The REAL Real Lesson Of Financial Literacy Month

The CU Water Cooler called attention to a GlobeAdvisor article titled The Real Lessons of Financial Literacy Month. The article lists “12 points that  no one has raised since Financial Literacy Month began Nov. 1,” and includes some very worthy items like “banks are part of the problem” and “relying on schools to teach financial literacy is passing the buck.”

My take: While the list is good, the article still misses the REAL lesson that no one has raised since FLM began:

Financial literacy is not a worthwhile goal or objective.

The problem that many people have regarding the management of their financial lives is rooted in behavior, not knowledge. Knowing how to effectively manage your financial life doesn’t mean that you will effectively manage your financial life. It’s like driving a car — knowing how a car operates doesn’t make someone a good driver.

You might think that I’m mincing words here, and believe that while behavior might be the important goal, that literacy or knowledge is the path to achieving that objective.

Hogwash. I’ve never taken a financial literacy course in my life. I’ve never accessed a single web site page on any financial institution’s web site that dealt with financial literacy.

In other words, I would have a hard time proving that I’m financially literate. But I have no debt, my family spends within its means, and my financial life exhibits none of the problems or issues that are characteristic of those who are supposedly financially illiterate.

Literacy is simply not the problem we — as a society — need to address. It’s personal accountability and responsibility for one’s own financial live.

The “as a society” part of that sentence is important. Blaming banks, credit card issuers, or mortgage lenders for the problems that people have with their financial lives is wrong. (It seems to be a popular sport these days to consider banks that foreclose on defaulted mortgage holders to be the “cause” of homelessness). 

Should makers of Cracker Jacks prohibit the sale of their product to people who are overweight? No. It’s the responsibility of the individual to eat right, and pass on eating junk, or eating it in moderation. Cracker Jacks could educate consumers about how sugar is bad for you, or how taking in more calories than you expend causes weight gain, etc. — but if people aren’t disciplined about what and how they eat, the problem won’t go away. 

So, if you work at a financial institution that is promoting Financial Literacy Month, good for you. But you’re probably having absolutely no effect on the real problem. Stop trying to educate people about financial literacy. Give them tools to change their behavior. Or get tough, and tell them what to do.

And for the holier-than-thou, righteous types out there: Stop blaming financial institutions for the bad decisions that individuals make. 

p.s. No boxes of Cracker Jacks were harmed, or consumed, in the writing of this blog post.

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Banks’ Social Media Challenges

I had the chance to participate on a SMB Boston panel last week on Driving Business Value Through Social within Financial and Regulated Environments, which I think was just a fancy way of saying “social media in financial services.”

The main message of my presentation:

Financial institutions should integrate social media approaches into their marketing and customer service processes.

As I see it, banks (and credit unions) are wrestling with — or perhaps, simply failing to address — challenges regarding social media. And you don’t even need to be a journalist to know where these challenges came from:

  1. What: Banks don’t know what to say in social media.
  2. When: Banks don’t know when to say it.
  3. How: Banks don’t know how to say it.

There are, of course, a couple of other potential challenges, but I think that “Who to say it to” is less of a challenge, and that “Why they’re saying it” is better understood. Regarding “why”, the research that Aite Group has done on social media in banking, bears this out: Most FIs are fairly clear that engaging customers, building brand awareness, and building brand affinity are why they’re involved with social media.

Engagement may be the objective, but I’m not sure, based on what I’ve seen FIs tweet and post, that they know how to achieve that objective.

I saw one FI recently tweet:

Have a new business that needs to grow quickly? Add credit card processing to increase revenues and cash flow. #smallbiz

Here’s another from a credit union:

We are listening. We are not like the BIG Banks. Check us out!

Do people really turn to Twitter or Facebook to see shameless marketing messages, re-purposed from other marketing channels? Are these tweets effectively engaging customers/members/prospects? I don’t know. But I bet the FIs that tweeted those messages don’t know either.

Another thing that struck me reading those tweets, was thinking about why the FIs chose to tweet those messages when they did. Was some marketing person sitting around with nothing to do, and suddenly realize that ts was 30 minutes since the last tweet, so s/he might as well tweet something else? Did something trigger the need for a credit card processing tweet at that particular time? I can tell you this: The credit union’s tweet came 11 days after Bank Transfer Day, so I doubt there was some pressing need to send out that tweet when it was sent.

The tone of these tweets doesn’t sit well with me, either. How many times have you heard the phrase “join the conversation?” Look again at those tweets above — do you know anybody who talks like that in the course of a normal conversation? (If you do, I bet you don’t engage in too many conversations with that person).

This gets at a big issue that marketers (not just in financial services) have to face: They don’t know how to have (or start) a conversation with consumers. Here’s the problem:

Marketing has, to date, been driven by the need and desire to persuade consumers.

But “engagement” isn’t accomplished through persuasion. (Well, persuasion can be a part of it, but it can’t be the only part of it).

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So what should FIs do to address these challenges? There’s a tactical response and a strategic response.

The tactical response: Categorize and test.

A couple of months ago, Michael Pace from Constant Contact wrote an interesting blog post, advocating that Twitter users should periodically do a self-analysis of their tweets. Honestly, I thought that was a pretty self-indulgent thing for an individual to do. But at the company level, the idea has a lot of merit.   

A high-level analysis of your company’s Twitter stream can help you understand how well you’re balancing various types of tweets. And the same could be done with Facebook posts. The challenge, of course, is understanding what impact those messages are having, and if shaking up the mix would improve the impact (i.e., engagement).

———-

But even if you do this, I doubt that you’ll make more than just a minor impact on your firm’s bottom line. To have a more meaningful impact, you need the strategic response:  Integrate social media approaches into marketing and customer service processes.

In my presentation at the breakfast, I highlighted three ways to do this:

1. Influence preferences. I like what America First Credit Union does on its site (as does @itsjustbrent,  since he either borrowed this example from me, or I stole it from him). The CU incorporates members’ product reviews on the product pages. By doing this, the CU accomplishes:

  • Customer advocacy. Not just in the net promoter sense of the word — but in the more important sense of the word: Doing what’s right for the customer and not just your own bottom line. Helping consumers make better choices — that are right for them — by enabling them to access other customers’ opinions is a demonstration of customer advocacy.
  • Active engagement. I guess that, if a customer follows you on Twitter and reads your tweets, or likes you on Facebook in order to enter a contest to win a prize, you could call that engagement. But I would call it passive engagement. Customers who take the time to post a review are more actively engaged, in my book.
  • Continuous market research. I doubt many firms could capture the richness of information America First is capturing through satisfaction or net promoter surveys. And I know that they can’t capture it in as timely a basis as America First does.

2. Provide collaborative support. I’ve been holding up Mint.com as an example of a firm with collaborative support, but it recently discontinued its Mint Answers page. No worries, Summit Credit Union is doing the same thing, and hopefully, they can become my poster child for this. Collaborative support is giving customers the opportunity to answer other customers’ questions. Dell has been doing it for years. Why provide collaborative support?

  • Reduced call volume. I’m not going to say that you’re going to see a huge volume of deflected calls, but over time, if you market the collaborative capability, it can help.
  • Expanded knowledge base. This is where the bigger value comes in. Customer service reps leverage internal knowledge bases to answer customer questions. Collaborative support helps grow that knowledge base, and helps figure out which answers and responses are more valuable than others. This expanded knowledge base will also prove valuable in training new employees.
  • Active engagement. Similar to the product reviews, customers who participate in collaborative support sites are demonstrating active engagement.

3. Instill financial discipline. This is about using social concepts to get people to change the way they manage their financial lives. Take a look at the research that Peter Tufano has done regarding what motivates people to save.  There are some good examples of this in practice — see Members Credit Union’s What Are You Saving For?. I recently chatted with the CEO of Bobber Interactive, and like what they’re doing about bringing social gamification to how people manage their finances.

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Bottom line: Your firm can putz around with Facebook and Twitter until you’re blue in the face. For financial institutions, this is probably not going to have much of an immediate impact on the bottom line. It will likely take years of experimentation to figure out what to say, when to say it, and how to say it on social media channels.

If you want to engage customers, you have to give them a reason to engage. Mindless, idle chatter on Twitter and Facebook isn’t sustainable. 

The path to making social media an important contributor to bottom line improvement — and sooner rather than later — will come from integration social media concepts and approaches into everyday marketing and customer service processes.

Banking The DeBanked

How’s this for coincidence: Today, Aite Group published my report Marketing Prepaid Debit Cards To Overdrafters and Harvard Business School published a white paper on overdrafters titled Bouncing Out of the Banking System: An Empirical Analysis of Bank Account Closures. 

The write-up on the Harvard paper included this comment:

Between 2000 and 2005, United States banks closed 30 million checking accounts of excessively overdrafting customers. It’s a significant action because people whose accounts are shuttered have to turn to costly fee-based alternatives to receive banking services—if they can get them at all.

My take: Hogwash. A load of populist crap. 

If a consumer is paying hundreds of dollars a year in overdraft fees, then why would an alternative product  like a prepaid card be considered a “costly fee-based” alternative?

As part of their marketing strategy, many prepaid card issuers target overdrafters. The challenge, however, is that Aite Group’s research found that prepaid card issuers’ overdrafter opportunities aren’t as lucrative as they might think. The majority of overdrafters pay an overdraft fee just once or twice a year, making the economics of switching their banking activity to a prepaid card less than worthwhile.

In fact, many overdrafters won’t switch to prepaid cards based simply to avoid paying overdraft fees alone. Low awareness of prepaid cards among overdrafters is a hurdle that prepaid card issuers must overcome before they can effectively market the product.

But there is a segment of banking customers that are looking to switch — or have already done so. These are the Debanked — consumers who choose to opt out of the traditional banking product structure, and opt to manage their financial lives with products that are typically considered to be “alternative” financial products.

There are two problems with the populist view of the market, so often adopted by ivory tower college professors and newspaper-selling journalists:

  1. There’s a portion of the “unbanked” population that consciously chooses to be part of this population and is NOT in any way, shape, or form “victimized” by the financial services industry, and
  2. Alternative financial products, many of which have fees associated with them, are not inherently evil, predatory, or economically disadvantageous to the consumers who use them.

There is a significant business opportunity for both banks and providers of alternative financial solutions (i.e., prepaid cards, check cashing services, etc.) to identify the DeBanked and potentially DeBanked consumer population and craft solutions for this market. (Sorry, can’t get into more details here–that’s what my Aite Group report is for).

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Check out Snarketing 2.0: A Humorous Look at the World of Marketing in the Age of Social Media (print or Kindle format):

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Maybe Bank Of America Has A Plan

Maybe — just maybe — Bank of America has a well-thought out plan behind its debit card fees.

Maybe it actually WANTS customers to leave.

Crazy talk, you say? Not sure about that. After all, ING Direct has been lauded for “firing” customers. Bank Technology News wrote this a while back:

“To promote customer homogeneity and keep costs down, ING Direct won’t hesitate to fire customers who demand too much. Better to win over customers with shrewd marketing and good rates wrought by the cost efficiencies of doing business online.”

So, rather than flat out telling unprofitable — or potentially unprofitable — to close out accounts, BofA figures, “hey, we’ll slap a fee on them, and if they don’t like it, they’ll leave. And if they stay, they become more profitable.”

And wouldn’t you know it, but Durbin opens his mouth, and HELPS BofA by telling those customers to “walk with their feet.” Talk about effective word-of-mouth marketing!

So what happens if 1 million customers leave BofA?

If they’re truly the least profitable customers, BofA’s average customer profitability increases. And with less unprofitable customers to serve, the bank can more easily shrink to a more manageable size.

But you know what else happens?

Unprofitable — or potentially unprofitable — go join credit unions or open accounts at community banks. The credit union folks think this is great because it probably means the average age of members goes down. Hooray!

But oddly, the credit union’s profitability is adversely affected. Because if it’s low balance accounts  walking in the door, the income accelerator — the revenue generated on deposits beyond the spread and fees — is diminished. (This by the way, is one of the key reasons why high-yield checking accounts are more profitable than no-interest accounts. See my report on Why High-Yield Checking Accounts Trump Free Checking).

Let’s look at a  scenario: Assume you have 100 customers, equally split across 4 segments. Assume that the average profitability per customer of segment 1 is $1, segment 2 is $2, segment 3 is $3, and segment 4 is $4.

You’re making $250 in profits with average customer profitability at $2.50/customer.

If, thanks to BofA, 25 new Segment 1 customers walk in the door, profits go up to $275, but average profitability declines by 12% to $2.20/customer.

If the four segments represent the generations, it’s possible that you will lose Segment 4 customers (Seniors) over time. So let’s say 25 new Segment 1 customers come in thanks to BofA, but 10 Segment 4 customers are no longer with you. Profitability still goes up, to $255. But average profitability declines to $2.13, a 15% drop.

And if the ratio of customers in the four segments doesn’t change — that is, if segment 1 customers don’t become as profitable as segment 2, 2 as profitable as 3, and 3 as profitable as 4 — over time, then your FI is in trouble.

Oh sure, you can hold hands and sing cumbaya and hope those customers become more profitable over time. But smart firms don’t do that.

———-

So maybe BofA’s plan is to drive out customers it doesn’t think are — or can be — profitable, and let some other FI deal with them.

I’m sure many credit union marketers are thinking that this is great, that they would love to have those relationships, and grow with them over time.

Maybe they can. But if the BofA rejects….oops, I mean defectors….are the younger, less affluent, Gen Yers, then it may take some time for them to have a material affect on the CU’s profitability.

I’ve heard CU cheerleaders talk about being more open to extending credit to younger and less affluent consumers, and finding ways to help those consumers manage their financial lives without the high rates and fees that the big banks charge.

But there’s a reason why those consumers either don’t get credit or have to pay higher rates and fees to get credit, loans, and accounts. They’re higher credit risks, and they bring less funds to the table, resulting in less profits.

Seems to me there are a number of people in credit union land ignoring those realities.

——–

But, back to BofA, maybe the imposition of fees on debit cards is a smart move for the bank. I wouldn’t have advised the bank to do what it did, instead, I would have told them to levy fees on writing checks.

Why Google Won’t Become A Bank

Search Engine Watch published an article titled Why Would Google Become A Bank? and basically answered the question in the first paragraph by saying “Because that’s where the money is.” The article goes on to list a more specific set of reasons including:

  1. Increased value for AdWords ads.
  2. The power of the coupon just got better.
  3. Further diversification of revenue streams.
  4. Data.
  5. Android and Chrome usage increases.

My take: Don’t hold your breath waiting for Google to become (or launch) a bank. It isn’t going to happen. Here’s why:

1. It’s not where the money is. The prospects for mobile payments is certainly bright. But the question that remains to be answered is: Who’s going to make money from these payments? If you, your bank, or anyone else thinks that consumers will pay a fee or a premium for the “privilege” to make a mobile payment, you (and they) are sorely mistaken. Banks’ ability to make money from transactions — mobile or not — has seen its ups and down in the past few years (up on credit cards, then down on credit cards, up on debit cards, then down on debit cards). Retail banking is simply NOT “where the money is.”

2. Nobody in their right mind wants to be regulated to the extent that banks are. For the past few years, regulatory changes have hacked away at banks’ ability to make money. The Card Act, Regulation E, Durbin’s Folly, the list goes on. From a new entrant standpoint, it’s simply too risky and unpredictable to enter the industry. Firms like BankSimple and Movenbank are getting into the industry by either leveraging other firms’ bank charters or by avoiding the need for one altogether.

3. They don’t have the support infrastructure. Google isn’t a B2C company, it’s a B2B company. It has no competency — let alone capability — to provide transactional customer support. So I hear you say,”but they’ll outsource that.” No, they won’t. Outsourcing a critical business function doesn’t absolve you of the need to know how to manage and integrate that function into your business

4. It doesn’t fit with the firm’s business model. Even if you argue my three previous points away, the most important reason why Google won’t become a bank is that it just doesn’t fit with its strategy and business model. Google’s strategy and business model is unique and ambitious: It aims to be the center of the universe in INFLUENCE.

Why did Google acquired Zagat? To influence your choice of restaurants. Why did Google launched Google Advisor? To influence your choice of banks.

Google doesn’t want to process mobile transactions, open bank accounts, and deal with your stupid little banking questions.Google wants to influence who you do business with. And not just in banking and financial services, but everywhere.

When Google is influencing all of your day to day decisions, then every provider in the world will be kissing Google’s shiny black boots looking to participate. And THAT’S how Google will make money. Not by becoming a bank.

Stop The Banking SMadness

The “logic” behind the justification of social media as some new emerging “power” channel in banking is so twisted and misguided, that it just HAS TO STOP.

In an article titled Mobile and social to emerge as power channels for banking, Finextra recently wrote:

“Social networking is becoming more popular, with 57% of adult Internet users [in the UK] using online social networks in 2011, up from 43% in 2010. The UK data is in line with international trends. A just-published survey of 12,000+ Canadian consumers issued by JD Power & Associates finds social media emerging as an increasingly important alternative to traditional retail banking channels. More than 60% of retail banking customers responding to the poll say they use social media. Among customers who use social media for banking purposes, 24% indicate they use it to discuss their banking experience or inform their bank of a customer service issue.”

First off, the last sentence is completely misleading. Sixty percent may be using social media, but that doesn’t mean that all use if for banking purposes. So when the last sentence says that “among those who use SM for banking purposes,” we have no idea how many that actually is.

If it’s 10% of the 60%, then 24% of that means that only 1.5% of Canadians use social media to discuss their banking experiences or for service issues. Ooooh….1.5%!

More importantly, however, is the false logic behind the claims. Just because a large percentage of people use a technology doesn’t make that technology relevant to all applications. 

Using the logic from Finextra (yes, I’m singling them out, but let’s get real — they’re hardly the only ones singing this tune), the following would be true:

McDonald’s to become “power” channel for banking!

Everyday, 27 million Americans — nearly 10% of the total population — visit a McDonald’s location. And that number is growing by 1 million every year. Over the course of the year, on average, Americans visit McDonald’s 33 times! Among Americans who visit McDonald’s, 99.9% make a payment (some just use the restroom) while they’re there. 

But wait, you say, the two examples aren’t analogous. After all, banks can’t take a customer service question at a McDonald’s.

True enough, but they can leverage McDonald’s to influence consumers’ choice of payment mechanisms (and you better believe that, as a result of the recent interchange regulations, this is going to happen a lot more frequently).  And with 27 million Americans visiting McDonald’s every day (and making a payment there every day) which channel — social media or McDonald’s — is more likely to emerge as “an increasingly important alternative to traditional [marketing] channels”?

I’m not arguing that social media isn’t important. Just trying to bring a little perspective to the situation. And trying — probably in vain — to turn down the volume a notch or two on the social media hype.

Urca (Or How One Bank’s Wealth Management Strategy Is Completely Backwards)

The title of this post could probably win the award for the most SEO-unfriendly blog post title. Ever. Nobody searching on Google is going to find this post, let alone click on it.

Unfortunately, it’s the only title I can think of. Mostly because it’s the most appropriate title I can think of.

If you’re wondering — and I know you are — Urca is Acru backwards.

And now you’re thinking: “Aha! That clears it up. Not.”

According to Financial Brand, Acru is:

First Cherokee State Bank’s new sub-brand created around its wealth-management division, described as “a revolutionary new retail concept where wealth strategists give away financial wisdom at no charge.”

At the risk of quoting too much from the Financial Brand article, the following caught my attention:

  • “Our community space design is intended to be as comfortable as your own living room — great coffee included,” it says on the Acru website.
  • “We want you to come in and stay for a while.”  “Everything Acru does starts with a conversation,” bank spokesman Rob Kremer explained. “We believe coffee houses facilitate conversation.”
  • “The goal at Acru is to remove the transactional element from financial services and create a more interactive, relational environment,” added [Acru CEO Matt] Hames.

So why did I title this post Urca? Because Acru’s strategy is completely backwards:

1. Advice shouldn’t be free. One of the biggest problems in the retail banking industry today is the misalignment between what consumers pay for and the value they get (at least, their perceived value). People don’t like paying $5 month for the “privilege” of writing checks or using a debit card, and they certainly don’t think it’s fair that they have to pay $35 each time they overdraw on their account. It’s analogous to the $100 doctor’s visit that lasts for 5 minutes: You’re not paying for her time — you’re paying for her expertise to make a diagnosis and write a prescription. If a bank wants to get radical, it should charge for advice and give away the transactional stuff.

2. Most people don’t need wealth management advice. Is there a shortage of qualified wealth management advisors in Georgia? If there is, shame on all the existing providers of wealth management services (Merrill, Schwab, etc.) who have overlooked the opportunity. The mass market doesn’t need wealth management advice — it needs everyday financial management advice.

3. Physical location doesn’t matter. Coffee houses facilitate conversations? REALLY? Most of the coffee shops I go into are populated with geeks with their laptops plugged in, silently working away. People don’t want to go somewhere to get financial advice. They want it in the moment: At the point of transaction (when they’re at Best Buy ready to drop a grand on a HDTV) or at the point of decision (when they’re reviewing their finances at home at 9pm on a Thursday night). Acru’s wealth advisors are available from 9 to 5, Monday thru Friday. That’s when I’m working. What’s the rest of the wealth management advice-needing population doing those hours?

I’m willing to bet that Acru will generate more profits from selling coffee than it will from selling wealth management services. Any strategy that centers on getting customers to come to you is completely backwards from the convenience and value that consumers want from their financial services experience. 

P2P Lending — The Bank And Credit Union Way

I’ve often thought that banks could easily squash P2P “lenders” like Prosper and Lending Club by creating an online lending marketplace of their own. In addition to the organic traffic they could drive to the site, they could refer loans they decide to pass on themselves, and give the option to investors/savers looking for higher rates of return than they’d get with CDs to lend money in the marketplace.

Lending Club charges a processing fee ranging from 2.25% to 4.5% of the loan amount, and hits investors with a service charge of 1% of each payment received from a borrower. Seems to me that banks could easily underprice that.

But there’s another P2P lending opportunity for banks and credit unions to capitalize on.

Do you know how much money is lent between family, friends, and acquaintances? I doubt that you do, because, as far as I know, Aite Group is the only firm to have estimated the volume of P2P transactions that occur in the US.

We’ve estimated that US consumers borrow (and presumably, repay) nearly $75 billion from each other (and not from financial institutions or other types of businesses, legal or otherwise) each year. On average, every household in the US makes two loan payments to other people for money they’ve borrowed.

That last number is actually pretty useless, since a large percentage of households don’t make any P2P transactions for the purpose of repaying loans. But in our research on consumers who use alternative financial services (e.g.,  payday loans, check cashing services, etc.), borrowing from family and friends is the second most popular source of funds (after overdrawing on their checking accounts, which might not count).

In fact, of the alternative financial services customers that Aite Group surveyed, one in four borrowed from family or friends three or more times in 2010, and more than one-third did so more often in2010 than they did in 2009.

This is a huge P2P payment opportunity for banks. Note that I didn’t say it was a P2P lending opportunity.

How are these loans and agreements documented? I have no idea, but my bet is that in many cases they’re not documented at all. After all, among friends, verbal agreement is just fine, right?

But if there was a cheap (i.e., free) and convenient way to capture the details of that loan, and a way to actually transfer the money between participants — cheaply and conveniently — don’t you think a lot of people would use it?

The money in the P2P lending space for banks isn’t from loan processing fees or from taking a cut on the interest rates. The money is in the movement of funds.

To date, banks, as a whole, have floundered with their P2P payment offerings. CashEdge and Zashpay have gained some traction, but have hardly become household names. PayPal is a household name, but the vast majority of their business isn’t P2P.

Why haven’t P2P payments taken off?

Banks are marketing it all wrong. They’re pitching the “electronic” aspect. Big deal. People don’t care about channels and methods. They simply care about what’s the most convenient thing to do when they want to do it.

Instead, banks should be marketing convenient alternatives to transacting certain types of P2P payments — repaying loans to other people being one type.

Banks could provide an online capability for the parties to document the terms of the agreement, establish repayment parameters, and enable either the automatic or manual transfer of funds. All for the low fee of a P2P transaction, and not a cut on the loan. No future disagreements about the terms of the agreement, and proof of payment.

In addition to improve the way existing customers transact P2P loans between family/friends, this approach might help attract un- and under-banked consumers who could fund an account that could either be a savings account or take the form of a prepaid card account. 

The real winner, though, will be P2P payments. By driving trial of the service, consumers may find it convenient for other use cases.