Banks turn to influencers to build buzz about their brands

Social media influencers are better known for hawking beauty products and dispensing fitness tips than gushing about their checking accounts. But some banks are turning to influencers — prominent online figures who hold sway over their large audiences — to build buzz around products and win over younger demographics.

Followers are unlikely to see big-name celebrities posing on a beach with gear from their banks. Instead, financial institutions such as Ally Financial, Clinton Savings Bank and First National Bank of Omaha may hire a personal finance expert to blog about money management, recruit college students to enthuse about their new account, or find a local personality to “unbox” an array of goodies from the bank’s small-business clients.

A pair of lifestyle bloggers recently promoted First National Bank of Omaha’s Be Kind debit card campaign by unboxing gear on Instagram.

Laura & Laura of @laur.lore

Even if influencer marketing is not pervasive among banks, some marketing executives believe this type of outreach is effective. They say influencer content appeals to young customers, lends more sincerity to social media and other content than traditional ads would, and engenders goodwill, especially through feel-good campaigns supporting community or charitable work.

Ellen McGovern, chief marketing officer at the $629 million-asset Clinton Savings Bank in Massachusetts, devised a social media ambassador program for college students in the state. She and her team sought students with 5,000 or more followers and recruited them to promote the bank’s services to their peers. Ambassadors will receive a monthly deposit into their checking accounts provided they post regularly — perhaps with a Clinton-branded water bottle or mug in hand — across Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. She plans to launch the program in January.

“Many financial institutions have what the industry refers to as an aging customer base,” she said. “We need to continue to develop ways to attract this younger demographic.”

Influencing still has plenty of detractors. Social media personalities are paid to tout products they may have never used before, often through contrived-looking photographs and long strings of hashtags. The key to overcoming the artificiality, experts say, is to choose influencers who have a persona or a niche, such as a background in finance, that aligns with the content they are promoting. Ally Bank, for instance, recruits well-known personal finance experts to act as its influencers.

“The more personal an influencer makes their promotion, the more effective that content is,” Molly Young, product marketing manager at Impact, said by email. “Banking and finances can sometimes be opaque to would-be participants. By sharing their experiences, modeling their usage, and infusing a brand’s message with their own relatability, influencers can break down barriers.”

Finding the right fit

Unboxing is a genre of video where individuals unpack items from a box and review the contents on camera, to the enchantment of their viewers.

Regina DeMars, director of content marketing and social media at the $23.9 billion-asset First National Bank of Omaha, borrows the idea to stir up excitement around the bank’s campaigns.

“People love those surprises and delights,” she said.

For example, the bank, known in its communities as FNBO, launched a series of specialty debit cards earlier this year as part of a Be Kind campaign meant to encourage compassion, acceptance, empathy and civility. To promote the card tied to female empowerment, which is emblazoned with rainbow letters that spell out Girls Support Girls, DeMars hired local influencers across the bank’s footprint.

Each influencer received two boxes of vibrantly colored swag, including T-shirts, water bottles and hair scrunchies: one to keep (and display on Instagram) and another to give away in a contest. The influencers had relative freedom to advertise the products in a way that felt natural, although the bank did request that they publish a post on Oct. 11, designated by the United Nations as the International Day of the Girl.

“We’ve partnered with @fnbo to highlight the International Day of the Girl! Female empowerment means so much to us and we want to share the LOVE with all of you!” read one post from a pair of female lifestyle bloggers in the Chicagoland area.

For National Small Business Week in May, DeMars organized a campaign to bring attention to the bank’s small-business clients. Chosen influencers received items produced by these clients that tied into a “rainy day” theme, such as umbrellas, candles and socks. A note inside the box articulated First National’s commitment to its small businesses. Influencers shared that they had partnered with the bank to support local shops.

Campaigns don’t always need a call to action, said Mary Ann O’Brien, founder of the advertising agency OBI Creative in Omaha, Neb. “You can just show your humanity and display what you stand for in a good way,” she said.

Balancing act

O’Brien favors looking for influencers with local credibility rather than national figures without a connection to a bank’s community.

“It’s balancing on a razor blade,” she said. “When you’re trying to push an influencer to promote something that doesn’t fit their persona, it feels contrived.”

Erinn Newman, senior vice president of insight and head of the financial specialty group at Mower, a marketing communications agency, notes that community banks and credit unions may not have the deep pockets to compete with large financial institutions, but influencers can highlight what they do have going for them: great service and meaningful connections in their communities.

When choosing influencers, DeMars focuses less on the number of followers and more on people with highly engaged followers who frequently like and comment on the influencers’ posts, which suggests they trust their recommendations. She also ensures that the influencers’ voices align with the values of FNBO.

“At the core, branding is about making an emotional connection between brands and individuals,” she said. “I think influencers help humanize the brand even though they are being compensated.”

Her goal is to increase the number of followers by 10% on the channel of focus for each campaign, which is typically Instagram.

Ally Financial, based in Detroit, often recruits personal finance experts to spark online conversation.

“We use influencers that can add value to content because they have either a particular expertise that’s highly credible or can add dimensions to a subject a customer or prospect is thinking about,” said Andrea Brimmer, chief marketing and public relations officer of the $172.9-billion asset digital bank.

For example, Tess Wicks, a money coach and host of the Wander Wealthy podcast, wrote an article for Ally’s Do It Right community hub about savings strategies when interest rates are decreasing. Financial educator Catherine Alford blogged and recorded videos with home-buying tips to promote Ally Home Loans. The influencers will publicize their content in their social media channels of choice and sometimes in their own newsletters.

Ally will partner with high-profile figures, but only in certain contexts. At the beginning of the pandemic, Ally recruited Katie Couric to dig up positive stories for a video series called The Bright Side — relying on her reputation as a journalist rather than positioning her as a banking expert. Ally promoted it on Facebook and YouTube and Couric included it in her newsletter.

“We are using celebrities in a way that is germane to what they are known for rather than inserting them into a conversation where they wouldn’t have credibility,” said Brimmer.

To gauge how effective an influencer campaign is, Ally will look at the extent to which viewers click on links, the time spent reading pieces of content and other engagement measures and compare those rates to a baseline. Often, Brimmer finds the engagement has increased.

One concern is compliance. Both Ally and FNBO discuss terms in advance and provide detailed content briefs to influencers before signing off on each assignment. Ally, for example, will include instructions on how to reference the products and disclose the connection to Ally as required by law.


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