Bank: National Grand Bank of Marblehead
Problem: Needed to enhance its website but lacked ability to update pages in-house.
Solution: Engaged a new vendor that understood how to forge strong online ties to its coastal community.

Tens of thousands of Web design or "interactive" media companies work domestically in an industry that according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has more than 286,000 employees. So National Grand Bank of Marblehead faced myriad options in 2009 when it decided to revamp its banking website with the goal of increasing traffic and making a stronger connection with its hometown's 20,000 residents.

Marblehead, Mass., which local boosters call America's yachting capital and the birthplace of the U.S. Navy, comprises a thumb-shaped peninsula and bottle-shaped neck that shelters a deep anchorage that separates the Massachusetts Bay from Salem Harbor on the Bay State's North Shore. The seaside hamlet is affluent, quintessentially New England, steeped in history and close-knit; sort of a more rustic Nantucket alternative of which fewer have heard.

The old and clunkywebsite that National Grand was overhauling was decidedly less charming. The single-branch, 180-year-old bank couldn't modify anything, even its rates page, without editing HTML code. So when National Grand executives sought an upgrade, they first agreed on what they didn't want — cluttered screens — as much as on what they did want: images representative of the town and information relevant to customers and the quayside community, images that bank staff could change easily when needed.

The bank had lined up prospective Web developers when a cold call came in September 2010 from T8 Webware, a Cedar Falls, Iowa, company that specializes in designing sites for small and midsize banks. Moulton called T8 a "long shot" contender given that it is so far away from Marblehead. But to his surprise, the portfolio that T8 showed the bank begat exactly what National Grand was looking for: an image of a town that covered the entire background of a main landing page, showing a community at its most scenic, the home page for Great Plains Federal Credit Union.

The backgrounds T8 ended up designing for National Grand are similar: real seasonal photographs taken of Marblehead as viewed from the town harbor, in which moored boats seem to lilt in the waves and three-story, wood-paneled homes rise up the hill of the steeple-topped village.

"The idea was to have a website people would find pleasant to have as their home page," says Bruce Moulton, vice president of IT at National Grand Bank. The site went live June 27.

Aside from the townscape background, National Grand's site has all the typical links for business and personal banking, mortgages and rates, with sections describing the bank's history and mission. But there is also an RSS-fed tide chart on the bank's main landing page for boating enthusiasts.

Several brand messages fade slowly in and out from a single Adobe Flash-based box on the home page. A "community" tab hosts a calendar of local events such as an upcoming Dec. 2 tree-lighting celebration, while an image gallery documents the town's annual summer car show and presentations to the bank's most recent scholarship recipients. National Grand can update these and other graphics, photos or text as frequently as it needs using T8's Web content management system.

"A lot of other websites are like billboards," Moulton says. "Their screens are packed with commercial messaging. Whereas we have the luxury of being parked inside this beautiful coastal town. So we don't have to sell to our community in the same way other banks do."

While not all banks can boast a town as quaint as Marblehead to anchor their sites, many can take Web development queues from National Grand, at least in departing from what Moulton calls the "classical wisdom" of traditional site design. Several financial services firms have conducted notable banking site revamps or web promotions of financial products in recent years: Bank of America (with design partner Organic), Liberty Mutual (with help from Sapient Interactive), Bank of the West (using design firm Comrade), Bank Atlantic (with marketing agency BGT Partners), Citi (with marketing agency Critical Mass), Citizens Bank (using digital agency Rosetta), PNC (with help from marketing agency Razorfish) and Oregon Community Credit Union (with marketing firm First ROI, which is owned by BancVue).

While larger firms wrap services like public relations, marketing and promotional Web strategies, along with site design, into full-menu offerings, applying brand strategy to the online channel need not require a large staff. Many national brands subcontract Web work to small outfits that boast a savvy interactive director and a few expert designers.