As online banking evolves into an ever-widening mainstream, the spotlight has focused on how customers can use the channel in tandem with social media or to build a bank-branded virtual world.

But in reality, Web 2.0 novelties still don't compel U.S. consumers nearly as much as secure, proactive communication and a more personalized experience online, according to recent research from Gartner. "There's a lot of talk in the industry about what online banking should have and what it should be able to do," says Stessa Cohen, research director with Gartner and author of the research. "But no one is asking, 'What do customers want to do?"

Gartner asked just that question when it surveyed nearly 4,000 online banking customers in the UK and U.S. last winter. The results confirmed what most bankers already know: online banking offerings have stepped up to stay competitive and appeal to consumers who themselves have grown more expansive and savvy in their use of the channel - 41 percent U.S. online bankers say they use two or more online banking sites, as do 48 percent of U.K. users. But there are some generational differences. Cohen says older customers still tend to be more concerned about secure communications, while younger people, who are more at ease with the security of email, have a greater interest in self-directed personalization tools.

But Cohen says that in general, it's the less flashy features that resonate more. Secure communication was the highest priority for both U.S. and U.K. customers. Fifty-nine percent of U.S. respondents to the Gartner survey and 55 percent in the United Kingdom said that secure email that they could use to ask a question about their account and receive answers was important or very important to them.

Forty-two percent of U.S. online bankers qualified the ability to pre-arrange alerts regarding accounts and credit card balances and specify where they are sent as a top priority; interestingly, this feature was of less importance across the Atlantic, where only 11 percent of online users rated it important or very important.

Ease of use is also critical. The ability to access all the accounts a customer has with a financial institution by logging in once was rated the second most important online banking feature by both U.S. and U.K. online customers (54 percent and 42 percent, respectively). But a lot of banks do not offer single sign-on, Cohen says, adding that banks should borrow from online retailers. "Retail has worked hard to make sure the shopping cart is not abandoned," Cohen says. "Banks don't have the same mentality about making it easier for consumers."

JPMorgan Chase & Co. encompasses a number of the features that consumers identify as important, Cohen says. The New York City-based money center has offered its customers single sign-on for online accounts and secure email for years, and more recently put in place a "fairly robust alerts system," according to Paul Heller, svp for the bank's Internet group. In September, the bank rolled out Blueprint, a new set of online features for card customers (which will soon expand to other account types), which allows them to create customized payment plans and track their progress on paying off their expenses.

Cohen's research also points to banks taking their lead from nonbank personal finance sites, such as Mint and Wesabe - not only for how they enable consumers to analyze spending, but for the simple, more colloquial language they use. Cohen points to financial goal-setting site SmartyPig as a classic example of a nonbank that offers the kind of easy-to-use analysis and tracking features that banks should adopt. The ability to analyze spending and cash flow and to set up an account to save for a specific goal that you can fund from existing accounts were both among the top five priorities for both U.S. and U.K. respondents to Gartner's survey.

According to Cohen, banks should "watch the credit unions," which are beginning to outpace banks in many cases, in terms of the communication and personalization features they offer. As an example of this, Cohen points to Vancity Savings Credit Union of Vancouver, B.C., known for its "Change Everything" message.

William Azaroff, director of Web engagement and banking for Vancity Savings Credit Union, says his institution strives to make online language "plain-spoken, but playful" at times. Vancity's has engaged consumers because of the incidental features it offers, such as allowing online customers to search transaction history over any period in the last 10 years. "It's just basic usability," Azaroff says.

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