Banks, Social Media, And Seinfeld

William Azaroff recently blogged about Vancity’s new Wilki. According to William:

I am pleased to announce the new wiki Vancity has launched. It is for the Microfinance community in Canada, and lives at Why did we launch a wiki? Well, in short, we are a longtime Microfinance practitioner wanting to expand knowledge amongst those who are involved with Microfinance in Canada. [W]e are deeply involved with the Microfinance model in Canada, and wanted to create a place where we could take the open source concept a little further. So we created and are hosting a wiki where anyone can add information as a practitioner, researcher or follower of Microfinance in Canada, with the aim of growing and evolving a central knowledge repository about the subject.”

To know Vancity is to know a financial institution that is deeply committed to improving its community and to what it purports to stand for. As a result, I can’t think of another financial institution that is more…..authentic… its use of social media to support its goals.

Which makes me wonder about all the other financial institutions’ jumping on the social marketing bandwagon.

In an effort to connect with customers and prospects — especially younger ones, like Gen Yers — many banks and credit unions are starting blogs, putting up Facebook pages, running user-generated content campaigns, and launching other social media-related efforts. Will they succeed? Or better yet:

Will social media make them cool (or at least cooler), or do they have to be cool (like Vancity) before they launch social media efforts?

I suspect that many firms think it’s the former — that jumping into the social media and social marketing pool will make them — ipso facto — more attractive to the younger crowd. I also suspect that they’ll be proven wrong (at least to a certain extent). The lack of authenticity of their efforts will be so apparent to their intended audience.

Large, established banks getting into the social media games conjures up the image of Elaine Benes (from Seinfeld) dancing. I guess you’d call it dancing, but it’s certainly not good dancing.



And so it is with some financial institutions’ forays into social media. It seems so forced and unnatural. The critical question, though is this: Will it become more natural through trial and error over time, or should they stop what they’re doing and first establish a stronger commitment to serving younger consumers?

I don’t know the answer to that, but I suspect that the right answer is neither — that what they need to do is not let their social meda efforts be the only thing they do in order to reach and serve a new audience.

p.s. Congrats to Vancity and to Currency Marketing (who helped develop the Wiki) on the launch of the Wiki. Great work.

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24 thoughts on “Banks, Social Media, And Seinfeld

  1. Hey, thanks Ron! I think it helps that we didn’t launch the wiki to be cool. We launched it to help a sector that we are involved in. I believe the wiki is a needed communications and engagement vehicle our audience.

    That we might be cool as a result is icing on the cake.

  2. I think the opportunity is for banks / financial institutions to start using social media for specific products and projects, and build out from there.

    Starting at the “big company” level is just too forced at the moment: too big, unfocused, generic, etc.

    Worrisome, I believe at the moment most financial institutions still think of social media as a marketing channel, and that limited viewpoint could / will lead to some pretty poor forays into the social media world.

    So, what’s the way to start? Perhaps: Experiment by going large in smaller projects. Not test small, but go all-in in more limited opportunities?

  3. @Taylor: My sentiment is the same as Colin’s: Dead on. However, for me, the key statement was “FIs still think of social media as a marketing channel.”

    But that raises some questions for me: What SHOULD they think of social media as? and Why does “marketing channel” have to have a negative connotation?

  4. ‘Marketing channel’ has a negative connotation in regards to social media because an ill-informed or ill-intentioned institution will regard it as just simply a new avenue for blasting out the same old messages. Instead, two-way conversations should be embraced as a unique opportunity. Institutions can use social media to listen to their customers to gain insights into needs and wants that are not possible via traditional one-way channels.

    Twitter can be utilized as a sense-and-respond vehicle. Here’s Chris Brogan’s take on listening, a social media marketing best practice. Which is a meme that Mitch Joel kicked off about a week ago. My own contribution is Reach out to others.

  5. @Ron “Marketing channel” doesn’t have to have a negative connotation in general, but it does in practice because of people’s past experiences. As you probably know, in company internal marketing groups “marketing channel” is lingo for “a way for me to deliver something to a potential consumer that they’ll hopefully notice / read / take action on”.

    FI’s still think of social media as a marketing channel because, as Morriss alludes to, FI’s are interested in social media as another way to reach people with their controlled message, not necessarily to reach out, listen and respond in a less-controlled manner. Most FIs are not ready to have a conversation.

    Perhaps that embedded viewpoint is why it is difficult for most large organizations to use social media effectively… so far.

    Now, what SHOULD FIs call social media? Good question. Defining social media is part of the debate over how to define the lines between marketing, customer service, PR, customer research, product research, etc. Social media is such a pervasive yet amorphous “thing” that it’s difficult to fit into existing notions of what each one of those silos do and how they do it.

    If we want to try and re-educate FIs about what a “marketing channel” can accomplish, then calling social media a marketing channel works. If we want to fit social media into the existing constructs of most companies, then I’m not sure what to call it: and perhaps the difficulty in understanding how it fits is what hampers traditional FIs from jumping into social media in an unforced, natural manner.

  6. Good discussion. More and more, I call it Community Engagement and not Social Media, which resonates here.

    @Taylor – You hit it on the head. I think FIs like things that neatly fit into someone’s jurisdiction, and this could be owned by many different areas. In the end, I think Marketing is a good fit because they’re used to dealing with multiple lines of business and listening and responding to research.

    In the end, I think it fits each organization in a different way, depending on which group has the right skills sets and attitudes. Could be Corp Comm, could be the call centre…

  7. @William- OMG…. Community Engagement…. that’s freaking brilliant.

    Wow. That totally frames it up in a different way, very nicely. Have you trademarked that term yet? 😉

  8. Whatever you call it, there are a lot of financial institutions out there using social media tools that don’t seem to have any real, clear linkage between tactics and strategy. “Engagement” is great, but what are the business objectives???

    I think Ron is closer to the truth than many would be comfortable admitting. It looks like some early adopters and “experimenters” are simply enchanted by social media tools and want to “do something cool”… you know, like those sexy, big-brand marketers. Social media just “sounds fun” to a lot of folks who are bored spitless with their day-to-day financial marketing jobs.

    Note: VanCity does not fall into this category. They are clearly using social media as ONE of MANY tools to build and shape their brand image as a socially progressive financial institution.

    Other FIs might not be as comfortable as VanCity with a social media effort (or any marketing effort, for that matter) that lacks a definitive and immediate ROI. In VanCity’s case, they are obviously willing to make an investment purely in their image. Kudos.

  9. I agree that social media can’t be all about marketing, or a marketing channel. It’s about creating value, and value is going to be a two-way street. It needs to create value for the users (members/customers), but for the FI to support all the resources necessary to make it happen, the FI will want to see the value it is creating for the institution. Value can be in the community engagement and in the dialog or conversations that happen, but at some point it needs to generate measurable value to the institution.

  10. @Paul and @Jeffry Actually, I think most business people, FIs included, that make the effort to try social media see it as a way to create measurable value to achieve business objectives and strategies.

    I just think that most aren’t yet sure how to achieve it, or value it, or measure it in a way to compare social media efforts to other business tactics.

    Until then, we experiment, we try, we test until we figure it out.

    I will admit that many are testing tactics, not strategies, and “cool”, not “valuable”. But not all.

  11. @Jeffry I disagree that Vancity is using social media to shape their image. The site not only has measurable value in the PR they have generated, they are also actually helping the community that they serve. Not only that, but the site is fundamental to the DNA of the credit union; their triple bottom line of “financial strength, community leadership, and environmental change.” Vancity’s fundamental purpose is to be financially strong, and improve both the community and the environment. ChangeEverything is not an image campaign that makes Vancity look good; it is a catalyst for change to make their community better. In a certain sense, I’d say that’s the opposite of the traditional meaning of image campaign.

    See you at BCBBC in 10 days! (And William will be there too!)

  12. @jp @morris I’m not sure who I agree or disagree with.

    I’m not so sure Vancity uses social media to “shape its image” as much as it uses social media because it’s the best mechanism for being who it is.

  13. One can argue about what VanCity’s *real* motivations are, but their multiple socially-progressive initiatives DO shape their image, and they DO have a positive return in the form of more business via community goodwill. That is not always the case with financial institutions and their community efforts; having good intentions does not always have the same results.

    Given the choice, I’ll follow VanCity’s footsteps, where I build my image and my business through my community support and Web 2.0 tactics vs. just wildly throwing money at various community organizations and random social media tools.

    Question: What is your definition of an image campaign? Example(s)?

  14. We may disagree about what is the motivation and what is the outcome (symptom vs. cause). VanCity may not be deliberately trying to shape its image through socially-conscious initiatives, but I highly doubt that it doesn’t play a factor in their decision-making. Bottom line is that it does make them look good.

  15. Image campaign examples:
    McDonald’s – I’m loving it.
    Chevy – Like a rock
    Microsoft’s new Seinfeld ad
    Marlboro – The Marlboro Man
    BMW – The ultimate driving machine
    Pretty much any beer ad ever created

  16. Great discussion. I think financial institutions need to develop a clear strategy on how each of them can participate (or not) in social networking.

    One area that I think big banks should be is on sites where consumers review financial products (such as My Bank Tracker). How financial institutions handle customer criticism will be very telling. If done well, (the bank needs to be fully transparent, honest and respectful), I think that large banks can benefit from being an active part of this type of online community.

    And, if they’re not there, then shame on them!

  17. I view an FI, given they are a regulated industry, somewhat different than that of other businesses. There are a number of differences that create a different view of the FI business.
    For example you supply a product or service called a mortgage. Why would you want to be a proponent of something that would diminish the holding value on that mortgaged property? It is in the interest of your client and yourself. Selling a ton of hamburgers takes into account a different set of values than an FI.
    I would state that Vancity is contributing social capital to the community it lives in. Because by doing this the goal is the creation of a healthy community. A healthy community allows businesses to operate in a positive fashion i.e. contribute to the bottom line. There are some common elements and concerns that are taken care of by the contribution of social capital. Social media is one but one method. There certainly are others.
    It may be that smart businesses are evolving into realizing they must contribute to the social capital of a community. Sometimes that contribution is noted, sometimes not, but that should not stop that well meaning action. Marketeers may have a different view.

  18. It’s classic CSR.

    From Wikipedia:
    “Corporate Social Sesponsibility (CSR, also called corporate responsibility, corporate citizenship, responsible business and corporate social opportunity) is a concept whereby organizations consider the interests of society by taking responsibility for the impact of their activities on customers, suppliers, employees, shareholders, communities and other stakeholders, as well as the environment. This obligation is seen to extend beyond the statutory obligation to comply with legislation and sees organizations voluntarily taking further steps to improve the quality of life for employees and their families as well as for the local community and society at large.

    “The practice of CSR is subject to much debate and criticism. Proponents argue that there is a strong business case for CSR, in that corporations benefit in multiple ways by operating with a perspective broader and longer than their own immediate, short-term profits. Critics argue that CSR distracts from the fundamental economic role of businesses; others argue that it is nothing more than superficial window-dressing; still others argue that it is an attempt to pre-empt the role of governments as a watchdog over powerful multinational corporations.”

  19. I neglected to give a definition of image campaign. I’d say an image campaign is a series of ads designed to portray the subject (person/celebrity/organization/product) in a positive light. This is often done through image association, i.e. associating the subject with a positive, desirable attribute, such as coolness, popularity, well being, fun, etc. In the case of the Marlboro Man, the cigarettes are being equated to rugged individualism, McDonalds is associating with teenage fun, Chevy with hard-working dependableness, etc.

    Oh, and btw, Edward Filene was a pioneer of CSR; the reason he brought the CU movement to the U.S. was his genuine compassion for his employees as well as the general living/economic conditions of his era.

  20. Jeffry on your CSR
    Interesting points about the naysayers.
    I wonder if it could viewed like this. Given that a business is a legal entity whose existence can continue well beyond that of a human being, it seems there is an unwritten responsibility that goes beyond an economic means as to how that corporation will exist in a society. The citizens, through the government, gave companies the rights to do what they do. If their existence threatens society, not contributing to social capital, do we (the government) have the right to remove that corporation? We are not talking about taking the life of an individual, only the existence of an artificial and humanly created entity.
    I just don’t read anywhere – “and on the eighth day God created companies…”

  21. I have so completely enjoyed following this thread.

    Being a good corporate citizen and building up social capital was part of the impetus that started Vancity 62 years ago. It has permeated many of the things we do, which is what makes it such an amazing and fascinating place to work.

    I believe that our CSR activities are done because they are baked into our DNA. But at the same time, they’re obviously good for our business and help increase the trust people have in us and make us a differentiated FI choice. There is business benefit, but that’s not why we do it.

    A healthy environment and an equitable society are critical to having a truly sustainable business model.

    I think these things are just more interesting and relevant to people than anything most banks have to talk about, which is why these are the avenues where we’ve pursued social media.

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