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Online Communities: next stage of loyalty for retail banks?

With the rise of social media leading to new collective behaviors, there is no doubt the power and influence of online communities is growing stronger. This is clearly demonstrated by the recent ‘Bank Transfer Day’, arranged through Facebook, which sparked thousands of people in the US to switch their accounts from banks to credit unions.

As more and more people participate in different communities online, the question becomes: How can banks engage with these communities, and build long term trust and loyalty? Isn’t there an opportunity for a bank which reaches out to a community to reward the loyalty of its members?  The rewards could also be dependent on the collective behavior of the community, not just the behavior of one individual.

Traditionally retail banks have segmented their customers based on criteria such as demographics, location, spending behavior and revenues, but the individual customers will not have been aware of this segmentation. Now, with sites such as Facebook, people know that they belong to one or several communities online and targeting can be much more transparent and open. Individuals feel stronger because they have a sense of belonging to a group of people with similar interests. I believe that a retail bank who can demonstrate interest in a particular community could be rewarded by the loyalty of its members.

With some work, retail banks could identify those online communities with the potential to harvest prospects or customers. For example people who have an interest in personal finance, or those looking for banks who promote sustainable development.

How would this work? I won’t claim to have all the answers today, but one can envision mechanisms where the community manager of the retail bank would request a particular action to be fulfilled by the community members. This could include signaling interest in a new product, or submitting an evaluation for a new service. If a certain percentage of the members of the online community accept, all members could be collectively rewarded for their actions. The key would be for the bank to show a special level of interest in the community, reinforcing the feeling of pride of their members, building loyalty and driving more members to the community.

Retail banks and their community managers face exciting challenges ahead in interacting with online communities. No doubt we will see best practices developing soon. One day, we might even see a new community on Facebook whose members have the common interest of engaging and building loyalty with online communities!

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