Social Media: Communicating More than Marketing

By Eric Cook

To embrace the idea that social media should mainly be used for communications, you need to open it up so that almost every customer-facing employee has an opportunity to participate.  

Perhaps your bank participates in social media but sharply restricts the number of employees who can post messages.

This approach may be short-sighted. Social media is a form of communications that, in order to be used to full advantage, needs to be open to many—if not all—of your customer-facing employees.

What is happening today with social media is reminiscent of what happened when email was introduced to banking in the 1990s. When I look at this comparison, I think, “We’ve been here before.”

It was 1993 and I had just purchased the first (of many more to come) personal computer (PC) for the community bank where I was working. It came with a modem and a pre-installed version of America Online (AOL), which introduced us to email, connected us to the Internet and was my first exposure to the Worldwide Web. While I’m certain that the mobile phone you’ve got in your pocket right now is many times more powerful, that PC started us on our way to being “connected” electronically to customers and to communicate in an entirely different way.

As a banker, you can appreciate our cautious approach to putting email to work for us, despite my “gut feeling” that this was going to be a game-changer on how we connect with others and provide information instantly from the convenience of the computer (and this was way before we even thought about email on a mobile device).

As we added more computers to the bank, we restricted access to our one and only email account. Senior management couldn’t imagine letting everyone have his or her own email address. Employees would be downloading files with viruses and other malicious attachments. Productivity would suffer, as staff would surely be spending their time emailing friends, forwarding jokes and maybe even leaking important bank information, putting customer confidence at risk. Sure, email was a great business tool but not something intended for the masses—or so we thought.

Fast-forward a couple of years, and I was now tasked with implementing a bank-wide local area network, along with an exchange server for email access.

While the capability for everyone to have their own email account now existed, it was still only available to a select group of bankers. For the first time, we had the ability to provide this special group of bankers with their own bank-branded email account (and that AOL account quickly became a thing of the past). Up until then, email communication had been controlled, restricted to one person and something that others in the bank could not access. Now, we were on the verge of opening it up to others, and it was a bit scary. But we were confident that the benefits would be worth it because we’d seen actual results, even with the limited use thus far.

Eventually we realized that firewalls and antivirus software helped protect the bank from malware and other threats. We provided training to employees on the right and wrong ways to use email and had demonstrated success cases where email was becoming a legitimate tool for business communication.

We had all staff members using the same system so we could archive and retrieve bank-related communication, as well as manage employee use of email and figure out ways to get everyone to use it, while still making sure we remained compliant, secure and productive.

This mentality changed the landscape (and our perspective) regarding email, and eventually everyone in the bank was given access to his or her own email account. I suspect this is the case in your bank today, as email is considered a standard business tool—necessary to get things done.

As you read about the evolution of email, you may realize that it parallels in many ways the adoption today of social media in the community-banking sector. Where you are in that process may vary, but suffice to say at some point the fact that social media is becoming a necessary communication tool and, at some point, will likely become yet another standard business tool.

Systems and policies protected us

Before email was made available to everyone, we implemented systems to protect our network, policies that governed employee use and used special software that kept an eye out for things that “looked like” account numbers or other confidential information to maintain confidentiality. We used technology to allow the deployment of email bankwide and to keep us safe, while at the same time keeping a record of our communications with customers for audit and compliance purposes.

We forbid the use of email services such as Gmail, Yahoo and Hotmail (since they did not “run through” our systems to check for confidential information or archival) for bank-related communication. Shortly after bankwide email was rolled out, many could not remember what it was like when everyone didn’t communicate via email.

I have the pleasure of speaking to bankers at conferences, conventions and via webinars across the country about the use of technology and social media in their institutions. Many times, I begin my sessions by asking a question such as “How many of you work for a bank that allows access to social media on your bank network?” Not surprisingly, I still don’t see a lot of hands go up (but the numbers are growing). Asking the same question regarding email however, everyone’s hand goes up and nobody can imagine trying to do their job without email to keep connected with their customers. 

It’s all about communication 

While many in bank senior management still think about social media as a marketing tool, I propose we need to think of social media as a shift in communications strategy. We should be prepared to embrace it as such or risk becoming irrelevant and disconnected with our customers.

Sure, we can market our products and services via social media, but building relationships and networking with others has to be part of the process or you risk being seen as a bank that’s only interested in pushing its products online (and that’s not very “social”). To do it right, you must think of social media as another communications channel. And, you have to have the right policies in place to protect your bank, provide training for staff and ensure that you’re monitoring it to make sure that rules are followed (just as we did when we deployed email bankwide).

Here are some suggestions about how to do this:

–Comprehensive risk assessment. Make sure that you have taken time to identify the risks associated with a “social strategy,” and consider your reputational, procedural, regulatory, legal and related risks. As with any risk assessment, it’s also a good idea to assign a value to the likelihood of a risk materializing, and, if it happens, what the impact is to your bank. You’ll then develop a response as to how you’re going to respond and what systems or processes will be implemented to help keep your bank safe.

–Get everyone on the same page. Many times when I speak with senior management at a bank about social media, it’s a safe bet they’re not the most active social media users in the institution. Some may not even have a Facebook account or be signed up with LinkedIn. If they have signed up for one or the other, it’s likely that the account isn’t being used.

In these circumstances, it’s important to ensure that you get everyone starting with a basic understanding of what social media is (and is not). In many cases, you have resources in the bank who can help with this education process. Many will start by first finishing the statement, “Social media is_____.”

–Provide employee training. Train, train, train. Things in social media change quickly, and you need to keep on top of it (and make sure that your staff knows too). For example, LinkedIn has rolled out the option to add hero images now to its free LinkedIn accounts so that your profile can take on some additional “personality.” Do you know if your commercial lending team is aware that this is even possible (or do you even know what a “hero” image is?), or have they uploaded something on their own? Do you have a policy on what could/should be used? Some banks have created a branded image that your staff can use to help support your institution’s brand.

–Leverage technology for efficiencies. If you want to leverage social media in your bank, you’ll need to ensure that you have the right technology in place to help make the management of social media easier—especially since you’re not going to get more hours in the day.

There are great tools out there that can be used at both the institution and employee level for management of social posts. These tools will capture what your employees want to say, deliver it to a compliance officer or approved individual who can approve it and allow it to post on social media.

The popular tool Hootsuite (which has a free version for personal use that allows you to connect three social accounts for submitting posts and updates) has a version that can be configured at the enterprise level for approval and workflow processes. There are also tools such as Gremln, PostBeyond, SproutSocial and others that also have processes built into them for the creation and sharing of information, with archival and measurement of engagement to help with return on investment measurement.

Even some of the core banking systems are developing cool tools that you can use in your institution, so be sure to ask around when talking with your current partners.

–Monitor for performance and results. You should monitor and look for success stories to share when social media helps the bank in a positive way. One bank that we work with responded quickly to Facebook fans who were upset about a recent online banking upgrade. Instead of ignoring or deleting the comments, the bank apologized for the interruption and shared what “was coming” as a result of the update once the dust settled.

Customers not only appreciated the quick response and honesty but became excited about the new features they would soon have access to. In fact, these very same customers who were complaining turned into advocates and began singing the praises of the bank and came to its defense on other negative comments.
This is a great example of when listening helped turn lemons into lemonade, but you’ll also want to keep an eye out for employees saying things they shouldn’t be saying that could get you into compliance trouble. For example, a lender tweeting something such as “Loan rates have dropped to 2.875%! Contact me to #refinance today!” violates of Truth in Lending regulations. But, the lender can accomplish the same thing with “Loan rates continue to drop… If you’re thinking about #refinancing let’s talk!” A shortened link to your loan rates page so that you can properly disclose the rate and remain compliant may also be a good idea—and still keep it under 140 characters.

–Standardize your tools and processes. Depending on your bank and its focus, you’ll likely end up standardizing on a few networks of choice. If your bank is focused on business banking, then LinkedIn is an obvious choice.

Those banks that have thought leaders may want to use Twitter to help share knowledge and build credibility. Consider using a bank-branded Twitter handle (for example, @XYZBankEric) where the bank and employee name are used. Taking it one step further, you may also mandate that posts to these networks have to be routed through an approved bankwide technology as was mentioned above.

This way you’re able to capture what’s being said, monitor it for training purposes and ensure that your brand is protected. You don’t let your staff use a personal email for official bank use so the same likely will become commonplace for social media.

These are just some of the things that you may want to consider when it comes to thinking about social media more as “communication” and less as “marketing.” While each bank will proceed at its own pace, think back to how email evolved in your organization. Chances are your social media journey will take a similar course over time.

Eric Cook was a community banker for 15 years prior to starting his digital consulting practice for community banks. He provides Web development, digital marketing and social media services. Website:

Online training in digital, mobile and social media from ABA.