Indie Banker


North Carolina’s Hunter Young helps create a strategic marketing and communications asset

By Vanessa Drucker

First Bank
Headquarters: Southern Pines, N.C.
Assets: $3.1 billion
Retail locations: 96
Full-time employees: 850
Chartered: 1935

Websites for Walking Around
Last summer First Bank began implementing leading-edge “responsive design” website techniques to better serve customers accessing its website through various mobile devices. The five-month website re-engineering project has become a critical component of the community bank’s overall marketing and customer communications strategy.

Early progress has been swift: Since the new website was launched First Bank’s customers have been spending about 150 percent more time using it.

“When you walk in here [at First Bank], somebody cares about you, your family and your business,” says First Bank President and CEO Richard Moore. “We need to take that genuine emotion and turn it into a better job of serving your personal needs by using all the data we have.”

Most of today’s websites, the offspring of a World Wide Web that first emerged about 25 years ago, were never built with today’s smartphones and other mobile devices in mind. Many websites have been constructed on technological foundations formed when desktop computers were tethered to electrical sockets, and TV-sized monitors and plastic mice and keyboards were virtually the only computing devices in use.

Unfortunately, most websites haven’t adapted to the mobile revolution, says Hunter Young, senior vice president of marketing and digital banking for First Bank, a $3.1 billion-asset community bank headquartered in Southern Pines, N.C. The result has been many on-the-go consumers frustrated by clunky and confusing online interactions on their small-screen, mouseless mobile devices.

“Having to pinch and zoom your way through a website leads to poor user experiences,” Young notes.

Young, 31, recognizes that websites have been a pivotal prospect-generating and customer relationship management gateway for years. However, the rise of mobile access has left many companies losing business because of poor usability. That realization directed a five-month effort to adapt First Bank’s interactive website to the needs of all of its customers, including those who have gone perpetually wireless.

Deploying so-called responsive programming techniques, Young oversaw a re-engineering of a new website that is easy, enjoyable and productive for any customer to use, regardless of the chosen access device. Now a fluid software code operating in the background of the bank’s website appropriately reshapes a page to be displayed in any medium, on any screen size, from phone to tablet to TV.

Changes to First Bank’s website include more efficiently displayed information about the bank’s products and services. Offerings run the gamut from electronic payments to mortgage and business loans to wealth management services and insurance. So Young was determined to encourage the bank’s website audience to explore and “spend some time with us and our products.” For example, one important goal of the bank’s website upgrades was to make it easier for customers to fill out mortgage applications online, a process that is now fully integrated with the bank’s loan origination system.

First Bank’s former website, like most corporate websites, was designed to be primarily task-oriented, with information accessed through long lists of hyperlinks. But with new functions built into the bank’s current website, information is presented more cleanly and intuitively. Adding another personal touch to its website, the bank also created a new online directory that enables potential borrowers to find and contact an appropriate loan officer directly.

The results of First Bank’s website redesign, which was completed in January, speak for themselves. So far this year consumers have spent about 150 percent more time on the website. Previously, they lingered an average of 1.5 minutes.

First Bank has been the first large community bank in North Carolina to develop a multi-device responsive site, but the website offers a model for other large community banks today, or perhaps soon for smaller community banks with more limited technology budgets. Young calculates that a fully developed responsive banking site costs between $80,000 and $150,000; integrated mortgage applications might add another $40,000 to $60,000, and regular content production (e.g., blogs, articles, videos) can cost $5,000 to $20,000 one time or on a continual basis. Every bank with more than $500 million in assets can afford that, according to Young, but the prime ingredient is “commitment.”

Meanwhile, technology costs continue to fall, and in any case it’s unnecessary to execute an entire website transformation to a mobile-friendly environment in one fell swoop, Young adds.

Creating new value

A self-styled marketing “data hound,” Young saw the critical importance of increasing engagement with current and prospective customers through a variety of forms of communication, whether over new digital channels or more traditional marketing. “The goal is to deliver a rewarding experience that people don’t expect from a community bank,” he says. “It shocks some people—in the positive sense!”

Guided by those insights, First Bank’s mobile-responsive website has become a central feature of the bank’s overall marketing and communications strategy for both current and prospective customers. Just digitally pushing the latest service or promotion out in front of a consumer merely constitutes white noise; differentiation, which the new website and regularly updated content help provide, is the new watchword for registering with today’s savvy consumers, Young says.

“When you walk in here [at First Bank], somebody cares about you, your family and your business. We need to take that genuine emotion and turn it into a better job of serving your personal needs by using all the data we have.”
—Richard Moore, First Bank President and CEO

For that reason, Young is working to move First Bank away from the old pattern of shotgun advertising and marketing materials, by instead producing more objectively valuable financial and nonfinancial content. In doing so, he is looking to transform the bank into a regular publisher—both online and in print—of financial information.

“Given the technology, platforms and data at our disposal, we can deliver a valuable, personalized piece that enhances a relationship,” he explains. He compares the cost-benefit analysis of a large-scale advertising or billboard campaign, versus a few articles that can be shaped, distributed and repurposed in a variety of ways to target the needs of both retail consumers and commercial customers who have a high propensity to buy.

That indirect approach to marketing includes offering more financial literacy resources, extending beyond personal finance or home buyers, to reach commercial clients as well. For instance, First Bank serves a number of local construction, heating, air and plumbing companies, so why not develop a guide to those specialized industries, Young asks. That content can be delivered in either traditional or new media channels, according to the customer’s preference, with articles and information generated by appropriate bank employees serving as topic experts and thought leaders.

“As financial partners, we can teach prospects more about their business beyond banking,” Young says.

The overall effect of First Bank’s new website, he says, is that its users now gain “a sense of accomplishment and achievement.” Ideally, they will not only have completed a basic transaction in visiting the site, “but will have learned something new, to take away.” Young can even foresee creating an in-house publishing venture at First Bank that might involve selling ads to the bank’s business customers hoping to communicate to the bank’s retail customers.

A data backbone

All of the new website experiences and tailored content the bank is producing hinges on a mighty backbone of customer data. In fact, Young and First Bank’s customer intelligence team are assembling a data warehouse in a system and structure that they say can be mined easily and used for marketing purposes. Most community banks already possess six or seven significant data piles, such as transactional information, loan data and personal customer files. The next step is to aggregate all that data into one database for holistic use and analysis, Young says.

Young and First Bank President and CEO Richard Moore shared the determination to reshape the customer experience to achieve the most efficient and cost-effective service and marketing. When they embarked on transforming the digital channel last year the bank’s data was still scattered in different silos. Since then, the bank has installed a marketing automation system that sits atop its data warehouse to pull in information and strengthen the view of First Bank customers’ behaviors and needs.

So whether re-engineering a website for the next generation of consumers, or harnessing data to serve them better, Young and Moore agree that technology has become a leveler, enabling community banks to compete on par with the colossally large coast-to-coast banks. Moore is quick to point out that megabanks are operationally less agile and flexible than community banks.

“When you walk in here [at First Bank], somebody cares about you, your family and your business,” Moore says. “We need to take that genuine emotion and turn it into a better job of serving your personal needs by using all the data we have.”

Vanessa Drucker is a writer in New York.