Polls, Publicity, and Positioning

By Marilyn Melia

Cultivating an image of a bank that’s in touch with its customers’ current concerns can be deceptively direct: Conduct an opinion survey and then provide the results to the news media.

Just visit any news site and you’re likely to see headlines derived from surveys, like “Majority of Millennials Want to Start Saving for a Down Payment,” or “The Number One Money Lesson Parents Want to Model for Their Kids.”

Moreover, opinion polls can serve several purposes for a financial institution, says Linda Welter, CEO and principal of the Tucson, Ariz.-based marketing firm, the Caliber Group. In addition to garnering media exposure, the research can inform the bank’s own product and service offerings, as well as tie in with its strategic positioning.

But a survey topic should be newsworthy and compelling enough to draw media interest.

So we took our own informal—and admittedly not statistically representative—poll of bankers, pollsters and marketing consultants to find out how and why those headline making surveys are crafted:

Costs and construction

These days, about 90 percent of surveys are conducted online, says Glenn Staada, senior vice president of Radius Global Market Research. The reason is that  it’s easier and more economical to round up respondents digitally than to try reaching them by telephone, through mailed surveys or by conducting in-person interviews.

Still, results from posting a poll online and hoping for comers to answer questions can’t be defended as a statistically random sampling, and are likely to be rejected by reputable media outlets, notes Deana Percassi, managing director of the Harris Poll.

When looking for opinions from a wide, national audience, 1,000 respondents is the necessary minimum, says Percassi.

Costs for a nationwide survey can range from several thousand dollars on up.

One way polling firms lower fees is by maintaining a large, nationally representative group that’s polled on a variety of subjects for different clients. “We have the ‘omnibus’ survey which is composed of 2,000 adults,” Percassi says. To conduct a survey of four or five questions will cost “about $5,000 to $7,000, depending on the complexity of the questions,” she shares.

If a bank is trying to reach a specific group—say retirees with $1 million in investable assets—survey costs go up, even though the number of respondents is typically lower.

Attention grabbing topics

When a client wants to conduct a survey that will result in media coverage, all he or she needs is a topic, and the research firm can do the rest, says Staada.

Indeed, it requires expertise to structure questions correctly so they aren’t leading.

A client, for example, may be interested in reporting on how millennials use mobile banking.

“First,” says Staada, “We’ll research whether [a survey]like that’s been done before.”

Connie Hubell of media relations firm, the Hubbell Group, agrees. “Look at competing surveys, taking a deep look at what others have asked and the findings their surveys have generated,” she advises.

Anything that captures an ongoing trend should garner media attention, adds Welter.

One press release issued last July by Clayton, Mo.-based Enterprise Bank & Trust on the difficulty businesses have finding skilled workers garnered publicity in all its markets in business publications like Phoenix Business Journal, St. Louis Business Journal, and coverage on Phoenix radio.

Enterprise Bank has its own unique approach to its surveys on business trends, consistently using a group of some 200 corporations it calls its “think tank.” Instead of trying to discern a trend to explore, explains Steve Richardson, Enterprise VP for marketing, “Our topics are chosen based on a separate survey of the same group, asking them to tell us what the important issues are to their businesses. We take our guidance from that.”

Part of strategic positioning

Fort Worth, Texas-based First Command Bank, part of First Command Financial Services Inc., has a mission to serve military families—and surveys make up a regular part of the bank’s financial education efforts.

A “First Command Financial Behaviors Index” relies on monthly surveys conducted by a third-party research firm to capture financial behaviors and attitudes of 9,300 American households, both from the military and the general population. The surveys also explore financial issues specific to the military, like the U.S. armed forces’ new “blended” retirement system.

The survey firm, Sentient Decision Science, employs behavioral and attitudinal analysis of survey data to help compare and contrast military financial habits to non-military.

“Storylines extracted from our research findings support content for media organizations as well as our own social media program and public website,” says Scott Spiker, First Command chairman and CEO. Both military media and national outlets like The Wall Street Journal have covered findings.

For Boston Private Bank & Trust, subsidiary of Boston Private Financial Holdings, Inc., a survey conducted by CoreData Research of 300 U.S. respondents with investable assets between $1 million and $20 million, allowed the bank to explore “the emotional aspects [of wealth]that the wealth management industry has largely overlooked,” says Katelin Spaulding, VP and head of branding and advertising.

Working with its public relations firm, Boston Private had 40 different media stories resulting from its research, and the report was shared across social media platforms more than 1,300 times, says Spaulding.

Customer inspired

Survey findings can shape customer communications. Boston Private’s survey, for instance, “helped reinforce the idea that every client has a unique story, and that being client-centric rather than product-centric is what will propel our firm forward,” says Spaulding.

But inspiration for survey research can also derive from customer interactions. At Texas-based Frost Bank, subsidiary of Cullen Frost Bankers, Inc., customer-facing employees have long noticed “that people who have a more positive outlook in general tend to do better financially,” says Bill Day, VP of corporate communications.

So, in mid-2018, Frost tapped TRUE Global Intelligence to conduct a 1,000-person survey in Texas and a separate 2,000-person U.S. survey, which used a measure of optimism developed by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Miami, and a financial measure developed by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

The survey confirmed staffers’ observations: “A positive attitude toward your finances leads to better outcomes,” Day notes.

Frost created a companion website, which Day says has generated “amazing” customer response. And, the January, 2019 press release on the survey resulted on a feature on a San Antonio news program, Great Day SA.

Marilyn Kennedy Melia is a banking and personal finance writer based in Chicago. Email: [email protected].