ING Direct Advertises on Email Alerts

image ING Direct (USA) has been a prominent sponsor within Mint’s online PFM. However, this is the first time I’ve noticed the bank advertising via email alert. And specifically, the direct bank is pitching its fee-free Electric Orange Checking account on the bottom of an email alert about a fee on my U.S. checking account. Excellent timing! 

It’s unusual to see an ad on a alert. I spot-checked a dozen or so during the past two months, and this is the only one with any direct marketing. But if it works, I’m sure we’ll see more of it. Context-sensitive advertising is what the Web has been built on. email “fee charged” alert (16 Feb. 2011) email alert that a fee was charged to my U.S. Bank business checking account

ING Direct landing page focusing on lower fees (link)

ING Direct landing page focusing on lower fees

Prioritizing Financial Information Flow

image I’m just finishing an enjoyable novel by Cory Doctorow, Makers. It chronicles two inventors operating in the United States 15 to 20 years from now (the actual time period is not revealed) after another economic/tech downturn, similar to the 1999/2000 dotcom crash.

Readers will recognize most of the technology and information services used, e.g., email, IM, blogs and Twitter. But Doctorow’s vision for these services a decade or two into the future is quite enlightening.

One area that’s much improved over today’s practices is the use of technology to prioritize the avalanche of information bombarding users. Here’s a passage from the book:

He’d been tuning his feed watchers…for nearly a decade, and this little PR item rang all the cherries on his filters, flagging the item red and rocketing it to the top of his news playlist, making all the icons on the sides of his screen bounce with delight.

imageAll you news junkies out there, isn’t that how you want your email/RSS/Twitter/ Facebook streams to work? The most-important info pops to the top and alerts you at the same time. Google is doing great work along these lines with its Priority Mailbox introduced in August (previous post), which now works on mobile phones as well (see inset).

Opportunity for Netbankers: I’m looking forward to the time when my bank, card issuer and/or third-party aggregator does the same for my finances and alerts me to odd transactions, excessive charges, and potential savings. And more importantly, helps me take action to resolve the issue.

But it can’t be delivered in a pile of email alerts sent every day. I tune those out. Just tell me about the IMPORTANT transactions triggering the “financial alarms” and keep mum about everything else. Thanks.

Certificate of Deposit Renewal Letters in the Digital Age

image Today I received a letter from a large credit union (note 1) informing me that my certificate of deposit was up for renewal. I was given six choices at the bottom of a form (note 2) along with a postage-paid return envelope. 

Had I received that letter in 1988, I would have considered it state of the art. But in the modern world of instant communications and researching rates via Google, the communication was inadequate and reflects poorly on the CU’s brand:

  • No current rate info: I realize that rates are subject to change and are miserably low, but at least tell me what they are today so I have some idea of what’s going on. While you are at it, remind me of what my rate was. Avoiding naming the specific rate is a huge red flag that yours is probably not so competitive. Plus, it’s irritating when it’s obvious how easy it would be to program current rates into the form letter. The CU did at least direct me to its website and call center to find current rates. However, the call center had no main menu option for rates, so you had to guess which number made the most sense. 
  • No email/call center option for choosing: The only way to communicate my investment choice is to return a postage-paid envelope. How about an email address, phone number of even a simple URL?
  • No email notification: I signed up for this account online, and the bank’s marketing messages arrive via email. Why didn’t I get an email asking me which option I prefer?
  • No clear info on what happens next: According to the fine print buried in the accompanying Truth-in-Savings disclosure, my certificate will automatically renew if I take no action. But nowhere in the main letter does it say that, nor is the deadline for taking action spelled out. The “current maturity date” is provided, but that’s using banking lingo that could be clearer.
  • No niceties (or even a sales pitch): The letter was bare bones with just two sentences and an info box about my CD (note 3). There was no salutation, no signature, no thank-you, no names of anyone at the CU, no local branch info, no encouragement to renew, and so on. 


1. As previously noted, we generally avoid posting the name of financial institutions that we criticize here; but we’ll privately tell readers so long as it’s not posted online (email me if you are curious).
2. The choices:
     A. Change term to 6, 12, 24 or 36 months (it was already 12 months, so that was a
          bit confusing, too). 
     B. Deposit to another account with a blank for writing in the account number
         (and no instructions on whether that had to be an account at the CU)
     C. Send a check for the balance (but with no ability to take a partial payout)
3. My CD is small ($500) and was set up online through a now-defunct third-party. So it’s very possible that there are different communications sent to larger CD holders, and/or those that were acquired by a specific branch.

Out of the Inbox: Lending Club’s “Idle Cash Alert”

image Lending Club, which recently surpassed $12 million in monthly P2P loan volume (see below), does a great job concisely communicating important account info. The startup earned an “A” in our recent report on transaction alerts (note 1).

Below is another example of its exemplary email alerts. In just 30 words, the company reinforces my impressive rate of return and my account balance. Then it seamlessly goes for the sale, encouraging me to put my cash balance to work by making more loans.

The only improvement I’d suggest is making the call to action, “Browse available Notes,” more prominent. First, it’s not clear that it’s a link. Second, what does that even mean? Ideally, it would be Lend Now, although I understand that terminology is not “SEC friendly,” so Invest Now, should work.  

Bottom line: It’s a win-win to provide encouragement every now and then about how customers might put their idle balances to work. Just don’t overdue it.

Lending Club “Idle Cash Alert” (27 Sep. 2010)


Lending Club loan volume: Aug. 2009 through Sep. 2010

Lending Club loan volume: Aug. 2009 through Sept. 2010

1. See previous post on OBR 181/182 published July 2010

ActivePath Named OBR Best of the Web for Email Banking System

obr_bestofweb In our most recent report, Email Banking: Revitalizing the Channel, ActivePath was named the third OBR Best of the Web winner in 2010. The company was cited for its unique plugin software that turns the user’s email inbox into a mini online-banking center.

We believe that the future of banking information delivery is outside the website. Increasingly, users will rely on information pushed to them through Facebook, Twitter or RSS feeds, to mobile phone apps, and to the email inbox. ActivePath’s solution plays into that trend.

The just-launched Israeli startup becomes the 78th company to win the designation since we began awarding it in 1997. The other two winners this year:


Note: OBR Best of the Web awards are given periodically to companies that pioneer new online or mobile banking features. It is not an endorsement of the company or product, just recognition for what we believe is an important industry development. Recent winners are profiled in the Netbanker archives.

Gmail’s New Priority Inbox Should Inspire Banks to Do the Same with Electronic Statements

image I’ve been on a bit of a campaign this summer (writing in Online Banking Report here and here), about the need to move beyond the static online “data dump” model to a more measured approach in delivering precise financial info when and where the customer needs it. 

We mostly looked at outbound messaging and streaming systems: email, text, RSS and third-parties such as Blippy and Swipely. But the same logic can be used to improve the financial home base, the online statement.

Google’s new email option, Priority Inbox (aka Magic Inbox), introduced to Gmail users this week (note 1), is a great example of how this could work. Instead of always displaying email (or transactions) in chronologic or reverse-chronologic order, use algorithms to show items in order of importance (see screenshot below).

The bank-transaction importance-ranking would obviously include the size of the item. But it would also position unusual payments of any size at the top of the list so that users could more quickly identify fraud or errors. And, as with Gmail, users should be able to label and flag transactions for future reference (note 2).

A service like this would have saved me hundreds of dollars this year, by alerting me immediately that my cell phone bill had mushroomed, and that I needed to switch to an unlimited-minutes plan.

Gmail Priority Inbox (1 Sep 2010)
Note: There are no messages in the top priority area called “Important and unread” because I’d read them all. Google provides a little note of congratulations for clearing out that portion of the inbox.

Gmail priority inbox is a good model for online banking and credit card statements

1. Google has offered similar algorithm-based ordering in its RSS reader for some time. I’ve been using it for almost a year and am a big fan. It really helps lift the best posts to the top of the 600 or so I get each day. I will use Twitter a lot more when it offers the same type of functionality (Does anyone know of a Twitter client that arranges tweets by importance?)  
2. And like Google, banking users should be able to store their transactions for as long as they are customers. See our Online Banking Report on Lifetime Statements for more info.

New Online Banking Report Published: Email Banking – Revitalizing the Channel

image Each day, the typical consumer household completes several banking and credit/debit card transactions. And 99% of the time, the transactions require little extra attention other than mentally checking them off to ensure you aren’t a victim of fraud, or more likely, human error.

But to stay on top of that routine activity, Americans collectively make hundreds of millions of visits to banking websites each month. This, my friends, is not an efficient use of time.

And it’s mostly unnecessary. There’s really no reason to log in every week to manage my accounts. All the info I really need could be sent to me via email.

That would eliminate the need for most website visits. And if I could initiate transactions right from the email, I’d only need to visit the website every few months to tweak my settings (even that could potentially be done through email interactions).

But as pervasive as email (and text) alerts have become, they are often cryptic messages that make you feel less certain of your finances, creating more anxiety and more website visits (see note 1). This is not what you want from financial providers.

What’s missing is a rich email experience, where a balance summary message can be expanded into a full statement with the click of a link. Where key supporting actions, such as paying a bill, are imbedded in the message. And where it’s easy to resolve issues immediately while you are thinking about them, rather than moving to another channel later on.

That’s the promise of Email Banking that we explore in the current report (see below). We also look at a new Israeli startup, ActivePath, that is delivering much of this vision with its new email banking service launching in the U.S. later this year (note 2). The screenshot below shows how a password-protected daily account-summary email can become a full-featured account-management tool with numerous links to act on the information presented. 

Finally, in an addendum to last month’s report on email/text alerts, we look at the alert-control panels at five major banks: Bank of America, Capital One, Chase, U.S. Bank and Wells Fargo.

About the report:


Email banking: revitalizing the channel (link)
New technologies and more thoughtful design could elevate email
to a central role in account management

Author: Jim Bruene, Editor & Founder

Published: 19 Aug 2010

Length: 40 pages

Cost: No extra charge to OBR subscribers, $395 for others here


Daily account summary email from ActivePath
Note: Embedded buttons to a.) view transactions, b.) role money into a CD,
c.) transfer funds, d.) view transaction detail, e.) chat with customer service


1. For more on email alerts, see last month’s Online Banking Report: Email Alerts & Transaction Streaming.
2. See ActivePath, along with 55 other innovators, at FinovateFall, Oct. 4/5 in NYC.

Bank of America Redesigns Email Alerts

image On August 9, Bank of America redesigned its email alerts (note 1). The biggest change came in repositioning, renaming, and highlighting a security feature, “last login time.” The info is now in a prominent gray box at the top called the Security Checkpoint. Previously, it was buried in the middle of the left-hand column (see Before screenshot below).

While the Security Checkpoint is a nice bit of security marketing (note 2), I’m not sure how much additional fraud it will thwart, if any. But it’s good for the bank to appear to be doing all it can to protect customers.

Bank of America already had one of the best alerts in the business, earning an A in our most recent report (note 3). So I’m not sure why they needed a new design; perhaps, it’s just to keep things fresh. However, the redesign did nothing to fix our one criticism of the bank’s alert, the lack of meaningful info in the preview line.

Bank of America email alert preview in Gmail

After: New Bank of America email alert design (17 Aug 2010)

Bank of America email alert with new Security Checkpoint

Before: Previous email alert design (8 Aug 2010)


1. At least, that’s the first day the new style landed in my inbox.
2. For more info, see Online Banking Report: Marketing Security.
3. For more on email alerts, see last month’s Online Banking Report: Email Alerts & Transaction Streaming.

SmartyPig Allows Customers to Choose Level of Account Detail in Email Communications

image SmartyPig is the first of my personal banking accounts that allows me to choose the level of detail provided in email alerts. The startup just moved away from sending detailed info in all messages to offering the option to receive a general notification that requires logging in for specific balance/transaction info (see below; link to SmartyPig blog post).

This is a basic level of customer choice that every financial institution should put into their product roadmap. For me, and a great many customers, alerts are practically worthless if they don’t include some detail on the transaction. On the other extreme, many customers are not at all comfortable with actual data being included in an email and won’t use alerts if that is the only choice. Most customers fall somewhere in between. 

In the future, it won’t be a black-and-white decision. Users will be able to select varying levels of detail depending on the account, balance level, email address used, time of day and so on.


And while we are talking about SmartyPig, check out their very thorough security section. The startup covers far more ground than most financial institutions.  Here are the topics covered:

  • White-hat hacker tested via Primeon
  • Verisign Extended Validation SSL
  • Security scanned daily by McAfee
  • TRUSTe privacy seal
  • FDIC info for its banking partner
  • Secure login
  • Firewall
  • Encryption
  • Constant surveillance
  • Technology updates
  • Browser support

Note: For more info on email alerts, refer to our most recent Online Banking Report.

New Online Banking Report Published: Bank Transaction Email Alerts & Real-Time Streaming (Feeds)

image Two months ago when we were sketching out the next Online Banking Report (see note for links to the report), I thought it would be useful to look at the real-time Web and how consumers were becoming accustomed to status update feeds through Facebook and Twitter.

Old-school alerts: Email
As I wrote the report, I realized that most online banking users still want to consume transaction data the old-fashioned way, through email and over the Web. We did a quick consumer survey that confirmed our hypothesis, with email preferred 2-to-1, over text and voice messaging. Even among the under-35 crowd, email and text alerts were tied.

So we also took a detailed dive into email alerts, developing 22 recommendations for state-of-the-art email messages. And we graded 16 alert examples from 13 financial institutions. Overall, our sample scored very well with Bank of America, Lending Club, Mint, ING Direct, PayPal all earning A grades. Also U.S. Bank, Schwab, Wells Fargo and Prosper were just slightly lower, each with a B+. 

The future: Real-time streams/feeds/updates
While email, text or voice messages work well for alerts, they are not as desirable for keeping users informed of all their transactions. Once you start getting multiple emails each day from your financial accounts, it becomes overwhelming and you stop opening them. That’s why transaction feeds are a promising means for keeping customers up-to-date on an ongoing basis. In a world where so many consumers are following a Facebook news feed, Twitter feed, or good old RSS, it’s only natural that financial transactions will join the mix.

But it’s still a long way off. For the most part, consumers do not want commercial messages cluttering their news feeds. And they are understandably confused about privacy/security settings, and don’t feel confident that bank transactions delivered via Twitter direct message, are not being displayed to the world.

However, once we get past that educational challenge, we believe a significant number of consumers will prefer tracking their finances via feed (mostly via mobile) instead of logging in to online banking multiple times per month.

To learn more about what could happen in this area, we looked at three transaction-feed startups:

Bottom line: Real-time feeds are the future, but many years away from making it past even the earliest of adopters. For most financial institutions, the important thing now is to make sure you have great email and text alerts. But for those looking to differentiate with technology, feeds provide an intriguing opportunity. 


1. The report is available at no extra charge to OBR subscribers here; and can be purchased for US$495 by others here. See the Table of Contents here (PDF).