Spreading the Word About Bank On

By Julie Knudson

Read more in ABA Banking Journal about Bank On’s 100th account. ABA.com has more information and resources about inclusive banking here.
A bank account streamlines many activities in daily life. The convenience and security offered by a simple transaction account came to the fore as COVID-19 prompted regional restrictions on in-person transactions and normal financial routines were interrupted. Employers scaled back on paper checks due to a lack of on-site staff, making it difficult for individuals without a banking relationship to get paid. Unbanked families also encountered challenges managing basic home life when shopping, healthcare, learning and most other activities went online.

The Bank On program, a financial inclusion initiative that helps consumers identify safe and affordable account offerings, gives banks a way to connect with those who are unbanked or underbanked. Banks that are involved with Bank On and related efforts show their inclusive engagement with their communities, and Bank On is currently celebrating more than 100 certified accounts.

As 2020 unfolded, people increasingly needed a way to have paychecks, stimulus payments and other emergency funds deposited electronically. Consumers were under tremendous economic pressures and people of many backgrounds used the availability of Bank On-certified products to facilitate these vital transactions.

Interest in banking services—from mobile and online options to loans to opening new accounts—has increased. Recent figures from the Federal Reserve revealed the portion of unbanked Americans actually dropped during the pandemic, from 6 percent in 2019 to 5 percent by the end of 2020. The share of Americans considered “fully banked” rose from 70 percent to 81 percent.

Though Bank On-certified accounts’ low costs and easy management make them attractive options, connecting with the consumers who are most likely to benefit from them is often difficult.

Without an existing banking relationship, banks can’t easily reach prospective customers. Individuals wary of banks don’t always trust or pay attention to institutions’ outreach efforts. But bankers are tenacious and creative, and many are using new—and some old—ways of marketing the value of their Bank On products.

Bank On coalitions help with ready-made marketing opportunities

Supporting the entire community means meeting people where they are in their financial journey. “It’s important to have products and services that are attractive to everyone, and that’s the best way to demonstrate we’re servicing our community,” says Martie North, SVP and director of community development and CRA at Simmons Bank in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. The bank’s Affordable Advantage Checking is a Bank On-certified product that provides an entry point for people who may be hesitant about working with a bank or having a banking relationship. It’s also of interest to those looking for a nominal, simple bank account.

“It gives us a low-cost, lower-risk entry point product for individuals who are just starting out,” North says. “It helps us broaden our product base to make sure it covers everyone who is interested in entering the mainstream financial system.”

Every Simmons Bank location offers the Bank On account. “You learn about it when you inquire about a checking account, and it’s on our website, too,” North says. The institution leverages the reach of its Bank On involvement to spread the word about the value of Bank On-certified accounts and engage those who may be a good fit for various other products.

Coalitions are located across the country, each bringing together its own mix of banks, non-profit and community outreach organizations and local municipalities. “We work alongside these various service providers, and they also help us,” North says of the team’s marketing efforts. “When they’re working with a client and discussing opening an account, they promote the banks that offer Bank On-certified products.”

Community groups provide familiar engagement points for marketing

A similar synergistic relationship with Acts Housing, a Milwaukee-area nonprofit, helps Bank Five Nine, based in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, connect with those who may be interested in its Bank On-certified Achieve Checking account.

“Acts does a lot of counseling with families before they get them into a home, so they understand what they’re getting into and how a mortgage works,” says Jeff McCarthy, the bank’s VP and marketing director. Educational programs offered by trusted partners within the community are more likely to get the right kind of attention. “These individuals may not come to our program, but they will come to an Acts Housing program,” McCarthy says, referring to people skeptical of mainstream banks.

McCarthy’s team has another marketing effort up its sleeve—Bank Five Nine has a weekly radio show that airs every Sunday in the Milwaukee market.

“During the first half of the program we typically talk about financial literacy topics, and in the second half we bring in a small business owner or a nonprofit to talk about themselves,” McCarthy says. Representatives from Bank On and Acts Housing have been guests on the show to help spread the word and build interest.

“For us, the Bank On product is one arrow in the quiver we can use to set up low- to moderate-income families within our bank and help them achieve their financial goals,” McCarthy says.

Word of mouth remains a powerful marketing tool

Marketing for Old National Bank’s Bank On-certified product is done through financial education, community outreach and working with the local nonprofit sector. But along with those channels, word of mouth and one-on-one customer education with tellers and personal bankers has proven immensely effective.

Ben Joergens, director of financial empowerment at the Evansville, Indiana-based bank, says the team works hard getting to know customers and seeing where the EZ Access Checking product is a good fit.

“We didn’t market it through traditional advertising because, in part, people may come in and open the account based on its lack of overdraft fees,” Joergens says. There’s also no overdraft capability in Old National’s Bank On account, which could cause embarrassment or frustration if the customer doesn’t understand the product. “It’s that sit-down conversation to get to know customers individually and understand their needs, what their financial status looks like and put them in the most appropriate product for them.

Staff turnover can make consistent marketing efforts difficult, so Old National built education on the Bank On product into its new hire enrollment process. “That’s key in helping them understand why we developed this product and who it’s intended to target,” Joergens says.

He has also spent time talking with people in addiction recovery units and prison sectors, where people are looking to get out and start over. Many are afraid of banks, or they don’t have a good understanding of how banking operations work. “Spending time meeting those people that you may not have thought would be clients originally, that word of mouth spreads so quickly within some of those sectors,” Joergens says. “It really helps build the awareness of what your bank can do.”

Customer behaviors provide an opening to market Bank On products

With its SmartAccess prepaid Visa card account and Foundation Checking, Pittsburgh-based PNC Bank was the first institution to offer two Bank On-certified products. Bonnie Wikert, EVP and head of retail customer segments and deposits, likens the Bank On designation to a seal of approval for consumers. “It reinforces that it’s safe,” she says. PNC has used press releases, social media ads, emails and flyers to let people know about the institution’s Bank On offerings. “We’ve also communicated with customers in other types of checking products with us who perhaps have challenges managing money, that these are alternative products if they want to explore them.”

The bank’s marketing channels cast a wide net, but Wikert’s team specifically looks for customers whose needs are a good match with the Bank On products.

“We focus on customers who seem to have challenges managing money,” she says. Behaviors such as overdrawing accounts, having negative balances or returned checks may prompt the bank to proactively contact the customer. “We’ll reach out to them to see if we can help by converting them to these products that can help them better manage their money,” Wikert says. “We want to work with them to keep them in the banking system.”

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About Author

Julie Knudson

A freelance writer in the Pacific Northwest, Julie Knudson is a frequent contributor to the ABA Banking Journal.