Banking on Social Media
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Banking on Social Media

Scotiabank’s Caribana account is the liveliest of the Canadian financial institutions’ dive into Twitter.

We are all geeks now. It’s seen in the massive popularity of the Star Trek reboot, in the adoption of instant messaging and Twitter (descended from the chat rooms and IRC channels we forever associate with old-school modem sounds), and in the way people soup up laptops or accessorize iPods. The gravitational pull of the social web is so strong it seems every and any company has dived in, racking up Twitter and Facebook accounts, hoping to capture a few seconds of attention span from the overstimulated millenials. The banks—often the most careful corporations in Canada about use of their image and brand—are no exception and have dived into the Wild Wild West of Web 2.0. Scotiabank, CIBC, RBC, TD, and ING Direct, for example, have all joined Twitter, the rapidly growing micro-blogging site.

Scotiabank is the most unintentionally entertaining of the bunch. There’s the “must be fake” ScotiaScene account (that somehow racked up eight followers and misspells the name as “Scotia Bank”) and the Scotiabank Careers account (apparently, there are none, as it’s blank), but the real winner is the fabulously flavourful Scotiabank Caribana account. The gentleman behind the account jumps from elated (“Getting ready to turn up the heat. This summer you’re going to find & feel Caribana in places you’ve never seen. Its About To Go Down”) to needy (“Onto the next 500. Some haters say I don’t have another 500 friends dear to me. Well its follow me friday’s. Help ya boy out nah. One Love”) to pensive (“Be honest – on a scale of 1 to 10, how happy are you right now, and what would make you happier in your life”). The tweets have a distinct personality that honour Caribana and work to personalize the bank, which sponsors the event.
CIBC is the squarest of the bunch with a dull CIBC_News account. Devoid of personality, the account lets its seventy-two followers know about dividend declarations and even tacks on lame “(TM)” symbols to branded programs. It’s essentially a RSS-feed for the news releases coming out of head office. Too slow to grab the CIBC account, the CIBC_News account launched with a thud: “We’re holding this space for now, but we plan to participate in the future.” Can you already imagine the six-person council it took to meticulously word that entertaining ditty?

We! Adore! R! B! C’s! Enthusiasm!

RBC may be the peppiest bank on Twitter. With the RBC account, there’s an overwhelming probability that the tweet will end in a exclamation point(!). The RBC account is actually mislabelled, as it only covers Inside Out and TIFF, both of which RBC sponsors. It’s a small misstep to not clarify the account—such as it could by calling it RBC_Arts—as it puts the weight of representing the entire financial institution on “Official Twitterer” Michel Savoie. Savoie clarifies the role of the account as “not a communications medium for the entire organization. We’re very focused on using Twitter for specific initiatives reaching the Gen Y and student markets.” Still, a sign that the account needs clarification: Savoie, through the RBC account, was recently asked about the Avion credit card service, an inquiry he passed onto the Avion team, but which is out of bounds for what the account was meant to do. Savoie has inadvertently become a focal point for all of the brand on Twitter.
There’s ING Direct, and its CEO Peter Aceto, who is acting as a focal point for the brand on Twitter. Aceto is attempting to personalize the bank and further its branding as a down-to-earth financial institution that puts customers first. Kinda. We’re not ready to aw shucks at his self-referential declaration that he is “At Billy Joel Elton John Concert with my mother and brother. Not your typical CEO admission.” Nor can we ooh as Aceto chats with agency GWP Branding about a basket of sugary goods he sent and books appointments with BrandCowboy and MaryMichaela, both in branding. And, we can’t coo as he expands beyond Twitter into “the blog” (his punctuation, not ours). It’s notable that Aceto is allowing the exposure through a Twitter account, but he could use a few pointers from the mayor on the fine balance that is executive tweeting.
Not to miss out on the 140-character fun is TD Canada Trust. The bank was one of the first to venture into social media with a Facebook app, but got burned when “Split It” received widespread criticism. (It currently has fourteen fans.) Luckily, the citizens of the interweb are forgiving (or forgetful) and have embraced the financial institution’s “TD Money Lounge,” which features interviews and tips for students. (TD trick #1 to racking up street cred? Skimping out on production values on the videos and screencap-ing the “cast” in the least flattering way possible!) It has racked up a more respectable eighteen thousand fans. TD Canada Trust is on Twitter as TDCleanShores, part of Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup, its green program. The account is informative and so earnest it hurts, but misses out on engaging with its followers beyond thanking them for their support. How about a sassy TD Canada Trust Pride account with the passion Scotiabank Caribana has?

Don’t you just wanna learn about finance from these folk?

The banks provide an interesting case study for social media usage. Why, really, do the banks as the dominant players in their industry need to be on Facebook or on Twitter? For RBC, Savoie says, “We see it as an opportunity to not only build awareness around RBC’s support of the arts but also put a humanizing personal feeling to that support. More importantly, it allows a medium to hear back in an open and honest way what our clients and non-clients think.” To the genuine advantages of social media—affordability, ease of use, instantaneous feedback—there is also the need for a large amount of maintenance. To truly create a conversation means allowing customers to dictate what they want to talk about, and that isn’t a strong suit for this industry, which turned a deaf ear to complaints over high service fees and has yet to shift the tone of messaging during the economic downturn (really, Scotiabank, how rich do you think we really are?).
Still, it’s amazing how much you can infer about corporate culture from the Twitter and Facebook presence. CIBC is the boring banker you might ask advice from but would avoid at a cocktail party. ING Direct is run by someone who appears to be the J. Lo of the industry, depending on image consultants to show how still from the block he is.
In the end, that’s the beauty (or danger) of social media: they are just tools to amplify a message, not magic potions. Beware the claims of “social media experts,” who think they can sway popular opinion or turn something viral. Whether you are a bank, Ashton Kutcher, or an everyday civilian entering the social web, if the emperor has no clothes, social media won’t put any on. Or in geek terms, more often than not, WYSIWYG: what you see is what you get.

CORRECTION: JUNE 3, 2009 This article originally mistakenly excluded TD from the list of banks using Twitter, saying it was a “glaring omission”: in fact, the omission was ours, as the bank is the owner of the TDcleanshores account, which “encourages Canadians to make a positive impact on the environment by removing litter from local shorelines,” as part of the bank’s green program.