Many have heralded social media as a revolutionary tool for financial institutions to interact with their customers. But for those that feel that serving coffee and doughnuts in your branches is social enough, why should social media matter?

My company's most recent consumer surveys found that 54% of consumers in the United States are on some type of social networking site. Forty-six percent are on Facebook, with 88% of users logging on at least once a month and 35% using the site daily or weekly.

Unfortunately, the research also clearly shows that financial institutions still have a long way to go to penetrate the social media market. Only 4% of consumers have visited a financial institution's page on a social networking site.

This might suggest that consumers simply do not want to interact with their financial institution on a social networking platform. They do not want to mix business with pleasure.

I like to affectionately call this the mullet obstacle, out of respect to the oft-ridiculed but never obsolete "business in the front, party in the back" mullet hairstyle.

To overcome the mullet obstacle, banks must give consumers a reason to want to interact. The value proposition must be something beyond just "because it's my bank." And consumers told us that the rules are different depending on what type of business you are and what type of message you're promoting.

Almost half (48%) the respondents indicated that it was never appropriate for any type of business to deliver an advertising type of message within the context of social media.

But 37% said they were willing to accept an advertising message from restaurants or retail stores, compared with only 25% that felt an advertising message from a financial institution was appropriate.

Similarly, an even higher percentage of consumers wanted special offers from restaurants (51%) and retail stores (50%), while only 24% said that they wanted special offers from financial institutions.

So what's a financial institution to do, short of getting a liquor license and soliciting food and drink specials in your tweets? The top three types of messages that consumers indicated were appropriate from a financial institution were: customer service (34%), community involvement (29%) and educational (28%).

These consumer responses raise a question: is the "don't try and sell me stuff if you're a bank" sentiment a firm position, or simply a reflection that financial institutions have not yet figured out how to communicate their special offers?

In other words, how can financial institutions convey to their customers that their special offers can be every bit as valuable as free coffee from Dunkin Donuts or 10% off at Gap?

Or is the mullet obstacle just too big to overcome, so the focus should remain on building a social media presence simply to help build brand and top-of-mind awareness? If that's the case, even though a direct ROI may not be as immediate or measurable, don't discount the value that the exponential brand exposure can have through this modern version of word-of-mouth marketing.

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