Most bankers who observed efforts in the 1990s to promote television banking saw failures, but the executive who championed the most prominent project has just stepped forward to set the record straight.
Catherine Corby Parker, who was director of electronic delivery strategy at Barnett Banks Inc. of Jacksonville, Fla., oversaw what many bankers said at the time was the largest and most innovative television banking experiment, in Orlando, in 1996 and 1997. Because the program was short-lived, many outsiders concluded that it was a flop.
Not so, said Ms. Parker, who is now chief executive officer of Corby & Co., an Internet financial services consulting firm in Jacksonville. The program was halted, she said, because Barnett was sold to NationsBank (now Bank of America). In the aftermath, none of the executives who worked on the project remained. And Barnett's partner, Time Warner Inc., which ran the Full Service Network - the Orlando experiment to bring broadband technology into homes - decided to shutter the service.
"I can attest that TV banking did not fail," Ms. Parker said. "Rather, the objectives of the early experiments and their results were not widely understood."
She said enough time has passed that she can now tell the behind-the-scenes story, which will probably be of interest because of renewed enthusiasm for television banking.
The chief things Barnett learned were that people will use television for banking if it is made available, and that while banking may be serious business, people appreciate efforts to inject some fun into it.
"Those of us who worked firsthand on the experiment - defining its objectives and measuring the results - learned lessons that have forever shaped our views of the interactive financial services opportunity," she said.
Contrary to perceptions, Ms. Parker said, the project in Florida was not meant to be a precursor to a full rollout of interactive television banking.
"Barnett participated knowing full well this was an experiment, not a pilot," she said. "Our objective was to use broadband to engage customers with Barnett in their homes in a way that no bank had ever done before. In short, our goal was to see how consumers would respond if banking could be made fun."
Financing came from a research and development fund set up by Barnett executives for investments in learning that could never be justified with traditional business case analysis, she said.
Time Warner was also experimenting, not piloting, she said. Time Warner Cable equipped 4,000 homes in Orlando for digital interactive television, and Barnett was one of several partners that supplied content. Subscribers could use their remote controls to, among other things, shop at a virtual mall, order pizza, or view movies on demand. In the days before the Internet took hold and pay-per-view became popular, these capabilities were considered advanced.
Barnett's contribution was BarnettTown, a virtual neighborhood - with animation like that in "Toy Story" - that subscribers could tour with their remote controls. At different places in the neighborhood, vignettes reminded the viewer of the need for various financial services. A child on a swing morphed into a high school graduate needing a college loan. A "car loan fairy" floated down to change a broken-down car into a shiny new one.
BarnettTown also had a bank branch. Inside it was an ATM that viewers could reach in a single click if they wanted to carry out a quick transaction. The branch had four animated tellers: two women, one man, and a dog named Goldie. Not coincidentally, Barnett's president owned a golden retriever. Not surprisingly, the dog ended up being the most popular teller in BarnettTown.
"The site was up for only one weekend when we knew we were on to something," Ms. Parker recalled. "In an unmarketed soft launch, 5% of the Barnett customers in the experiment region found the service and signed on for the first time."
During the experiment's eight-month run, one-quarter of the customers in the target area became regular visitors to BarnettTown's branch to check their balances, transfer funds, and pay bills. This, Ms. Parker said, was "five times the level of demand being achieved at the leading Internet-based online banking service at that time."
More important, nearly every one of the 4,000 Full Service Network households - three-quarters of whom had no Barnett relationship- visited BarnettTown's virtual neighborhood at least once, and most did so at least once a month. "They were having fun," Ms. Parker said. "They were also learning about Barnett's products and services."
Consumers told Barnett that they often visited BarnettTown's branch during commercial breaks and that they appreciated being able to channel-surf to the bank to check balances or move money around without leaving their chair or missing a minute of a television show.
Ms. Parker, who left Barnett in early 1997 and worked at two consulting firms before opening up her own, said there are several lessons to be learned.
The first is that while financial services is serious business, it doesn't have to be packaged so seriously. "Consumers appreciate having a little fun during mundane tasks," Ms. Parker said. "It doesn't all have to be presented to consumers in a sterile, businesslike fashion. People appreciate the warm, friendly greeting of a teller in a virtual branch every bit as much as the same greeting from a human being in a physical branch."
Moreover, if marketing materials are entertaining, even a competitor's customers will spend time to learn about the institution, she said.
The second lesson is that the TV is the handiest device in homes for the handling of household finances. "In the time it takes a consumer to walk from the TV to the computer, he can have completed a transaction on a well-designed TV banking site," she said. "The TV will not be the consumer's device of choice for managing all their financial affairs, but it has a place."
Ms. Parker is of the opinion that the marketing and presentation of financial service applications will have to improve dramatically as the Internet works its way on to the TV and TV-like, portable Internet appliances. Financial institutions - or their new competitors, the aggregators - that adopt friendly and engaging presentation formats may well find themselves outpacing the industry in customer growth, just as BarnettTown did in the mid-1990s, she said.
Paul Lambert, a former colleague of Ms. Parker's at Barnett who worked closely with her on the interactive television trial, agreed with her assessment. Mr. Lambert - who said one of his relatives did the voice-over for Goldie - now runs a start-up in Jacksonville called BankBrand Inc., which plans to sell patented technology for "a new type of reward service."
"We got some extremely valuable research from this," Mr. Lambert said. "It helped us frame our approach to the Internet, made us realize that as bankers we need to be looking at the telecom industry, we need to be looking at cable, we need to be reading their magazines and going to their conferences."