For banks using Twitter to reach customers, generic is out, targeted is in.

Though Twitter Inc.'s service is designed to communicate with a vast, online audience, some financial companies are now using it to reach specific groups or even individuals, a sharp contrast to some early efforts that were more akin to e-mail spam.

Bank of America Corp. launched its Twitter channel, @BofA_Help, early this year, and assigned a single employee to "tweeting," as the practice is known. The Charlotte company added five more people in October, and now scans the blogging site for mentions of Bank of America, especially when people have problems or complaints. B of A officials then reach out directly to the customer to try and resolve the issue.

"The goal was to listen, respond and engage with customers who have problems," said Jen McDonald, B of A's digital marketing executive. "It's a real interesting way to extend your reach."

Bank of America's Twitter feed has attracted 3,000 followers, who in turn influence 3 million followers of their own, McDonald said.

Wells Fargo & Co. has had a social media team for four years, exploring Twitter and other interactive online communications services.

Ed Terpening, a vice president at Wells Fargo and its manager of social media, said the San Francisco banking company now has two Twitter channels, three on the popular online video site YouTube, a variety of blogs and pages on the social networking sites operated by Facebook Inc. and News Corp.'s MySpace.

He agreed that Twitter is a good way to engage customers, but warned that the public nature of the service can create privacy and security issues.

"There are new rules and paradigms in social media that you have to understand," Terpening said. "Twitter is almost like chat. The expectation is real time. But it's also broadcast, one person reaching many people at the same time."

Wells Fargo typically uses Twitter to engage people, but then encourages them to move to a more private communications channel.

"We're very careful about setting expectations," Terpening said. "This is not about service. It's about conversation and education."

Smaller institutions, such as credit unions, seem to be among the most successful in using social media to connect with their customers, said Jacob Jegher, a senior analyst in the banking group at the Boston market research company Celent. "They're smaller, nimbler and they can get these things out the door."

Tim Gluth, the e-business coordinator at North Shore Bank in Brookfield, Wis., said that his $1.8 billion-asset thrift became active in social media largely because he became curious about the phenomenon about a year ago, when he noticed other businesses establishing a presence there.

"I started to think, how can North Shore Bank participate in this?" Gluth said.

"They may not be physical communities, but they are still communities we can tap into and find out what people's wants and needs are."

North Shore has used links on its Web site and signs in its branches to draw customers' attention to its Twitter feed, which it uses for promotions such as offering tickets to the Green Bay Gamblers hockey team or benefits for cancer patients, he said.

"Listening and engaging are the two main things we want to use these tools for."

North Shore uses Facebook, too, which Gluth said is better suited for delivering multimedia content, including photos and videos, and the bank has used social media to conduct polls and contests, he said. "We're learning as we go along, as are all the other companies out there."

Twitter's broadcast nature may give it unique advantages as a marketing tool. Jegher of Celent said that Facebook is less valuable as a business tool precisely because users control access to their own pages, while Twitter is inherently more open.

"Folks don't log onto Facebook and say, 'I think I'm going to go see what my bank is doing,' " Jegher said. "It's not natural for folks to come back."

On Twitter, by contrast, financial companies have the opportunity to field customer service questions, and can even approach nonfollowers who may be complaining about problems with the bank, and gather information, Jegher said.

The channel has even had what may be its first test as a crisis communication tool, Jegher noted. When a glitch interrupted customer access to their TD Bank accounts in October when it converted Commerce Bancorp's systems, customer service phone lines were jammed, and it seemed that best way to reach the U.S. arm of Toronto-Dominion Bank was through its Twitter account, @Ask_TDBank.

But the response to inquiries was often a generic apology and a request for patience while the bank tried to address the problem, which lasted the better part of a week, Jegher said. "Clearly that's not the right way to handle it."

(A TD Bank spokeswoman said the banking company would not discuss its use of social media for this article.)

The example demonstrated that banks in the future will need to incorporate social media into their crisis planning, Jegher said.

"There is a process that relates to compliance and sometimes to legal too that can bog down the flow of information," he said. "It's all about building a process around what you are trying to do."

At the same time, banks can put out product announcements and press releases over Twitter, linking to fuller reports elsewhere, and conduct other forms of marketing, he said. "For Twitter, I can see the value proposition on several fronts."

Capital One Financial Corp. of McLean, Va., uses a Twitter account, @TeachingMoney, as a way to help parents and teachers talk to kids about money, offering financial advice such as, "Safety Tip: Protect yourself from identity theft by shredding bills, credit card and bank statements before throwing them away."

Vendors also are experimenting with social media. Digital Insight Corp., a unit of Intuit Inc. of Mountain View, Calif., staged a "Twitter town hall" in October on behalf of its online banking service. Tobin J. Lee, a senior leader of corporate communications at Intuit, termed the exercise a success.

"It was low impact, easy on your day. You can do a quick idea share and have a conversation with others who have similar interests," Lee said. He estimated that the virtual event reached 100,000 people, including the participants and their followers. "Not bad for one hour of work, right?"

And although it may be difficult to quantify the tangible results the vendor gained from the experience, "we got some new ideas," Lee said. "This is a conversation about sharing ideas."

Digital Insight is using a variety of social media, including Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and blog sites, Lee said. "It's part of our outreach strategy."

The company, for instance, is pushing out audio podcasts through Twitter, all as a way to inform the banks and credit unions that use its service, Lee said. "FIs want to know what tools are out there to serve their customers, and they want to know what other FIs are doing to be successful."