Twitter and Facebook audiences are tough tough nuts to crack, but the social media channel posing the biggest challenge to banks may be YouTube.

YouTube, the dominant online video site, has hundreds of millions of users, but holding their attention is far more difficult than typing out 140-character messages or encouraging customers to "like" the bank's brand. Many of the banks that have a YouTube account devote little attention to it; they populate it with repurposed TV ads and prohibit users from leaving comments.

But putting in the effort to provide professional-quality and unique content for YouTube keeps customers engaged and even prompts conversations with branch staff, as Lakeland Bancorp's (LBAI) Lakeland Bank has learned. The Oak Ridge, N.J., community institution's employees hold customers' attention by choosing not to behave entirely like bankers when the camera switches on.

"We try to put [our videos] in language that everybody will understand and present it in a way that's simple … sometimes bankers speak their own language, and when you start doing that, you lose people," says Maureen Martin, a senior vice president and the director of marketing for the bank.

To this end, Lakeland works with SGW, a marketing company based in nearby Montville.

"You need somebody to give you a different point of view," she says. "They're not strictly financial services, which I think is a plus for us, because … somebody that's not an expert in financial services is listening and saying, 'I understand it, it makes sense … I get this as a consumer.' "

This strategy appears to be working. As of Wednesday, Lakeland is the only retail bank that appears on the first page of results for a Google search on the words "bank" and YouTube." (The other results include music videos such as 50 Cent's "Straight to the Bank" and the YouTube page for The World Bank.) YouTube is a unit of Google.

Just as Lakeland uses an industry outsider to create its videos, many credit unions have signed on with another marketing company, Currency Marketing, to recruit online "spokesters." These young adults are selected in a contest that measures their social media talents rather than any experience in financial services.

Lakeland's videos are meant primarily for consumers, but some banks use YouTube to reach a different audience. Citigroup, for example, includes videos for investors featuring its top executives discussing the highlights of its recent financial reports.

American Express divides its videos into playlists for specific audiences. Some playlists are intended for business customers, whereas others focus on consumers, TV ads and recent news.

All three of these companies have taken the bold move of allowing users to leave comments on the videos they watch. The comments are sometimes negative, but these companies say it is important to allow customers to communicate through this channel.

"Social media provides the opportunity for us to engage with our community of cardmembers … we want to spur interactions and get feedback from the community," said Bradley Minor, an Amex spokesman, in an email. "This drive to engagement is core to everything we do in social media."

Lakeland has a policy of responding to all comments, including negative ones, though typically this involves moving the conversation to a call center, Martin says. Only the most extreme comments, such as those using profanity, would get deleted.

"It certainly is safer to not allow somebody to comment on something on YouTube … but I don't know then what the value there is" of having an active YouTube channel, says Alan Maginn, a senior analyst at Corporate Insight.

The New York-based research firm published a report this month highlighting some financial companies' uses of social media, though it largely excluded YouTube because the social features, such as comments, are rarely used even when banks allow them.

"I just don't think the financial services industry as a whole has accepted YouTube" in the same way that it has Twitter and Facebook, Maginn says.

Ninety-two percent of the companies Corporate Insight studied have a presence on Twitter, according to the report. Eighty-eight percent have a presence on Facebook. The companies use social media for customer service and recruitment, among other purposes.

Even on Twitter and Facebook, financial companies have a guarded presence, Maginn says. Many banks' Facebook pages do not allow users to post on the company's "wall," a restriction that gives the banks greater control of the conversation, he says.

Citi uses Twitter to respond quickly to customer service issues, but its responses are not completely impromptu — it has two lawyers on staff to answer any questions employees have before they post to a company Twitter account.

On YouTube, even this level of diligence may not be enough. "To be really successful [on YouTube], it may require more effort than being successful on Twitter and Facebook," Maginn says.

Banks "need to be just as social as the people they expect to be social with them," he says. "They need to engage their audience."