Wachovia Corp. and other financial companies are reaching out to customers through Twitter, an online messaging tool known more for social networking than financial management.
The Charlotte banking company began using Twitter's service in mid-August to respond to customer inquiries and to build brand awareness beyond its branch map. But as it assesses the service's utility, it remains unclear how to meld social networking and financial services.
Twitter Inc.'s service lets people use their computers and mobile phones to broadcast 140-character messages to keep others up to date on their daily lives. Though it was initially developed for friends, it is not unheard of for businesses to use it as well.
"Social networking is an area of great interest," said Sridhar Chityala, Wachovia's head of e-commerce. The company is assessing "how we can embrace … those capabilities," he said.
Wachovia is still experimenting with how to use the service and has no firm goal for it, though Mr. Chityala said the company considers Twitter a better way to engage some types of customer than the tools on its Web site.
With Twitter "you have a high intensity of engagement within the community," he said. "The question, therefore, is, how do we … tap into that."
One advantage of using Twitter is that it gives Wachovia more reach than its branch map for contacting prospective customers, Mr. Chityala said, and Twitter is a part of a broader strategy of using the Web to reach them.
Pete Fields, Wachovia's e-business director for employees and corporate service, said that, though Wachovia is still trying to find the most effective way to use the service, Twitter has already had an impact.
Wachovia has fewer than 300 "followers" — Twitter users who have subscribed to its feed — but already they have begun to fall into three categories, he said. One is existing customers who are fans of the bank and want to learn more about it; a second is die-hard Twitter users who are eager to read up on everyone they can.
The third group comprises more casual Twitter users who have a passing curiosity about Wachovia, Mr. Fields said. This group may not have been interested enough in the company to seek out its Web site but is comfortable learning more through Twitter's familiar interface, he said.
"If they have a good experience with us on Twitter," he said, "and that's a community for which they have affinity, then it should help in terms of when they're ready for a product or a service, that they might consider Wachovia."
That said, no specific goal has been adopted for how Wachovia's Twitter account is used for marketing, or even how individual messages should be composed.
"Occasionally, we're a little bit too stiff; occasionally, we're a little bit too familiar," he said.
On a scale of one to 10, with one being well-vetted marketing-speak and 10 being unfiltered social chatter, Wachovia's tone on Twitter has ranged from three to seven in the past month, Mr. Fields said, and it wants to be right in the middle.
On a middle ground, Wachovia would be taken seriously by those who expect a more mature tone from a financial institution, yet be perceived as an entity that "gets Twitter," Mr. Fields said.
Other financial companies are using Twitter's service to reach out to customers, but each has done so differently.
Wesabe Inc. offers an online aggregation service that lets people view their transaction histories in multiple bank accounts. This service pulls data from their online bank accounts, so it only sees what the banks see: checks, online bill payments, credit and debit card purchases, and so forth — not cash.
To help people include cash transactions in its spending-monitor tools, Wesabe set up a Twitter feed that lets users send private messages to their Wesabe accounts detailing cash purchases.
Some units of Intuic Inc. are also using Twitter, Scott Gulbransen, a spokesman for its Quicken Online group, said some units have had Twitter accounts since last year, and the older ones no longer just broadcast information but engage users in conversation. An advantage Twitter has over other communication tools is customers check it every day, so "it's not just incident-related" as e-mail and call center interactions are.
Jenny Spadafora, the Web evangelist for Intuit's Innovation Lab group, said her unit, the Mountain View, Calif., company's workshop for new products and services, has had an account since the summer, and found that although the same conversations could be happening over e-mail or on her division's blog, Twitter is a better forum for communicating with customers.
"You need to be willing to go where they are and have the conversations where they choose to have them," she said.
"We are in learning mode, as we think most people are with Twitter from a business perspective," she said.
George Tubin, a senior research director at TowerGroup Inc., an independent research firm owned by MasterCard Inc., said that, though few financial companies are using Twitter to promote themselves, the service can help expand brand awareness.
If consumers are "constantly seeing 'Wachovia, Wachovia, Wachovia' through their Twitter account, it's certainly going to put them front-of-mind," as well as evoking any positive associations people have with Twitter, he said.
It is especially important for companies with more mature images, he said. "Wachovia does have that image of a very traditional type of bank," he said. "For them, it's kind of a safe way to start to explore other ways to communicate and maybe change their image a little bit."
Twitter is especially appealing to companies that want to start more full-featured alert services, since Twitter users are already receptive to receiving short updates, Mr. Tubin said. "The Twitter approach is maybe safer," he said, "because it's something individuals have signed up for specifically for this reason, for communication."
However, it has its limits, he said. Most notably, it does not offer the same security as banks' Web site.