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Who needs followers?

#timetogetsmarter & #ditchcomplianceexcuses, experts say

Who needs followers?

In 2013, TSYS asked a sample of consumers a question: “Do you ‘follow’ your bank on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or other social networking site?”

It’s a natural question. Many bank websites ask customers to “Follow us on Twitter”; “Like us on Facebook”; etc. It’s practically a reflex action.

TSYS published the findings of its survey in Banking and Social Media: Customer Communication Boom or Bust?

Only 20% of the sample answered “yes.” Yet 80% of the sample said that they do use some form of social media.

In the face of the survey’s finding that only one in five follow their financial institution on social media, the report asked: “Do customers want to join the conversation—and are they even ‘listening’?”

Some banks have been on Twitter for years. Everyone in the business seems to think they have to at least be dipping a toe. We asked a selection of experts in bank social media if they found that survey answer surprising.

Not one of them was surprised.

But more surprising than their not being surprised was why. Most actually found the question itself to spring from what they see as a false goal.

Following John or Mary, not First Bank

To anyone new to social media—and even to those who have been involved for years—questioning the need for followers seems odd. After all, one of the first things you see in the typical social media account home page is your public bragging rights: how many followers you have, how many likes, how many connections.

Aren’t big numbers what you want?

Not in the way you may think, says Gary Liu, vice-president, marketing at Hearsay Social, a social media software company that provides financial institutions with a technology solution to enable its employees to participate on social media without going off course or breaking some compliance taboo.

Part of the reason for a bank’s poor following could be its usage of a particular platform. But more fundamentally, Liu says the bank should be empowering employees to use social media in appropriate ways to give customers valuable messages, reminders, and more.

“That’s where the human relationships are—person to person,” says Liu. In the same way, he thinks customers will more likely follow the social media account of a real person they know and respect than a faceless company account.

Liu says he follows his own financial services officer, because he respects what the man has to say, puts value on it, and trusts him. He adds that, quite frankly, one-on-one is where banks will rebuild the trust that the industry lost during the financial crisis. “Even though their company may have been in the wrong a few years ago, I still like John or Mary,” says Liu. But with that kind of angle, he warns, companies can’t just have employees open their own accounts and then order them to blast out commercials.

What are you dishing up anyway?

The quality of the content served up by many financial providers has disappointed Jim Marous, a financial marketing expert at The Financial Brand.

“People don’t have time to follow anything on social media that does not provide value,” says Marous. “Digital bankers need to look in the mirror and ask themselves how they make decisions around social media engagement themselves. It almost always revolves around content, context, and value. Banks need to provide a reason to listen.”

Marous says that he thinks most bankers still see social media as something “you use as a broadcast media. Instead, it has the potential to be one of the most powerful tracking, conversational, and contextual media available.”

“‘Followers’ and ‘Likes’ are terrible goals,” says Marous. “Social media should not be used to cut costs, generate false love, or deliver outbound announcements and advertising. The goal must be to improve the customer experience and help the consumer. That will create the rewards bankers desire.”

Sarah Bacehowski, vice-president at Mills Marketing, which works solely with financial companies, says her firm wasn’t surprised to hear about the TSYS results.

“During the Great Recession, many banks were focused on survival,” says Bacehowski. “So they laid low, trimmed staff, and delayed new initiatives. That resulted in years of lost opportunity for relationship building. These were also some of the peak years for the adoption of social media.”

What resulted was a game of catch-up that is still being played out, says Bacehowski. But she’s hopeful that, with time, banks will successfully reach out to customers and communities again.

Social as a door, not a window

Ultimately, banks have to synch with the public’s view of their need for building a connection with their institution, says Steven Ramirez, CEO at Beyond the Arc, Inc.

“Following and liking are not the only ways that consumers find value in social media,” he explains. Many consumers see social media as a “resolution channel,” rather than something they feel the need to follow day in, day out. “Social is more of the moment,” says Ramirez, “and it’s no accident so much of it takes place over mobile devices.”

Ramirez sees one of the most important aspects of social media for banking not to be outbound messaging but inbound listening. He sees social as a tool for gathering intelligence about customer “pain points.”

As an example, he cites a policy change made by JPMorganChase. The shift concerned the identification required to deposit cash to another customer’s account. The change created a social media buzz that Ramirez says made it clear to Chase that many people had questions.

Merely seeking to build followings effectively keeps social in a marketing silo, notes Ramirez. When social is part of an end-to-end process connected to other parts of the bank, he says, it becomes a means of routing and escalating customer intelligence to bank thought centers.

“Banks are used to front-line escalation of issues,” says Ramirez. Social media interaction comes from multiple directions. As such, it can be an awareness raiser before an issue evolves into a complaint, which can trigger regulatory expectations. “This is more in the category of feedback than a complaint,” says Ramirez, and not the result of followership. This addresses one of the risks social media poses: “One unfortunate incident can snowball really quickly,” says Ramirez. “If something’s going to go viral, you want it to go viral in a positive way.”

Another aspect of the customer-bank relationship is access to information when desired. “As a customer, I’m not necessarily looking for a broadcast of information from my bank,” Ramirez says. “But I am looking to social media for updates.” For example, he says, during the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, many banks used social media to keep customers informed. “You didn’t need to be a follower to avail yourself of what was there,” says Ramirez.

Upping your bank’s social game

Having had this explanation and critique of the followership matter, there’s the question of how banks can make more out of social media than a throwaway line on printed marketing materials and business cards. Here are warnings, advice, and tips from experts interviewed.

1. Stop saying that compliance duties

keep you from being creative.

In the securities business, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority has issued rules on the uses of social, and the banking regulators have issued their guidance on the internet. The rules aggravate many banks. One regulatory analyst familiar with the agencies’ work says most banks find the guidance “silly, outdated upon arrival, and again demonstrating that the agencies don’t understand technology.” Of course, bankers’ worries about compliance involve all regulations, not just the internet guidance.

Still, banks get little sympathy from the experts. “Compliance is both a valid concern and a poor excuse,” says The Financial Brand’s Marous. “Compliance issues don’t prohibit social media use in conversations or even in the delivery of services. Compliance may make this process more difficult, but there is no prohibition.”

Hearsay Social’s Liu sees the issue as a training challenge, particularly when conversations by banking experts with customers must be protected against usage of triggering terms, and similar issues. Many bankers in advisory positions today are in their 50s, he notes, “and social media isn’t the technology that they grew up with.”

Bacehowski of Mills Marketing sees some value in the regulators’ guidance. “The [Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council] guidelines encourage banks to think through the risks and develop policies and plans to help mitigate those risks,” she says. “By developing those plans and policies, they are better able to identify who they want to target; decide on the social networks that best fit their targets and goals; and develop their overall social media plan. Part of the plan also entails outlining their process and training their staff so everyone knows their role.”

That said, Bacehowski suggests that banks cannot escape their DNA. “The banking industry in general has perfected the slow and steady entry method to just about everything, and social media is no different,” she explains. “Risk management is an overarching priority for our clients.”

2. Don’t start anything you can’t maintain at a decent level of participation.

There is a temptation to establish a beachhead on every platform you hear of, or at least on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and, for some, Google Plus. Say the advisors: Don’t dilute your efforts.

Stressing the issue of access, Ramirez suggests holding social accounts to a range and number “that will allow you to have a stable and reliable presence.”

Bacehowski insists that a bank create a social media strategy before jumping in. This will include who the bank wishes to reach through social media, and why.

“For instance, if small business is a high priority for you, then LinkedIn and Yelp may nudge out Facebook for first in line,” she explains. Marous says that he sees Twitter as a customer service channel for banks, while Facebook is more for ongoing engagement and LinkedIn is for business.

Marous says the biggest risk in social media is disconnection. “If you aren’t going to track and respond to people who post in real time, 24/7, don’t hang a social media shingle,” he insists. He adds: “Money and time should not be spread thin, but applied only to those channels that can be done well.”

Worse than disconnection is annoyance. While experts say banks have done some good work with YouTube with instructional videos, there are pitfalls. Marous advises to keep videos short and simple to suit mobile devices. “The key is not to use it to post commercials,” he says.

3. Don’t think of social media only as something you “do,” but also as something you monitor and use.

Marous points out that as an intelligence gathering tool, social media hinges as much on your bank watching what is said about other providers as what is said about itself and what the bank itself posts.

“Social media can be a competitive tool for institutions to track the social conversation on competitor sites,” he says. “With this tracking, organizations can actually reach out directly to dissatisfied customers of another bank.”

4. Think harder about social banking. Performing

banking transactions via social media channels is not something many bankers feel comfortable with.

“Social media banking is the greatest gap between the expectations of digital customers and delivery by banks,” says Marous. “People want it, and banks are dragging their feet. It will not go away and will only expand as people demand more from a digital perspective.”

Some banks have performed better in social banking than others, says Bacehowski, but it is clearly where things are headed. “Our hope is that core processors, IT, and marketing will all be working together to deliver safe, efficient, and innovative solutions for customers to send and receive money, get loans, and open accounts,” she explains. “Some of those tactics may involve social media; some may not. But future-focused banks will always be considering it.”

5. Don’t buy into the “millennial misconception.”

Social media is very much part of the millennials’ world, but they aren’t the only ones looking that way. “The real growth in social media usage has come from folks in their 40s, 50s, and 60s,” says Ramirez. “You’re now at a point where adaptation of social media is very broad based.”

Steve Cocheo

Steve Cocheo’s career in business journalism has taken him to all 50 states and nearly every corner of banking in institutions of all sizes. He is executive editor of ABA Banking Journal, digital content manager of ababj.com, and editor of ABA Bank Directors Briefing. He coordinates the popular Pass the Aspirin and First Person features and wrote the booklet series Focus On The Bank Director. He is the only journalist to have sat in on three federal banking exams, was a finalist for the Jesse H. Neal national business journalism awards, and a winner of multiple awards from the American Society of Business Publication Editors.

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