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4 Hurdles for community bank marketers.

This post by James Gibbons was originally published as an article in the American Bankers Association Marketing Journal.

Marketing is hard—well, not hard exactly, but tricky. People who’ve done a lot of it know things like: hitting the target is a lot harder than getting near the target, hitting it twice is something like lightning striking twice, getting a letter or email opened is about fifty times harder than getting it delivered—and getting a click-through is even harder.

Marketing people know that certain messages don’t work in outdoor…or radio…or newspaper…or television, and that the rules for these things change faster than Paris fashion. Marketing is science…craft…art…. The line between knowing what to do and doing it is not necessarily straight. But when marketing works…it’s a beautiful thing to behold.

The problem is that non-marketing people tend to think that marketing is not hard. They have a hard time wrapping their arms around the idea that it is skill, insight, intuition, and experience—and to tweak the headline with one more adjective, replace the story-telling photograph with one that’s a little more “demographically representative,” or mix the music just a little softer so “we can hear the announcer better” could just wreck the whole train. It’s not easy to explain why, and non-marketing people may not believe or understand the explanation anyway.

This is a challenge for anyone who does marketing, but especially for people who do marketing for community banks. Here’s why.

1. Community banks are consensus-oriented.

This is almost always a good thing. It’s how community banks can be so good at recruiting the right people, why the bankers are so good at anticipating the needs of given customers, and why you like community banks and community banks like you. But it can throw monkey wrenches into marketing.

Tactical marketing is like taking someone (a prospect) to a new place (a new way of thinking about your product). It’s a little like an airplane. Everyone gets together and decides where the plane is going, what time it is leaving and arriving, and what meals will be served. But not everybody clears the plane to take off and land, does the maintenance check, fuels the plane, or flies the thing. In a consensus-oriented culture, it’s hard to draw the line between who decides where we’re going (executive team) and who flies the plane (prepared, responsible professionals).

For you, it’s important to draw lines. Clearly define information gathering, objective setting, audience, and messaging on one hand, from creative concept, production, delivery (media) planning, and feedback and control mechanisms on the other.

The first set of activities is improved by consensus. The second must be informed by the first, but are best handled by specialists.

Second, it’s important to have allies near the top. Cultivate relationships with C-Level executives. Build up a sense of mutual trust. Invite feedback. And use those relationships to help keep non-pilots out of the cockpit.

2. Community banks are territorial and tactical.

Again, this is usually a strength. Community bankers are great at developing and cultivating relationships. Personalized service is in their cultural DNA. However, this can result in silos as individuals become protective to the point of being possessive of their customers.

Great bankers tend to be very tactical (linear) in their thinking. They think in terms of specific things they want to achieve for a specific customer. And they prefer tactics that are simple and directly targeted at those objectives. For example, we want to drive online banking enrollment, so we run a campaign with statement stuffers and lobby displays around the line, “sign up for online banking today.”

These characteristics make community banks strong. But they can work at cross-purposes with more systemic strategic thinking.

Say you want to achieve: increased cross-sell ratio, online banking enrollment, and average lobby transaction value. To achieve this, you might start with product mix— making online banking a default feature of deposit accounts and mortgages. You might then change the technology model in lobbies, allowing tellers to assist customers in using online banking for certain types of transactions (to cultivate a new behavior, moving those transactions out of the lobby in the long run). And you may design a multiple touch-point on-boarding program, featuring multiple snail mail, email, personal, and phone contacts, via multiple areas of the bank.

You can probably see why this sort of approach would be a solid three-pronged strategy for achieving the key indicators: cross-sell, online banking, and lobby transaction value. You also probably see why this could be hard to sell in a community bank. It separates bankers from their customers and seeks to achieve objectives via non-linear tactics.

What can you do about this? Build trust among high-volume bankers, because you’ll need their trust to be able to try things, and you will need their clout to sell ideas. Make a personal project of educating key individuals about trends and technologies. Co-create “test programs,” with key individuals or small groups. Track and communicate processes and results.

3. Community banks are narrow in their view of “the brand.”

To marketers, a brand is a promise you can make, that you can deliver on profitably, within your normal operation, which has value to a certain customer. Colors, photographs, voice, tone, iconography, logo, slogans…are mere sensory expressions of the promise. But to many (most) community bankers, a brand is a couple of colors, a logo, and a slogan.

This is especially problematic because community bank brands live or die by the quality relationships. A brand that makes promises regarding upward mobility and making home ownership affordable needs to focus on things like financial education, lending expertise in, and charities like Habitat for Humanity. When that brand focuses instead on a golf tournament, the brand is ill served. And sticking a logo on a golf shirt doesn’t fix it. In fact, it can cause brand confusion or even a perception of brand hypocrisy.

To address this, have a “good for the brand” box on every strategic brief. Sometimes, you just want to generate deposits—nothing brand-centric about that. Even then, you can be intentional about how your brand is affected by each initiative. For community involvement, use the same strategic discipline you would use for media or creative choices. Build an annual plan. And then stick with your plan.

4. Community banks “fall in love” with silver-bullet tactics.

How many times have you heard an executive say something like, “do newspaper…that always works,” or “don’t reinvent the wheel?”

In fact, it is a good idea to consider tried and true tactics. If something actually has always worked, and there is every reason to believe it will still work, definitely keep doing it. But what if you’ve got a new objective or a new audience? Or what if the “tried and true” tactic has been less effective over the past few years? Or, what if it never really worked, but you just got lucky that one time and it found its way into cultural mythology?

People who only touch marketing a little bit will always fall in love with pet tactics. What you can do about it is track everything that can be tracked. Observe trends. Keep both yourself and those above you up-to-date on current media and technologies. And be cold-blooded about your budget and annual plans.

There are certain realities you have to live with as a community bank marketer. The culture is the way it is for good reasons. In fact, if community banks behaved like investment banks (or like consumer products brands), it would be very harmful. So, you simply have to roll with it.

Unlike other marketers, you have a responsibility to educate and advocate. You’ll need to develop a feel for what you can sell, and develop plans that are solid without being overly ambitious (it’s better to nail a good plan than to fall short on a great one).

Finally, remember that you have the privilege of being part of a community. As a marketer, you may be a bit of an outsider. But have you ever worked with a more sincere, well-intentioned, or hard-working group of professionals than you find at a typical community bank? So, work from within to make it a continuously better marketing culture.

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