As banks focus on cognitive data-gathering to improve customer engagement, social metrics is an emerging and intriguing source of competitive advantage to banks and other financial services companies. The ubiquity of social media can provide a window into a person's soul, which a more traditional credit history cannot reach. It is an undeniable fact that individuals have one identity in the real world and another identity in the virtual, social world.

What if the virtual world is a truer barometer of a person's character than the real world he or she inhabits? For example, take a person who is a new immigrant to the U.S. or a person who has a low credit profile. What does a bank or a credit card company know about such people based on the traditional credit appraisal tools they use? Very little.

To illustrate this point, a friend of mine who immigrated here had already owned a "flat" in London, with a mortgage, and had been the proud owner of several credit cards for over a decade. Nevertheless, to U.S. banks and credit card companies he was a blind spot and not eligible for any of their products. Only through his employer, a financial services provider, was he able to secure a credit card and mortgage.

But consumers' social media presence today is opening up new opportunities for them and financial institutions that market products.

A person with a healthy LinkedIn account, who has a full profile and updates their background on a fairly regular basis, can be expected to behave in certain, predictable ways and may exhibit certain attractive social demographic characteristics to a financial services company. Likewise, a person with regular interactions on Facebook — who posts pictures, updates to status and has Facebook friends with characteristics in common — provides attractive characteristics from the perspective of product marketers.

Airbnb is one example of a company that requires Facebook access to authenticate its customers and there are increasing signs that banks may be growing wise to the opportunity these profiles offer. The first example of this is in the customer application process. Some institutions supplement traditional credit history reviews with social media reviews. A loan applicant can now provide the bank with access to their social media accounts. This is done, of course, on a purely consent basis, much like requests for access to a credit history. Access to those accounts, along with algorithms able to interpret the data effectively, can potentially tell a creditor a great deal of information. First, access can help to identify potential red flags worthy of further investigation. Second, such access can help to identify a potentially profitable customer based on job profiles, social and demographic histories and stability of networks and personal relationships.

A second example is in the area of relationship management. Once a customer has been acquired, it may be a question of matching up that customer with the most appropriate relationship manager. In the case of a wealth management company, the assignment of customer to adviser can be a fairly random process. But what if an intelligent algorithm, leveraging information gleaned from social media, could match up client to adviser in a more intelligent and rational way? A client who plays golf would likely do well with an adviser who plays golf too. A client who graduated from a certain college or even belonged to a society at that college could perhaps be best matched up with an adviser from that same background. A quick peek at a LinkedIn or Facebook profile, using a matching intelligent analytical engine, can help to facilitate better matching of adviser to client and ultimately profitable relationships.

At the same time one must be careful not to close off opportunities to other customers who may, for legitimate reasons, not maintain a social media presence. A friend of mine recently failed a prospective employer's background check because he did not have a social media presence. He has worked at his current employer, a publicly traded company, for over 10 years. He has lived in the same New Jersey suburb during that time and has three children in the public school system. A person with a full profile on LinkedIn, who updates his background on a fairly regular basis, may be a good job candidate, but one who does not is not by default a bad one. People should not be forced to participate in social networks if they do not wish to do so. Nor should their unwillingness to do so be seen as a red flag.

Opening a window into a customer's soul via social media may still be a reach for many companies, but for others it is already being done. This is not for nefarious objectives but for the purpose of improving customer access to products. Social metrics can help banks better secure data while improving employee and customer efficiency. This is surely a goal worth pursuing in this cognitive era.

Andrew Waxman is a consultant in IBM Global Business Services' financial markets risk and compliance practice and can be reached at or on Twitter @abwaxman. The views expressed here are his own.