Q & A: Eric Cook on rapid change in bank marketing

As data has become more abundant and useful, the result is “a steep learning curve that bank marketers are facing.”

By Craig Colgan

Eric Cook, a presenter at ABA’s Bank Marketing Conference, Sept. 11-13 in Denver, is a former banker and now chief digital strategist for WSI Digital, an agency based in Northern Michigan focused on serving community banks with custom, mobile responsive website development and digital marketing solutions. He will lead a learning lab at the conference on a strategic approach to bank digital marketing. His experience in the rapidly changing universe of bank marketing makes him an important voice on where the field is headed.

How much has bank marketing changed in recent years? From when I started in the late ‘90s to today, a TON. I remember when we were afraid to let everyone in the bank access email and now we’re training bankers how to effectively use social platforms and online networking to build personal relationships and create an online personal brand to stand out.

Data has become so much more available, allowing for tracking of just about any digital marketing metric you could think of, and what lies ahead—in the form of machine learning, A.I., Web3 technologies, etc.—just further accentuates the steep learning curve that bank marketers are facing. And will continue to face.

What are key trends on the way for bank marketers? I think data certainly is a key thing to think about, as there is so much information out there to make decisions on. Core transactional information, customer profitability, social trends and even the evolution of website metrics with the eventual sunsetting of Google’s Universal Analytics and the shift to GA4 in July of 2023.

Just with that shift, data from the web will be so much more focused on uncovering a user journey vs. all the individual sessions, so that marketers can get a better understanding of how people are engaging with the bank, across the different devices they are using, what platforms they are using, etc. I also think it’s a good idea to keep an eye on things like AI (maybe dip your toe into some copywriting to explore this area first) as well as building a community around like-minded topics and needs. While the Metaverse and Web3 certainly are still somewhat of a “wild west” destination at this point, there are some financial brands that are checking things out and exploring to see what opportunities may exist down the road.

How do banks stay current during such rapid change, in all areas, but especially marketing? It’s not easy, because the “day job” requirements of being a banker—and all the things that bankers need to know—are not slowing down. Yet you have to keep up with all the changes, new platforms, technologies, increased competition, etc.

Certainly attending events like the ABA Bank Marketing Conference is a great place to start. Network with as many people as you can. Be a sponge and take it in. Not just from the speakers and exhibitors, but from your peers who are right there “in the trenches” doing it like you are. That’s one of the things that I’m excited about for my session: getting the bankers in attendance to share their stories with each other and learning from our peers.

I remember when I was a banker that conferences and banking schools presented some of the best ways to stay on top of my game and learn new things and get to know people who could be there for me as a resource down the road. It’s also a great idea to not be afraid to look outside of the industry and even attend some “non-bank” events that are focused on bigger picture marketing, content, data analytics, strategies, etc.

Going “off grid” and into a bigger event where you have examples from other industries will help spark ideas and give you a different perspective that may help you come up with something that otherwise may never have been given consideration.

What drew you to work that involves working with bank marketers? I started in the banking industry back in 1992 after graduating from college. My father was a banker growing up. But I never really planned on going into banking. Never say never. We ended up working together for 13 years—of his 33 years as a banker—at Marshall Savings Bank in Marshall, Michigan, which has undergone several takeovers and is now Huntington Bank.

During my time at the bank, I ran a teller window for the first three years to start at the ground level, then moved into a variety of other areas such as technology, compliance, marketing, operations and eventually senior/executive management overseeing a region of the bank.

I built the bank’s first website back in 1995, making us one of the very first community banks in the country with a presence on the web. I felt in my “gut” that having a website and being part of the “World Wide Web” would become something all types of businesses would be doing. Including banks. In 2007 I made the decision to leave banking and follow my passion for all things digital and opened our agency.

This allows me to work with bankers from around the nation on their digital challenges. And I love helping them figure out how to tell their story to make a difference, connect with their communities, build relationships and stand out online.

What are some tips for banks to better work with vendors, whether in marketing or otherwise? Because I “grew up” from a smaller community bank, we had to rely on partners to be successful in our ability to serve customers and stand out from the competition. One of the things that I tried to do when I was a banker and worked with vendors a lot is to treat them as true partners and ensure that both the bank and the vendors were focused on the big picture.

I was very transparent with the goals and objectives the bank had and what we wanted to accomplish, and then worked closely with our partners to see how they would be able to help us achieve our goals. Those vendors who simply wanted to sell me something without an interest in being our partner didn’t last long for us. We ended up relying on a handful of vendors who we considered as valuable components of our bank’s success. While not every vendor will need this level of “partnership” approach, the important ones will take the time to get to know your bank, what you want to accomplish and should be comfortable making recommendations that fall “outside” of what you, as a banker, may be asking for. I consider our clients experts in banking, but maybe not so much in digital marketing, online strategy, etc. It’s our job, as their partner, to make that extra effort to ensure that what we are bringing to the table is more than just what’s specifically being asked for–but what they need to be successful.

What are some things marketing vendors get wrong when working with banks? Vendors who want to serve the banking space need to be able to put themselves in the shoes of the banker, the challenges they face, the culture that is present—and its challenges—the questions that will need to be answered, the concerns that compliance/security/regulation have, etc.

Anyone working with a bank must also have a good deal of patience, as things do not move quickly and a partner-focused approach is always appreciated. You have to let the banker know that you’re in it for the long-haul and will be there to help educate, explore and deploy ideas when the time is right.

In addition to his agency work focusing on helping banks, in 2020 Eric and his team launched an industry-specific mentoring community call The LinkedBanker. The program was created to help individual bankers and those serving the banking industry uncover ways to leverage digital and social tools to build relationships with their customers, prospects and the communities they serve.

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About Author

Craig Colgan is Senior Editor at the ABA Banking Journal.