What Bank Marketers Learned From the Pandemic

By Mark Gibson

Now that most of the country is emerging from a year-long lockdown, we can look back with a fresh eye to see what we learned, and which innovations are likely to persist. In speaking with several marketing directors recently, we identified four specific lessons or disruptions that we will continue to benefit from, long after social distancing is a distant memory.

Agile pivoting

“It seemed like every morning, we threw away our ‘to do list’ and dealt with another emergency,” says Charlene Cates, chief marketing officer of Machias Savings Bank, relating her team’s experience in March and April of 2020.

First it was branch closures. Then it was masks. Next came loan deferrals and PPP. While this was stressful and frustrating in the beginning, Charlene says that she and her staff quickly put some new structure and processes in place that allowed them to pivot and respond to urgent requests while still making progress on longer-term more strategic projects.

“We learned some agile project management techniques that we are still using to meet emerging needs of our business partners, while still accomplishing the big strategic initiatives that we’ve committed to deliver,” Charlene concludes.

Email works!

One universal lesson from everyone we spoke to is email is the number one most critical channel to deliver urgent and constantly changing information to customers.

“Whether it was the limited availability of branches, the safety precautions we were taking, or how to apply for PPP, email emerged as our most critical communication pipeline,” says Leslie Bercher, director of direct marketing and analytics at Arvest Bank. In addition to this important reminder, many marketers realized that they did not have valid emails for their entire customer base. This unfortunate fact necessitated considering direct mail and other programs, which are slower and much more expensive to deliver.

“We already had programs to obtain and update email addresses, but Covid has forced us to shine the light on those programs and partner with the front line and contact center to gather these on an ongoing basis,” Leslie adds.

Not only was email a fast and inexpensive channel. It also proved to be very effective in reaching the intended audience. “We sent about 1.5 million PPP messages, with a unique open rate of 64 percent and click rate of 24percent,” says Ray Parenteau, President of ClickRSVP, an email service provider serving more than 200 banks.

“This compares to 44 percent and 14 percent for non-COVID-related messages by the same client group.”

Marketing equals sales

Marketing departments have always helped attract new customers, but the pandemic created a sense of urgency for businesses such as commercial and wealth management that had traditionally relied on face-to-face prospecting.

“Our cash management team quickly realized that they were not going to reach their business development goals without some assistance,” says Matt Coggins, chief marketing officer of Enterprise Bank. “We worked with them to create an integrated program of content, mail and digital media to raise awareness of their services to specific companies and industries we wanted to sell into.”

John Barron, chief strategy officer at South Shore Bank, agrees. “The pandemic hit the Boston area pretty hard, resulting in our branches operating with limited service for months,” Barron says. “We decided that we needed to be more aggressive with attracting clients through our digital channel. We built a comprehensive digital marketing campaign that not only doubled our online openings but increased our targeted product sales by more than 30 percent.”

Lasting lessons

Bank marketers, like the rest of society, are pretty happy to hang up the masks and start seeing friends and visiting restaurants and museums again. But it’s encouraging that the silver lining of all the sacrifice and long hours last year is the valuable learnings it all provided us that will help us take our craft to the next level.

For most institutions, an important lesson is that marketing plays an even more critical role in customer communication, customer experience and revenue generation than previously thought. We played the role of financial first responders, keeping customers informed and connected with their money during an uncertain and scary time. And we helped lines of business keep the cash register ringing, even when the doors of the bank were locked.

Mark Gibson, a regular contributor to ABA Bank Marketing, is senior consultant at Capital Performance Group, a strategic consulting firm that provides advisory, planning, analytic and project management services to the financial services industry. He can also be reached via LinkedIn.