Role of social media in growing bank revenues

At last month’s Financial Services Marketing Symposium, a question posted by Tim Spence of Oliver Wyman to kick off the conference reflected an issue on attendees’ minds: where does the financial services industry find revenue growth?  This is top of mind in the industry, as the lower loan-loss provisions, which boosted bank profitability in 2011, are expected to tail off in 2012, so financial institutions are now looking to the revenue side of the ledger to maintain and grow profits.

According to the top 25 banks’ recent forecasts, all 25 plan to increase revenue by growing their market share – which means that some of these institutions will fail do to so.

In an environment characterized by increased competitive intensity, technological advances and renewed focus on customer relationship optimization, banks are investing in a range of new service and sales channels, with social media prominent among these emerging channels. A survey of the FSM conference audience revealed that 67% of attendees’ banks have a presence on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. A recent report by FIS Global shows that many top banks have a social media presence on these three main social media platforms:

What was notable about the social media discourse at the conference is that none of the speakers explained how participation in social media channels improves revenue for their organization:

  •  Paul Kadin of Citibank focused on the fact that Citibank’s social media presence has helped to improve its Net Promoter Scores
  • Julie Berkun Fajgenbaum of American Express OPEN discussed the organization’s social media goal: active participation by message recipients
  • Tim Collins of Wells Fargo emphasized that social media is not the right channel for pushing products; rather, it is a forum for authentic, relevant messages to customers

Given the current environment, what is it about social media that allows financial institutions to justify spending resources on developing a presence in this channel? Many speakers emphasized the value of using social media in a genuine way to add value to customers’ lives; some pointed out the opportunity to make customer service more effective through social media. Perhaps the biggest opportunity of all is to differentiate a company from the pack, since no one has really figured out the “secret sauce” to financial services social media strategy – differentiation that will be crucial in the fight for market share during 2012.

For now, financial institutions see social media as an increasingly important customer service channel, and are now focusing attention on addining new social media functionality, as well as integrating social media with other channels in order to optimize relationships.  Over time, as customers become more comfortable with using social media to interact with their financial institutions, opportunities to leverage social media for new customer acquisition, as well as customer cross-sell and upsell, should begin to emerge.

Banks are slow to develop a social media presence

As social media usage has achieved critical mass, many businesses have begun to incorporate social media into their marketing, sales, customer service and other activities.  However, many of the leading U.S. banks have yet to establish a comprehensive social media presence.  This is due to a number of factors, including privacy and security concerns, as well as established organizational structures and processes that can be hostile to new ways of doing business.

A topline scan of the websites of the top 20 U.S. consumer banks (based on their consumer loan portfolios) shows that:

  • Some leading banks have no discernible social media presence
  • Many banks have developed Facebook and Twitter pages, but operate these in a reactive mode (i.e., do not run initiatives to drive traffic to these sites).
  • Some of the banks are much more proactive, driving large volumes of traffic to the social media pages with advertising, contests, forums, etc.  These typically include banks that lack any retail branch presence (e.g., American Express and Discover), or banks like Capital One whose retail presence is dwarfed by its national lending operations.
  • Some of the other banks do appear to have a social media vision.  For example, SunTrust has extended its “Live Solid. Bank Solid” tagline into the socialsphere.  Wells Fargo has developed multiple Facebook, Twitter and Blog pages to cover different audiences or areas of interest.

For banks to fully leverage the potential of social media, they need to:

  • Get top management buy-in and support
  • Assign an executive to own the social media function at the bank
  • Incorporate social media into marketing, sales, customer service, and HR structures, strategies and initiatives
  • Gather and incorporate feedback from customers and employees into social media initiatives; track the performance of these social media initiatives

Let’s rename social media

Social media is misnamed. Media are channels advertisers use to communicate one-way messages to target audiences. The real power of social networks is in the creation of the virtual community and the sharing and messaging it enables. Brands that use social networks simply as a media outlet are missing the point, and will alienate prospects and customers rather than engaging them.