the trends, too. Most recently, JPMorgan Chase overhauled its website, which included featuring content on its mobile home page, among other changes.
It's worth noting that these changes are not purely related to the app. The banks are updating the website consumers can access with their mobile browser. That's important because the redesigns follow Google updated its search rankings to influence the ways in which companies pages show up in search results on mobile devices.
To improve the experience for mobile visitors, Wells Fargo has made a number of striking changes to its mobile browser and app in recent months. Colorful images, mobile search within the browser home page, and a more personalized greeting after someone signs into the app are all components that give the brand a much hipper look on smartphones at a time when ever more consumers' research products and services online before ever stepping into a branch.
Nyja Bush Stringer, vice president of product management for Wells Fargo virtual channels, likens the updates to the Golden Gate Bridge getting repainted every few years for a refresh.
"We have to keep up with latest tech and customer expectations," Bush Stringer said.
Now, consumers visiting Wells Fargo have access to all of the product, service and educational tools and content available to desktop and tablet users, but in a mobile-optimized format so that it is easier to consume and navigate. They can also favorite the content in order to more easily find it at a later time.
The designs depart from the look and feel of yesteryear's mobile browser home pages. Real estate formerly used as the doorway to download an app has been replaced with more ways to explore the bank's brand.
"It's the next wave, if you will, of mobile banking we are starting to see," said Alex Johnson, director of credit advisory service at Mercator Advisory Group.
The overhauls to the mobile browser home page are also an acknowledgment that some customers like that channel, even if so much mobile focus has been spent on pushing users to the app. Wells Fargo said its mobile browser home page — nicknamed the front porch — generally got more than 1 million logins a day on average before the redesign.
To what degree consumers read or listen to content published by a bank on their smartphones remains to be seen.
"The jury's still out on this. But as of today, most consumers don't read much about personal finance via any channel or touchpoint," Wannemacher said. "Wells seems to [be] targeting the relatively small — but important — subsegment of consumers who have an appetite for bite-sized personal finance content via mobile."
Mercator's Johnson views the development as part of a larger strategy to give consumers answers they may need without requiring them to go to a branch or call the bank.
The mobile-optimized articles, which Wells Fargo has long published on its website, are not about cross-selling. Rather, they are meant to help consumers understand specific topics and a project the bank said it began before "Mobilegeddon" — when Google switched its search algorithm.
But it's not the only way Wells is expanding its functionality. The bank has also updated its app so customers are greeted by their names and time of day, among other enhancements.
"We're trying to create an engaging experience," said Rachel Shay, vice president of product management for Wells Fargo virtual channels.
For all of its recent updates, Wells said it drew on customer feedback. There have been customer complaints or requests to go back to the old format, but that is typical for any redesign regardless of the brand.
"We expected that," Shay said. "Overall, reactions have been overwhelmingly positive."