A quick visit to New American Mortgage's Facebook page reveals, among other things, a video of staffers dancing to Michael Jackson's Thriller "when the boss is away," pictures of one of the lender's new offices, birthday cake photos and pictures of families standing in front of homes.

What there's not is a lot of information about rates, or selling, or details about mortgage products. And that's the whole idea. The Virginia-based lender believes using Facebook and Twitter in much the same way as consumers is the doorway to relationship building, branding and image marketing. New American wants to be a Frank Capra-style lender for a multi-state town where main street is an online social network.

"We still believe that people want to know the personality of who they are dealing with. [Realtors and sales people] need to have their authentic voice online...they should talk about their kids or their hobbies. Only about 20 percent or so of what you have on Twitter or Facebook should be business," says Casey Crawford, CEO of New American.

The lender's branding and marketing strategy comes as social media adoption starts to mature. Javelin Strategy & Research says 52 percent of U.S. adults now use social media, with 81 percent of 18-24 year olds, 67 percent of 25-34 year olds, and 59 percent of 35-44 year olds taking part. "Brand building seems to be a natural way to use social media," says Mark Schwanhausser, a senior analyst at Javelin. "It's a natural connection. For banking consumers, there's less of a wall for people who are just getting information about something."

Most institutions are at least dabbling in social media. And some are more aggressive, such as Bank of America, which uses Twitter for customer service; HSBC's First Direct UK-based Web bank, which operates a social media "newsroom;" and branding initiatives from Wells Fargo, First Mariner and Addison Avenue Credit Union. In New American's case, Facebook is a substantial CRM and business expansion tool, and a way for consumers and the institution to learn about each other.

"Social media isn't just a place where people are wasting time, or a way to see who's saying that your company stinks," says Stessa Cohen, a research director at Gartner. "It's a place where you can learn peoples' influences. It's getting the experience that provides banks with an understanding of how consumers live their lives on a daily basis. And their lives have very little to do with financial services. If [banks don't take that into consideration] they're making a big omission in their approach to consumer banking."

Crawford says in the year or so since it started putting Facebook out front-its Facebook page can be found on the lender's Web landing page-New American has accrued more than 2,000 "fans," opened about three dozen offices, and closed about 400 mortgages per month. While the lender doesn't attribute that volume entirely to Facebook, Crawford says some loan officers close eight to 12 loans per month via social media contacts-and one has 400 "followers" and 1,000 "friends."

The lender's social media style looks informal on the surface, almost giddy in fact, but the strategy is quite detailed. New America employs a staff of four social media experts who outline the institution's presence on sites such as Facebook-the lender's preferred network-as well as other sites such as LinkedIn and Twitter. New American develops all of its sites and programs in-house, believing that using a third party or an outsourcer "dilutes" the message.

The lender also offers courses for realtors, as a way to soft-sell business relationships by providing a guiding hand into a new channel. "We found that many realtors didn't have an idea as to how to use Facebook," Crawford says, adding the half-dozen classes cover topics such as how to manage a database using Facebook, how to manage social media accounts or how to use Twitter.

It's early growth aside, New American could also face challenges in keeping consumers engaged over a long term. Ron Shevlin, a senior analyst at Aite, says social media sites may be used by people who are searching for a lending experience that goes beyond rates.

But at the same time, mortgages tend to be a "one-off" type transaction for most consumers, rendering an ongoing automated relationship less effective. "You're not likely to be a 'fan' of a [mortgage lender], but are checking it out as part of due diligence," Shevlin says.

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