They are the introductory handshake of digital banking. The messages that appear on a mobile device or an email do more than just tell people their balance has hit a certain amount, or that a recent transaction looks suspicious from a security perspective. In many cases, alerts are a user's initial exposure to an automated channel, a first impression that's designed to spark broader use.

That's what makes the hard-to-read and confusing digital alerts that often get sent to bank customers, particularly in the SMS/mobile channel, so surprising.

"If you could imagine a great idea and imagine how to mess it up to get the least acceptance, that's what the banks are producing" through their confusing alerts, says Mark Schwanhausser, a senior research analyst for Javelin. "If you think about consumers who don't understand what mobile banking is, alerts are the first thing they see when they deal with money on a mobile device."

The stakes are high, as Javelin says more than a third of U.S. adults received an automated alert in 2010 and the analysts expect half the population to be receiving them by 2015. And mobile alerts are on pace to jump from around 13 percent to 21 percent in the same timeframe.

Javelin pored over a number of alerts, and a wide range of banks come under scrutiny for content that's incomplete, masked by digital signage, peppered with banking jargon, and in some cases takes on the appearance of a phishing attack by including short requests for automated response from the customer.

"It almost begs the user to give up in frustration and call the call center," Schwanhausser says.

Among the examples are a Wells Fargo text alert that contained different numbers for available and ending balances; a USAA text alert that cut off the dates of transactions, a Bank of America text alert that contained myriad legal and marketing disclosures, and a Citi cards text alert that contained only a request to contact the card firm about a HomeDepot account.

"We are aware of the different restraints of the mobile channel," says Neff Hudson, senior vice president of emerging channels for USAA, who says the alert in question was most likely the result of a glitch, or an attempt to put too much information on the email side of the alert before it was migrated to the mobile device (most of USAA's alert adoption at this point is in the email channel).

USAA offers text and email alerts via a platform developed in house. There are a series of alerts for checking, savings, credit cards, insurance, mortgage and investment information. Users define the alerts they wish to receive. "It's a hard interface to build," Hudson says. "I have seven or eight accounts with the bank, and each one can have alerts."

Hudson says the bank's philosophy regarding alerts is the information should be the same in each channel, as well as actionable and relevant. To ensure alert quality, USAA also measures user sentiment by looking at open rates and through a voice of the customer program. "We also don't make you go to different places to set up alerts," Hudson says. "We can set up a primary or secondary email and mobile all at the same interface."

Karin Chin, alerts senior product manager at Wells Fargo, says the bank offers internally produced alerts, which are available on email, wireless email, SMS and Secure Inbox on

Chin says to produce content, product teams work with the bank's customer experience and legal/compliance teams to create, review and approve message content. The development teams code the content using a content management system.

"We have message templates to ensure visual consistency across different message types," Chin says. "We also work with a copy writer to ensure the message tone is consistent across different channels."

Regarding the Javelin report, Wells says it includes both types of balances because they may be different based on recent activity in the account and the amount of funds available for withdrawal. Because of the character limits on text messages, the bank does not include the definitions of these terms, but they are available in the secure inbox and email versions of messages.

Via an email to BTN, a Bank of America spokesperson said, "there are reasons why we include disclosures-they're to protect our customers and for them to understand how to use alerts effectively and how their information is secure. The disclosures are legally required and aimed to help educate the customers. Our alerts are designed to keep customers informed, aware and connected to their accounts with Bank of America. In an effort to protect and educate our customers, these alerts also provide information regarding preferences and security."

In a statement, Citi said its email and text alerts are mostly internally produced. It says most alerts are triggered by transactional events where the customer has opted to be alerted. "The Citi example provided in the Javelin report is not a standard Citi subscription alert, such as the kind that we would send a customer to let them know a payment was due. Text messages sent to customers who are past due contain minimal information due to the nature of the message."

The most commonly given reasons for hard-to-read alerts are related to channel adoption. Banks move account alerts to new channels quickly because the channels become popular with consumers, leading to alerts that don't look the same in different channels, or alerts that lack full information. "There's a disconnected alerting system, and it often has to do with the [consumer] uptake of new technology," says Jacob Jegher, a senior analyst with Celent. "What ends up happening is banks wind up offering different solutions [for alerts]."

Schwanhausser says when alerts are designed to go out over a multiple of devices and channels, it can cause challenges to managing consistency. Producing a "one size" alert content system isn't possible without rewriting alerts, writing special code or deploying tech that pre-screens and tailors content for a specific device.

"One bank exec said it's the kind of stuff that keeps him up at night," Schwanhausser says, adding that the problem in this particular bank's case was the difficulty of creating consistencies in alerts between email and a BlackBerry Storm mobile device. On the mobile device, the asterisks used to cloak personal ID numbers didn't leave room for all necessary transaction information. "It doesn't have room to tell me what I need to know."

Jegher says a move toward "unified alerts," or centralized management, is one solution to the problem. In a recent deployment, Bank of Montreal provided free alerts via email, SMS and iPhone push notification.

In an interview with BTN at the time of the rollout in June, Dan Dickinson, BMO senior manager of eChannel strategy and planning, said the new product was developed through a combination of BMO technology that delivers the alerts and third-party vendors that manage subscription and formatting to ensure consistency and readability. "BMO would be an example of getting [alerts] all from one place," Jegher says.

Schwanhausser says there's also technology available from firms such as Kony that writes alert programs once, then optimizes that content for all channels. Called "Write Once, Run Anywhere," the Kony platform writes a single code base designed to serve multiple device types and access methods. It counts Huntington Bank among its clients. "[Huntington] opted for Kony because they don't want to have to write for each platform or device," Schwanhausser says.

Several bank tech execs and indusry analysts suggested another solution: creating a lexicon or text migration policy that provides a smooth transition of alerts from channels with more screen space to lesser screen space.

There's technology available to help accomplish this, though it's a bit of a workaround since the tech is designed for security and compliance rather than distilling information for consumers. Email content screening programs that search for compliance traps such as inappropriate content embedded in emails could be used to create a standard lexicon that helps turn phrases and words that are used as part of email alerts into a readable short-hand for SMS and other mobile messages.

The news isn't all bad for alert content, either-there are a number of banks that are doing a good job.

The Javelin research singles out a handful of institutions for praise. For example, Nordea Bank Finland's alerts allow retailers and small businesses to review suspicious transactions, and gives consumers the opportunity to execute payments via a text message. These alerts work because of plain language and transactions that are easy access to execute, approve or flag.

And Schwanhausser says Chase has improved its alerts over the past couple of months to include info on what the consumer spent on a specific transaction and where. "The fact that they have [transaction] alerts is by comparison putting them ahead of many other institutions," he says.