Marketing tips for community banks in a time of crisis

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During a moment of turmoil, customers expect appropriate messaging. If marketing feels crass or poorly timed, it can push them away or hurt a bank’s reputation. Here’s what you can do to hit the right tone.

By Cheryl Winokur Munk

Whether it’s COVID-19, protests against a police killing, a natural disaster or any other crisis, striking the right tone in emails, blogs and social media posts can be a challenging, yet critically important task for any bank.

Here are some tips for producing appropriate, respectful, helpful and caring content.

A crisis isn’t the time to be peddling products; community banks should aim to be seen as helpful, not opportunistic, says Ben Pankonin, cofounder and CEO of Social Assurance in Lincoln, Neb., which provides compliance software, social and digital marketing services to financial institutions.

Tone matters. It’s fine to broadly highlight a few types of products your bank offers, but your communication needs to be part of an overarching message showcasing that the bank helps customers with whatever their financial needs are, Pankonin says.

Heartland Bank in Whitehall, Ohio, for example, has been using LinkedIn to post about its Heartland Helps program for those experiencing hardship and extraordinary pressures triggered by the coronavirus outbreak. On Twitter, the $1.3 billion-asset community bank has been encouraging followers to support local food establishments and businesses and offers examples of how bank employees are doing that very thing. The bank has also been hosting podcasts and informational video sessions on topics related to current events and business conditions.

Another idea that can resonate with customers is a series of 20- to 30-second videos focused on real people the community bank has helped with their refinancing, small business or college loans, says Jay Sedgwick, account executive at WebbMason Marketing in Hunt Valley, Md. People want to hear feel-good stories, he adds.

Shift gears as necessary

Rethink your community bank’s marketing calendar. It’s not advisable to promote luxury items like boat loans when people are experiencing economic turmoil. And, if people can’t safely enter a branch, don’t run campaigns aimed at driving branch traffic, Sedgwick says.

In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, $425 million-asset Wilcox Bancshares, Inc in Grand Rapids, MN, paused a long-running, highly successful campaign. Instead, the company’s community bank shifted its focus, getting the word out about its successes providing Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans to customers and noncustomers and emphasizing the community banking advantage, says ICBA chairman Noah Wilcox, president and chief executive of Wilcox Bancshares, Inc.

Stay connected

Equally important during a crisis is providing opportunities for personal interaction, even when in-person meetings aren’t advisable. Whenever possible, pick up the phone and see how people are doing, even if there’s no real business need, says Eric Cook, chief digital strategist at WSI Digital in Battle Creek, Mich., which helps banks with their digital and social media strategies.

During these conversations, Cook recommends bankers share some of the things they have been doing for customers, ask if customers would like to receive communications from the bank through postal mail, emails or text messages, and inquire how the bank can be most helpful to them. In cases where the usual point of contact isn’t available, Cook recommends banks train other staff to make calls in their stead, so customers can benefit from the human interaction.

Using technology is another way to get the conversation started. With a smartphone, a community banker can record a video or voice message to customers who are LinkedIn connections. Don’t make the message about selling. Just say something like: “If there’s anything we can do, don’t hesitate to let me know.”

“If there’s an interest and the person wants to know more, he or she will reach out,” Cook says. “It’s all about them; it’s not about you.”

How to respond to criticism on social media

When faced with criticism from customers or others on social media, community banks need to react swiftly and appropriately. Here’s how:

  1. Pay attention to social media chatter and dig deeper if there are negative posts, says Ben Pankonin, cofounder and CEO of Social Assurance in Lincoln, Neb.
  2. Take the conversation offline, but briefly acknowledge online that you’re following up with a response like: “We’re sorry you’re experiencing issues. We’re researching the issue and will be reaching out to you shortly.”
  3. Assign an employee to research the concern, fix any issues uncovered and follow up, assuming it’s a legitimate concern. This may require additional information from the poster, which should be obtained via email or phone call.

Heartland Bank in Whitehall, Ohio, has designed a flow chart to guide its social media responses. In the case of a post that offers negative but constructive feedback, the community bank’s process includes fact-gathering, escalating internally if necessary and responding by email or by phone.

If a post violates policy, however, the flow chart indicates it should be deleted and a response should be sent via an email or a phone call.

Cheryl Winokur Munk is a writer in New Jersey.