Expand your community bank’s financial literacy resources

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Between cryptocurrency, Venmo and buy now, pay later (BNPL), community banks have their work cut out for them when it comes to educating their customers (and staff) on consumer finance developments. While many banks already offer financial literacy classes, here’s how to expand your education offering using a blend of new and existing resources.

By Judith Sears


Seemingly in droves, consumers of all ages—and not exclusively younger ones—are climbing aboard technology-driven financial service developments. Consumers using these newer financial services are navigating a shifting landscape. The digital space provides convenience—and plenty of opportunity for fraud. That’s where community banks can step in.

“There’s an increasing amount of fraud everywhere. Every time we introduce a new product, it’s important to educate customers on the potential for fraud.”
—Bill McKenna, ESSA Bank & Trust

“We’ve seen an uptick in the use of digital and mobile delivery of our products and services during the pandemic,” says Bill McKenna, chief marketing officer of ESSA Bank & Trust, a $1.9 billion-asset community bank headquartered in Stroudsburg, Pa.

“There’s an increasing amount of fraud everywhere,” he adds. “Every time we introduce a new product, it’s important to educate customers on the potential for fraud.”

Amy Foulks, executive vice president and chief information officer for $686 million-asset First Utah Bank in Salt Lake City, Utah, believes it’s critical for consumers to maintain control of their money. “As far as the tools that are made available, they need to know who they’re partnering with, whether it’s protected and whether they can trust that partner,” she says.

Aim for accessibility

In this context, community banks have an opportunity to educate their customers on the implications of these newer technologies. “I think it’s extremely important for financial institutions to position themselves as trusted partners [with fintechs] as the financial services industry evolves so rapidly,” says Susan Doyle, president and CEO of EPCOR, a not-for-profit payments association. “Community banks can capitalize on the trust they’ve created.”

Community banks looking to educate customers on fraud prevention shouldn’t dive deep into the details of these technologies. What consumers want and need to know is simple: how to use the technology and how to stay safe doing so.

This kind of education starts with frontline workers. “Employees can be great educators and advocates for new products,” says Jim Ferry, vice president and retail sales manager for ESSA Bank & Trust.

When introducing Zelle digital payments, for example, ESSA passed $10 around among various branches and staff members using Zelle. At the end, like a game of musical chairs, one employee ended up with the funds and received a $10 gift card from the bank. “We ask employees to fully engage, and this game helped us get some traction in product knowledge,” Ferry says.

“When a customer calls us and says they want to do remote deposit capture, we don’t say, ‘Here’s a document.’ We say, ‘We’ll meet you tomorrow at 2 p.m., install the machine, show you how to use it and explain the risks and rewards.’”
—Amy Foulks, First Utah Bank

Onboarding new customers is a fantastic opportunity for one-to-one education, say community bankers. “The customer onboarding process is really important,” says Dan DeCosta, chief information officer at $2.5 billion-asset Bay Coast Bank in Swansea, Mass. Bay Coast uses a dedicated technology staff member to work with the bank’s training department to ensure that technology training is up to date for all customer-facing roles. “There’s no slowdown in the digital space, and making sure the customer understands the technology when they leave the branch is really important,” DeCosta says.

Even if a community bank is not engaged in “bleeding edge” technology, it can still apply the personal touch to inform customers and build relationships. “I liken the application of the new technologies in financial services to what happened with the PPP lending program,” Foulks says. “Customers came to us because they weren’t getting the personal attention they needed. When a customer calls us and says they want to do remote deposit capture, we don’t say, ‘Here’s a document.’ We say, ‘We’ll meet you tomorrow at 2 p.m., install the machine, show you how to use it and explain the risks and rewards.’”

Using cross-channel communications

Besides personal engagement, some community banks are using both print and digital communication tools to get the word out about new technologies. “Email is by far our most effective tool, at least for our customers,” says McKenna. “We recently did an email campaign on a phishing scam and got a 41% open rate.” He adds that high open rates on emails and other communications relating to fraud are common.

Good use of a bank’s website can go a long way in educating consumers, too. ESSA has created a large online repository for articles, videos and click-through product demos covering a range of financial literacy topics. “The click-through demos are extremely powerful for customers and for employees to get comfortable using the products,” McKenna says.

ESSA also offers product videos, as does Bay Coast Bank. Indeed, Kevin Olsen, founder, CEO and payments professor of education services provider Payments Professor and senior vice president of fintech VSoft Corporation in Atlanta, believes video is essential in reaching today’s consumers.

“We live in a TikTok, Instagram, YouTube world, and it’s not just middle schoolers,” Olsen says. “A huge array of people ingests that information.” He adds that effective educational videos don’t have to be expensive, noting that he made his earliest videos, still available on YouTube, with a $400 camera.

Videos also do a great job of personalizing the bank. “Video puts a face on the bank and the topic,” explains Kevin Moon, director of marketing for $1 billion-asset Community West Bank in Goleta, Calif. During the pandemic, Community West Bank pioneered inexpensive videos with bankers talking about their banking specialty. Bankers are encouraged to post the videos on their social media sites to drive more traffic back to the Community West Bank website.

When it comes to educating customers, click-through demos and videos are great, but there’s still a place for the humble blog article. Moon maintains Community West Bank’s blog, which frequently features short articles on security and fraud-related issues with newer technology. Working with a limited staff and budget, he has found creative ways to generate blog content on the fly, such as repurposing an internal cybersecurity bulletin on “smishing,” or fishing with text messages. “I took a bulletin meant for internal consumption and edited it so that someone visiting our website learns how to identify and protect against those threats,” Moon explains.

The ‘drip, drip, drip’ approach

Community banks need not provide all or even most of the educational content on their websites or other communications, however. Third-party content providers, such as vendors or associations, can be great content sources.

Some of ESSA’s content is provided in partnership with Everfi, an education company based in Washington, D.C. EPCOR (Electronic Payments Core of Knowledge), an educational company based in Kansas City, Mo., offers tutorial videos on topics such as cryptocurrency and various fraud issues.

The best education efforts use all channels available and loop them together using social media. A LinkedIn post sends a reader to an Instagram post, and from there, to the bank’s website. “I use a drip, drip, drip approach,” Moon says.

The bonus of beefing up your website’s financial services content is capturing an increased amount of a visitor’s time on your website. ESSA has data to show its educational content is “sticky.” “We track our website activity carefully, and we’ve seen a dramatic increase in the amount of time people are spending on our site since we launched more educational articles,” McKenna says. “It’s very exciting to see that.”

While some community banks may have limited engagement with the latest financial services, it doesn’t preclude them from being trusted guides in the “Wild West” of fintech. The goal should be to reinforce their brands as trusted advisors that are close to the community’s needs.

“It puts banks in a better spot where they are offering a service not provided by larger institutions, and it really serves the community,” Olsen concludes.


Level up your financial literacy curriculum

Take these steps to boost your educational offerings for the latest financial services tools:

  1. Gather a cross-functional team to get the messaging right. Why do consumers need this educational material? How will they use it? How will it benefit them?
  2. Put your message everywhere: website, paper mailers, social media and posters in the branch.
  3. Engage your tellers, call centers and other customer-facing employees. Prepare them to have informative conversations with customers.
  4. Leverage content from third-party providers, whether vendors, professional associations or others.
  5. Put all departments on alert for what’s trending in financial services. Repurpose internal communications to educate your customers.

Judith Sears is a writer in Colorado.