Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Can Banks be Social?

HSBC as part of the skyline - China
I read an article yesterday about global financial services provider, HSBC's plans to implement a Facebook-type interface for customers.

...Britain's biggest bank is planning to create a new online platform catering for customers' non-financial needs. One industry source said: 'They want to set up their own version of Facebook.' - PR Week

Is this a step in the right direction? Financial services is one of those sectors which still have not really "gotten" social media. A lot of this has to do with the nature of the industry, which is highly regulated. During one discussion I had with a PR executive in a FTSE-100 listed financial services organisation, this was clear:

We’re not quite sure what we can do with these parameters cause as a company selling financial products, you can’t be seen as giving advice and therefore, there is a fine line. If we’re responding to somebody, are we advising them or are we just giving them information? 

In the case of HSBC, they are avoiding this proverbial fine line and hoping to use this interface for non-financial services and information, which they hope will differentiate them from their competitors.

‘Moving away from direct sales, we will build a distinct digital offering centred on customer’s future needs financial and non-financial. We will simply ask our customers to share their needs, and we will then feedback where possible to help people fulfil them [...]The social media strategy will be instrumental in not only raising awareness, but also in building the primary platform(s) for which customers will engage with the campaign. It will attract new customers while further engaging existing ones. - PR Week

HSBC is looking for agency support for this strategy at the moment, but is there any hope for success? If the company is looking to engage customers outside the parameters of what financial companies can and cannot communicate vis a vis industry regulations, then it is a good start. However, as the author of the article commented

The odds are certainly against it. There is very little historical evidence for any consumer appetite to mix financial and social activity. The dynamics of the relationship between banks and their customers are almost entirely functional and based on rational criteria.

Having had the experience in trying to mix financial and social activity for a customer base, I agree it is often challenging but certainly not impossible. Relationships do not have to be strictly "functional" or based on the necessary logistics. Customer engagement is just as important in such an area as in any other, especially when it comes to developing the overall face and brand of the organisation. And as the brief says, the company wants to gauge customers' needs. One cannot assume that they don't have other needs besides dollars and cents. Who knows what they may want! The jump off point may be a bit ambitious - a whole new interface built from scratch - but the rationale is indeed commendable.


It's unfortunate timing for HSBC since their entire system failed just over a week ago. It's tempting to say "Shouldn't they get the actual banking right before moving on to social networks?"

However, the two main things that come to mind for me are:

1) If I want to discuss non-financial things, I already have my established networks for doing so. They would need to offer something very special for me to have those discussions on their platform, and

2) Do specific company/genre-specific social networks work? It's a broad question, but I personally don't use any, and I'm struggling to think of one that's really successful (and I'm excluding message boards from this)

I think HSBC should do an audit to see whether this would be relevant to their customer base before jumping into such an ambitious project headfirst. I fully agree with you that specific company networks are indeed iffy - why not test the waters with tried and tested existing networks. Having a portal for engagement on maybe their CSR and sponsorship programmes is fine, but the tool needs to be better thought out. My opinion. :-)

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