Q&A: Integrated Social Media + Financial Marketing

We sat down with Tim McAlpine, president and creative director of Currency Marketing, to talk about integrated social media marketing for financial institutions.

As one of the financial industry’s most accomplished and well-respected social media marketers, Tim’s firm has developed a number of successful programs targeting niche groups, including the renowned Young & Free Spokester Challenge and, most recently, the Mommy Blogger Challenge. Currency’s programs are customized, fully-managed, and licensed to non-competing credit unions throughout North America. You can find our more information on Currency’s “Challenge Marketing” by clicking here.

Although Currency works exclusively with credit unions, Tim offers great advice for all financial institutions looking to attract new customers in non-traditional ways. You can find Tim on LinkedIn and Twitter, and check out his blog.

Note: Where Tim has responded with members and credit unions, The Financial Brand has replaced with customers and financial institutions to make the answers relevant to both banks and credit unions.

Social media is all the buzz in business marketing right now. Is the buzz warranted?

Yes and no.

Social media advocates will tell you that traditional media is dead. They will have you believe that TV, radio and print can be completely replaced with social media and word-of-mouth marketing. The promise of Web 2.0 will conquer all. To perpetuate the myth, financial marketers are being bombarded at industry conferences and in trade publications with the notion that all they need to do is start a blog, a Twitter profile, a Facebook fan page or a YouTube channel and the millions (if not billions) of people online will find and flock to their lovable institutions.

While I agree that the social web is extremely exciting and presents an opportunity to connect like never before, I do not agree that social media is a replacement for all other forms of marketing. What’s missing from all of the buzz is the notion that social media is a great addition to other mediums that marketers have at their disposal. The real power lies in integrated social media marketing. There is a huge opportunity to marry many different marketing approaches.

What’s the business case or ROI for an integrated social media marketing program?

Social media as an island-unto-itself offers little ROI. There is definitely a paradox at play. Unless you are selling product through your social media efforts, it is very difficult to justify the expenditure. But to-date, financial institutions that have entered the social web have primarily concentrated on listening to customers. It is widely believed that social media is only to be used to listen and to connect with customers and potential customers; by being open, transparent and conversational this will demonstrate that your organization cares about its customers and this display of caring will compel people to do business with your financial institution.

While this approach has merit, it’s extremely passive and will not satisfy your CEO, CFO and board of directors’ who want to see a return on investment. I strongly believe in listening and learning from your customers online, but let’s be honest, everyone who is online representing a company ultimately has something to sell. Why should we feel bad about that? I don’t believe that marketing and sales are off-limits.

A legitimate business case can be made when you combine “listening + engagement” executed with “care + conviction” in an open and honest way, set against the backdrop of a really relevant product offer and a really compelling social media “challenge.” Within this framework, customers and non-customers will be receptive to your marketing and sales messages. You can actually measure your campaigns by counting up the total products sold and the total deposits, loans or investments made.

What do you mean by a “social media challenge?”

You need to ignite a following and create real excitement. The basic premise of a social media “challenge” is to draw considerable attention to your financial institution by throwing down a unique challenge stoked with significant rewards, and by encouraging people to creatively participate, compete and connect.

In the case of our Young & Free Spokester Challenge, “the challenge” is to compete for a dream job with a great salary, great gear and total freedom to be creative online. This gets young people fired up and really moves the campaign beyond passive contesting and throw-away promotions.

Your “challenge” should drive a select group of people to action. Ideally, it should grow naturally from your financial institution’s focus and brand while aligning with your financial institution’s goals and objectives.

Why are you a big advocate of dedicated microsites?

It really comes down to features and functionality. To successfully host an integrated social media program, the site needs to do a lot. Your site must have the ability to embed videos, podcasts and other widgets from various web services. Your layout must incorporate various ways to reveal all of the great content within your site.

If your program will include a public vote, you site will need to allow for quick layout changes between phases and you will need to design a voting system that is easy to use and completely secure. In addition, your site will need to include prominent links to mainstream social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and others. And finally, a blog with an RSS feed is a must.

If you can do all of that on your corporate website, go for it. However, corporate IT departments prefer to keep their networks as closed as possible. Your IT department would probably not be very open to embedding third-party code from YouTube, providing direct links to Twitter, Facebook or MySpace or allowing site visitors to leave comments on your primary corporate website.

Even though the security risks for doing so are low, most IT departments are intentionally conservative when it comes to Web 2.0. I completely understand this position, as IT’s first priority is to keep your network up and running and to make sure that your customers have uninterrupted access to your online banking system.

What are the biggest mistakes financial marketers make when launching an integrated social media program?

There are four big mistakes that I see.

  • Believing that the social web is just for young people. People of all ages are participating online in niche communities. We recently launched Verity Mom. We’ve had moms from the age of 23-47 actively participating in this very unique challenge to become a paid blogger for Seattle’s Verity Credit Union.
  • The lack of a long-term, content-creation strategy. You can have a great concept, a great product offer and a fabulous reward. You can promote your initiative with your staff, your customers and your potential customers. You can have a memorable URL and a great website with plenty of ways to interact. You can have all these things, but if you do not have great content and lots of it, you can’t sustain momentum over time.

Creating a steady stream of interesting, entertaining and educational content is key, but it is sorely lacking from so many of the campaigns that I follow.

Do you have some tips for creating content?

Some social media experts will advise that you should only publish a blog post when the feeling hits you. I can agree with this advice for a personal blog, but I cannot agree with this advice for a major marketing initiative for a business. If you are investing time and money in an integrated social media marketing program with the expectation that you will attract new customers who will want your products and services, you have to be very disciplined. I would recommend approaching blogging like publishing a newspaper.

  1. Establish a very regular publishing schedule with hard deadlines. Publishing regularly and often is critical to making a return on your investment.
  2. Institute quality standards. Boring, uninspired content doesn’t get any better with quantity. Everything that you post to your site should meet a minimum quality standard that you are comfortable with. This definition of quality is up to you and what you feel your audience will connect with. Your site should have a consistent tone of voice and personality regardless of whether there is one author or 10.
  3. Include artwork or photos within your posts from time to time. Text posts can get pretty repetitive—especially if you are cranking out new posts everyday. Including imagery will help your posts grab attention and get read, especially within an RSS reader, where all content looks the same.
  4. Throw some video into the mix. You can either embed existing video from YouTube or create your own. You don’t need a professional video crew or expensive equipment. For as little as $150, you can get a Flip digital camcorder with built-in video editing software and you are in business. And with free video hosting at sites like YouTube, Vimeo, Blip.tv and Viddler, there is no excuse not to produce your own videos from time to time.

All of this sounds great, but it also sounds expensive. What advice do you have for financial marketers who want to jump in during the current economic meltdown?

You can’t sit on your hands and hope for new customers. The current unrest in the economy actually presents a great opportunity for financial institutions with a good reputation to tap into integrated social media marketing.

Create a simple business case that outlines a realistic annual budget and goals. Once you start to itemize all of the elements that you will need and the resources necessary to back your program, you will soon realize that the scope and scale of an integrated social media marketing program is much bigger than launching a corporate blog. However, when done well, an integrated social media marketing program has a much higher chance of driving an actual return on your investment.

I highly recommend introducing a new market-leading product that is directly tied into your program. You need to aim to recover the costs by attracting new customers to your financial institution that will utilize your products and services.

9 questions in 90 seconds

Facebook? I’m not entirely sold on fan pages, but I would highly recommend targeted pay-per-click advertising within Facebook to drive traffic to your microsite.

SecondLife? With two kids and a busy business, I don’t even have time for my FirstLife! From a marketer’s point of view, I wouldn’t bother. SecondLife’s 280,000 monthly visitors is paltry compared to Facebook’s 150,000,000 monthly visitors.

MySpace? Not dead yet. Rather than having your own page or paying for advertising, banks and credit unions should figure out other ways to tap into this community. Music is huge on MySpace. Our recent Young & Free SC Last Band Standing contest attracted 24 bands, all of which had MySpace pages with thousands of friend. The bands aggressively promoted their entries within MySpace and we saw huge traffic numbers coming from MySpace.

Twitter? I’ve been tweeting for close to three years and things have certainly changed in that time. My advice for banks and credit unions: be real, be helpful, be conversational and feature your employees faces. I like what Wells Fargo has done with their avatar and Twitter page. People relate to people, not corporate logos.

Podcasts vs. Videocasts? I listen to more podcasts than I watch, but both have tremendous merit. For financial institutions contemplating podcasting, make sure that it’s entertaining first and educational second.

Mobile Banking? Next big thing. Invest in mobile banking solutions before you build that next branch.

Branches? Not going away, but online banking is so much more efficient than tellers for transactions. The branch environment should be more about consultation and personal knowledge exchange.

Blogs? They are almost retro-chic now! People are coming to the realization that the 140 character limits of Twitter don’t allow for much deep thinking. Plus, owning your own blog gives you total control of the content that you create.

YouTube? Online video is huge and will only become more popular over time. I recommend that financial institutions have a YouTube Channel and start producing video content.