Success and Struggles with Digital Marketing

By Kate Young

One thing is clear: it’s not a lack of awareness that has prevented community and midsize banks from adapting more quickly to the digital marketplace. Given the range of digital marketing tools and the complexity of implementing them—not to mention the cost—the task may simply seem beyond the reach of smaller players. Yet we’ve seen some very small banks show outsized success with mobile, social and content programs.

A group of marketing leaders representing banks with assets ranging from $350 million to $16 billion got together at the recent ABA Bank Marketing Conference in Baltimore to share their experiences with digital marketing investment.

The bad news: the rumors are true—some bank marketers are still facing pressure from leadership to buy ads in the local phone book. The good news: even among the smallest banks, real progress is taking root in the digital marketing space. It all comes down to strategy.

Defining digital within the organization

“There are one million options for how you can use digital,” says Elizabeth Machen, SVP and director of marketing and communications at Simmons Bank in Arkansas.

Depending on a bank’s strategic positioning, digital marketing might include social media; blogging; paid search; online, mobile and social advertising—with or without personalization—even geofencing. It probably also includes an email program, the content on at least one website (more if the bank has multiple brands or niche programs), plus the intranet and all related digital assets.

As the boundaries between marketing and technology become increasingly blurred, executive leadership may need to take a hard look at the org chart. Does marketing own the systems and tools it needs, or does IT? Does marketing have the ability to access the bank’s own data? Does the organization facilitate close partnership between marketing, IT and ops—or does it impose obstacles? For digital investments to pay off, technical resources need to be aligned with human resources.

Adding pressure to the mix is the grinding pace of M&A activity at banks across the country. Michelle Simon, SVP/CMO at Virginia-based Sonabank notes that the bank doubled in size last year, leaving its digital strategy as a work in progress. At Simmons Bank, an aggressive acquirer, “communicating M&A information has been the bulk of our digital communications,” Machen reports. The bank would like to get into “always-on” marketing, she adds. “But we’re not there yet.”

Bringing up the B-word…budgeting

Budgeting for digital, says Kristin Brandt, CFMP, president of Sundin Associates, “is not a one-size-fits-all proposition.” The budget needs to align with the bank’s strategic objectives. “What are you trying to do?” she asks. “How are you going to do it?” If you know that you can best meet your strategic objectives without digital tactics—through direct mail, for example—then the budget should reflect that. “Remember,” she says, “digital is just another tool in our toolbox.”

Fidelity Bank in New Orleans has responded to its own changing priorities by steadily increasing the budget amount allocated for digital each year. Tammy O’Shea, SVP and chief marketing officer at Fidelity, reports that her CEO is a big proponent of digital—to the point that he advocates for getting rid of paper. Most of the budget shift has come from moving away from television ads and replacing them with social media videos, which are less expensive—and can be recycled for display ads.

Sonabank spends 10 percent of its media budget on digital, Simon reports, noting that like Fidelity Bank, Sonabank has been able to reuse digital assets for other outlets. And although Simmons Bank traditionally spends about 10 percent of its media budget on digital, Machen expects that figure to hit 20 percent this year. To put that into context, she points out that overall consumer media consumption is closer to 60 percent digital and 40 percent traditional—especially among younger consumers. “We need to get to a place where the budget reflects how people actually use media,” she says.

“You have to consider the time people spend on their smartphones,” O’Shea is quick to add. With an estimated 91 percent of adults keeping their phones within arm’s reach at all times, she says, “We need to take it to the mobile level.”

Content is still king

It’s been said that a bank’s most valuable marketing investment is a rock-solid brand, one that resonates with customers and is above all, consistent. “Owning the brand and having buy-in from the board level down is so important,” says Natalie Bartholomew, VP and chief marketing officer at Grand Savings Bank in northwestern Arkansas.

Digital content and brand assets offer marketing a greater level of ownership and centralized control of the brand. But that’s only the beginning. In the ongoing battle to maintain visibility and relevance in web searches, strong content continues to be one of the most potent weapons. Outstanding content is also what spurs customer engagement on social channels and the bank’s website. Not only does that have the potential to help the customer—it also leaves behind a wealth of useful data points for marketing automation and email programs. But only if it’s done right.

“It has to be real and authentic,” Simon notes. Sonabank has made successful forays into content-rich niche marketing programs for nonprofits and women in business. One of the benefits of this approach is that it has built a community of brand advocates—people who in turn have generated podcasts, blogs and networks of their own that promote the bank.

In the end, digital marketing comes down to serving the evolving needs of a changing audience. And even as gadgets continue to advance, it’s a mistake to forget their purpose—to help people meet their financial goals. Shelly Loftin, ABA’s SVP for retail banking, lending, and payments markets, saw this play out many times during her years as a bank marketer. “There has to be a human element,” she says of digital marketing. “Empathy. A theme.”

Kate Young is a senior editor at the ABA Banking Journal and ABA Bank Marketing