Australian banks use social tools, cautiously

Writing a research report is an absorbing process. In creating "Social Strategies For Australian Consumer Finance", I conducted dozens of briefings and spent countless hours thinking about how financial institutions set objectives and build marketing strategies that involve social media. The goal was to present usable 'big picture' observations that we can test with data and support with detail.

For this blog post, I'd like to do something a little different. I'll use this platform to share a few softer, more personal impressions of financial institutions in Australia and social media marketing. Note: little of this blog post overlaps with the report, so I encourage you to read the executive summary to understand what the report covers.

My first observation: financial institutions in Australia seem nervous that they don't belong. They're afraid to knock on their customers' doors, in case we don't let them in. This wasn't always the case. Earlier in the history of social media marketing, a few Australian banks were quite forward, taking some clumsy steps that backfired, such as spamming blog comments. But they were the exception. On the whole, financial institutions in Australia would rather be absent from social media than be seen to be oafs, which is one of the reasons they have moved cautiously and seem relatively absent.

This is not to say banks don't make painful mistakes — the public response to Westpac's condescending video that attempted to explain away interest rate rises is a perfect example. It's just to say that their strong preference would be to not come across that way, so they hang back a little, even at the risk of appearing absent.

My second observation: despite their caution, financial institutions in Australia are not sitting on their hands. On the whole, they understand social media will be an increasingly important part of their marketing mix, even if they're still launching pilot programs and puzzling through what it all might look like in the future. Look around and you'll find financial institutions in Australia with blogs and Twitter accounts, YouTube channels and idea exchanges. This is a sign of things to come.

My final observation: at this stage, most financial institutions seem happy to experiment with social media, confident that unmeasured benefits — such as corporate learning — justify the effort and expense. Eventually, they'll reach a point where this is no longer acceptable, and they'll start assessing social media marketing with the same rigour they apply to most business endeavours. The institutions that define clear goals more quickly will be at an advantage in the race to use these new tools and practices for profit.