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The New Yellow Pages

By John Gower

Americans discover brands where they spend the majority of their time: online. Research suggests that U.S. adults now spend more than five hours each day online. That’s more time than traditional TV, radio or print media attracts. Consequently, Americans are more likely to find new companies through online means—including advertising, social media, search and more—than any other method.

Online marketing is about more than just discoverability. A whole lot of consumers are also researching companies and products on the Internet before making a purchase or developing a customer relationship. A recent NerdWallet.com survey suggested 53 percent of adults would investigate a bank’s website before deciding whether to open an account there. Around 30 percent would check out online ratings or reviews to learn more from a third-party perspective.

All this comes down to one simple truth: If your community bank lacks a sufficient presence online, many potential customers will move on. A website is a great start. If people have no way to find it online, though, you’ll hear nothing but crickets.

Fortunately, there are a million ways to boost your community bank’s online presence, but getting a few basics right will take you a long way.

Search engines. One critical component of reaching this goal is search engine optimization, or SEO. Google is the biggest billboard in the world, fielding billions of searches per day. Luckily, this is one place where being local has a certain advantage. These days, Google places a lot of weight on regionally relevant results.

The first rule of the Internet is that people are lazy. Most people won’t dig deeper than the first page of results. When someone in your area takes to the keyboard to find a new financial services provider, your bank should be front and center. Otherwise, you’re missing out on what amounts to free leads, and it may be time to work with your tech team to fix it.

Aggregation engines. For decades, consumers relied on trusted sources to aggregate information into one central location. Years ago it was the Yellow Pages. We used it to find contact information for all the plumbers, movie theaters and restaurants in town.

Today, this function has almost completely migrated online. We use Angie’s List, IMDB, Yelp and many other websites to find and compare local businesses. The same is true of financial services.

Consumers want to know what banks are available to them and what they can offer. Websites that aggregate information and service providers like NerdWallet.com take reams of data on banks and their products, distilling it down to the basics. Often, tools like these take location into account as well to provide more relevant results. From a consumer perspective, this is a much more efficient method than driving around to visit a few branches in person, or surveying the websites of five or six banks.

Pretend you’re a prospective bank customer yourself. You have little industry knowledge, but need to determine which bank best fits your needs. How do you approach it? Did you find yourself on any aggregation engines? If your bank is not one of the options consumers come across in their research, that’s another lost opportunity. Find out how to get your bank listed for your particular region.

Unfortunately, quick fixes won’t solve everything. Community banks should be thinking broadly about how potential customers will find them in the future. Online marketing might not replace TV ads or billboards, but it is sure to be a critical strategy in the coming years.

So, start brainstorming now where your customers will be tomorrow. If you’re struggling, ask your kids or neighbors. If you start to see a trend, take it seriously. People do want to bank with a local institution, so give them a way to find your community bank.


John Gower (john@nerdwallet.com) is an associate with NerdWallet.com, a personal finance website located in San Francisco.