The Rise of Digital Departments


Three forward-thinking community banks put full-time focus and resources into the virtual channel

By Ed Avis

About two years ago, the leaders at Guilford Savings Bank in Connecticut realized that if the $600 million-asset community bank was going to succeed in the digital banking realm, it needed to focus. So they took a pioneering step and launched the bank’s own internal digital banking department.

Mobile Deposits
Remote deposit capture systems could handle one-third of all bank deposits this year.
Source: Celent

Retail Footfalls
Consumer visits to bank offices are falling 5 to 10 percent per year.
Source: Celent

“When you’re focusing on operations, you often can’t also focus on strategy,” says Mike Storiale, the bank’s digital department’s manager. “Now we focus on digital product development, research and sales. We’re constantly looking forward.”

Storiale, who had been Guilford Savings’ digital marketing manager for about three and a half years before the new department’s launch, says the department is essentially considered another branch of the bank. The group acquires customers just like a regular branch, albeit through the Internet, and strives to build loyalty among those customers.

“One key thing we are looking for is building actual relationships,” he explains. “If we acquire a significant amount of money through the channel but not relationships, we haven’t fully succeeded.”

The idea of establishing a separate digital department, and putting staff members in place to focus on this particular service channel, is growing among community banks. Forward-looking community banks are realizing that the concept of community extends to the virtual world.

From physical to virtual

Jessica Dziob was managing the Burlington, Conn., office of Torrington Savings Bank when she was tapped to become the first online branch manager for the $800 million-asset institution two years ago.

“I was the first person in this position,” says Dziob, who is 31 years old and has worked at the community bank 13 years. “At the time I was one of the younger branch managers, and I had experience with social media on a personal level, and they recognized that.”

Like Storiale, Dziob focuses all her efforts on growing the bank’s digital success. Before her appointment, Torrington Savings had no social media presence and its website had a “prehistoric” structure, in Dziob’s words. She wrote the bank’s social media policies, launched its Facebook and Twitter presence, and is now involved in a total redesign of its website.

“It’s exciting being in this new position,” she says. “With so few institutions having this role, it’s given us opportunities to make it our own. We’re always making decisions about what responsibilities and projects I will take on, and what will belong to other departments.”

A typical day for Allen Halas, digital media specialist at PyraMax Bank, a $408 million-asset community bank in Greenfield, Wis., begins with a scan of the bank’s Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram pages to make sure everything’s in order. Then he may do maintenance on the bank’s website, work on a video that he plans to post, or prepare a social media promotion.

It’s all routine for Halas, who was hired as the bank’s first digital media specialist two years ago, after he interned for a year in the marketing department of an insurance agency. “Previously a graphic designer did our social media, but the bank never had anyone dedicated to digital media until I came along,” he explains. “It’s something every company will have to do eventually. And I think there will be whole departments for social media at some point.”

Halas likes to pull ideas from outside the world of banking into his employer’s marketing plan. “I’ve been drawing in ideas from sports teams and big brands that appeal to the younger generation,” he says. “I see what they’ve done and try to implement our version of that.”

For example, Halas says he has noticed many youth-oriented businesses focus on video content in their social media efforts, so he has used Meerkat, a live video-streaming app, to highlight recent events PyraMax Bank held to celebrate its 120th anniversary.

Human behind the screen

Conventional bank retail offices can count the number of new depositors, loans funded and dozens of other longstanding metrics to measure success. How can a digital branch do that?

Guilford Savings Bank tracks data on numerous aspects of online performance, Storiale says, such as the number of customers using online bill pay, receiving online statements and applying for loans online. However, the bank doesn’t just count what its customers are purchasing online. It also pays attention to what they’re doing with those services.

“We monitor in two pieces—adoption and engagement,” Storiale says. “Engagement refers to the people who actually use a service. For example, I might sign up for bill pay, but I might not use it very much, in which case we’ve succeeded only partially.”

Halas, Dziob and Storiale are young—24, 31 and 28, respectively—but they have more in common than youth. For example, all of them realize that at the other end of their digital outreach efforts are real people.

“We feel technology should complement human interaction, not replace it,” Storiale says. “If you open a loan application online, very quickly you’ll get a call from a person who asks if you are working with someone and if not, someone will be assigned to you. Applying for a loan shouldn’t be a different experience for someone working on it online.”

Dziob concurs. “It’s really important for community banks to use their online platform to reach customers, and especially to have a customer service focus to those efforts,” she says. “That was one of my strengths when I started in this position: I was used to having the customers standing in front of me.

“I want our customers to feel that the online channel is their branch. They should be able to receive the same personal and friendly experience they would get as if they were walking into a brick-and-mortar location.”

Has all this emphasis on digital channels—the devotion of resources and energy in strategy and staffing—paid off for these community banks? Storiale, Dziob and Halas believe it has, and that it will undoubtedly pay even greater dividends in the future.

“I’ve had calls and emails from people who heard of us strictly from the social media promotions we have done,” says Halas. “Everything is progressing this way, so unless you want to be one of the last banks to jump on, I think you should go for it and jump on right away.”

Ed Avis is a freelance writer in Illinois.