Small banks may have found a way to use their size to advantage on the Internet.
Several of them are setting up World Wide Web sites with links to businesses in their areas, public institutions, and events listings.
The banks view these enhanced sites as a way to carry community loyalty over to the virtual world.
"They want to be seen as an information provider and a place to bring the community together," said Mary Smolenski, director of on-line services for the Independent Bankers Association of America. The Web sites are designed to underscore smaller institutions' ability to make "personal contact that might be lacking from the bigger banks."
People who live in the League City, Tex., area can learn what is happening by checking out "Diana's Calendar of Events" on the League City Bank and Trust Web site, which also includes information about the $87 million-asset institution.
Some two-thirds of the visitors to the eight-month-old site click to the calendar, said Diana Dornak, the bank's marketing vice president, whose face appears on the site's icon. Because she is the bank's representative to the area, residents know to call her to advertise events such as the Clear Lake Amateur Radio Club meeting or the Martyn Farm fall festival.
"It's something (competitors) don't have the capability to do, because we've been working in the community for years," Ms. Dornak said.
Some community banks mirror their community outreach efforts on their Internet pages. Some list programs they sponsor, but a few add extra touches.
State Bank and Trust Co. in Brookhaven, Miss., sponsors a page for schools to trumpet students' accomplishments every Thursday in the local newspaper. The bank has translated this program into the School Bytes section on the $117 million-asset bank's Web site, which launched in April.
School Bytes features homework tutorials and links to other sites such as an on-line encyclopedia and area colleges. Parents can check out the Parent Teacher Association home page, while children can find links to music, movie, and game sites.
Banks are also using their Internet initiatives to teach the community about the Web. League City residents who do not have access to the Internet from home can surf on a computer in the bank's lobby.
Business Bank of California plans to hold classes for members of the San Bernardino community to show them the benefits of the Internet. To educate businesses about the Web, the bank allows corporate customers to advertise open positions in their companies on the bank's nine-month-old site.
Making people more Net-savvy will benefit the bank as well, said Cynthia Schneider, senior vice president and marketing director.
"The more comfortable the community at large becomes in using the Internet, the more comfortable they'll become with our electronic delivery systems," Ms. Schneider said.
Providing information about a community also may generate business for the local banks. State Bank has found that people interested in moving to Brookhaven call up its Web site on their computers. The bank has received several e-mail inquiries from business owners and families seeking to relocate, said Shannon Aker, marketing vice president. While asking about local schools, people also inquire about mortgage rates.
None of the bank officials interviewed could say their sites have actually generated new banking business. All the banks are preparing reports to discover whether people who access their sites end up opening accounts.
Even if they do not, said Anne Matsumoto, marketing and communications manager of Chicago-based Cole Taylor Bank, "at least it's a lead."
The $1.9 billion-asset bank has Cole Taylor Town on the Web, offering links to many local small businesses.
The virtual town has a twofold purpose, said Vicky Robertson-Mack, senior vice president of marketing. "We wanted to give people other reasons to access our site, and we wanted to enhance the service we provide to small-business owners."
Cole Taylor offers to help them establish Internet presences, an example of "value-added service" that it hopes will persuade people to bank with it rather than a giant competitor like First Chicago NBD Corp., said Ms. Robertson-Mack.
"While small, we still have the ability to do sophisticated things the larger, downtown institutions can do," she said.