Launches: Swipely is a Yelp/Twitter/Bankcard Mash-up

image This week I received an invitation to Swipely’s closed beta (request one here). As a fan of its closest competitor, OBR Best of the Web winner, Blippy (note 1), I’ve been looking forward to testing out the newest entrant. 

Both services allow you to register ecommerce accounts, including credit or debit cards, so that transactions can be streamed to your friends and family, or the whole world if you so choose (note 2). Detractors cannot figure out why anyone would want to do that, but that’s also what people said about Twitter, which is now approaching 200 million worldwide monthly visitors

But I’m convinced the naysayers simply haven’t used Blippy or Swipely. The startups are simply convenient platforms for sharing interesting experiences, downloads, or purchases. It’s not the collapse of privacy as we know it (that would be Facebook). The typical Blippy/Swipely user might stream their Netflix queue, iPhone downloads, or a meal eaten at a local favorite.

Contrary to what you might read, there is very little oversharing. Generic posts such as “spent $7.29 at CVS” are rare. Sure those people exist, just like the Twitter users sharing what they had for breakfast, but they are the exception. Like Yelp or Facebook, most users strive to share things that are interesting to both them and others (note 3).

Providence, RI-based Swipely, which has already raised $8.5 million in capital, encourages users to comment and rate purchases on a 5-point scale. If it catches on, Swipely could build a database of user experiences and merchant ratings that challenges Yelp or TripAdvisor (note 4).

Bottom line: Will the services prosper? I think semi-automated transaction sharing is here to stay and will become a standard feature in larger social communities, e.g., Facebook, Twitter and Yelp. It also makes sense as part of larger OFM/PFM efforts (note 5).

I also think there is a place for limited transaction sharing among customers of financial institutions, primarily among joint account holders and employees of smaller businesses (see previous post).  

On the other hand, I’m not sure if Blippy/Swipely will become popular destinations on their own. It’s more likely they’ll end up powering services baked into other sites. That said, if the startups can figure out how to get the Internet masses to make the effort to rate and post millions of transactions, they could become household names.  

Swipely transaction stream across all users (7 June 2010)
Note: My just-posted transaction is at the top of the stream

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Notes:
1. See Blippy’s FinovateSpring 2010 demo here; see previous posts here.  
2. Swipely doesn’t currently support direct downloads from ecommerce accounts, but you can forward email receipts to the service for posting.
3. Both services offer a mix of automation and manual entry to make sure the posting process isn’t too much of a burden, but keeps things relevant. On Swipely, the default privacy setting is for the user to manually approve each transaction before it is posted. And in contrast to Blippy, the amount of the transaction is NOT included in the post.
4. You can understand why the VCs are investing.
5. See our most recent Online Banking Report for more on Online Financial Management Features for Online Banking.

Best of Web: Chase Launches Instant Action 2-Way Text Alerts

imageobr_bestofweb It’s been 13 years since email bank-account alerts first appeared in the United States (see note 1). And for 12.99 years, users have wished they could just reply back to the message to cover a checking account shortfall. 

Well finally, Chase Bank has delivered on that promise with real-time Chase Instant Action Alerts:

image    image

Chase account holders now receive real-time text-message alerts when their account drops below preset minimums. Customers can initiate funds transfers by texting back transfer instructions. Currently, transfers can be initiated only via text message.

While we would have been more impressed if the service covered the more common email alerts, the new feature does move the online/mobile banking state-of-the-art up a notch. That’s enough to earn Chase the second OBR Best of the Web awarded in 2010 and the 77th all-time (notes 2, 3).

The bank is promoting the new feature via Google AdWords (see screenshots below). And, they’ve done a good job identifying the key benefit in the landing page title:

Avoid Overdrafts | Chase Instant Action Alerts

I don’t see any mention of the new capabilities on the Chase homepage today, nor does it appear to be touted within online banking (note 4). However, a site-search for “alerts” drives users to the landing page shown below.

Advertising on Google search for “Chase email alerts”
(2 June 2010, 9 AM from Seattle IP)

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Landing page (link)
Note: The top graphic is animated, showing how the alert and reply work (see images at the top of this post)

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Notes:
image 1. Signet Bank was the first major to offer email account alerts. We covered it in OBR 22 (Feb 1997). We didn’t learn until a few months later that community bank Britton & Koontz actually beat Signet to market with alerts launched in the summer of 1996.
2. You could argue that Chase is not first with this capability. The handful of U.S. text-banking programs that support transfers are already offering the same capabilities as Chase (for example, see text commands at Natco Credit Union).  However, Chase is the first major bank to provide the functionality, as well as the first to really promote the reply-back function as a major benefit.
3. OBR Best of the Web awards are given periodically to companies that pioneer new online/mobile banking features, products, or enhancements. It is not an endorsement of the company or product, just recognition for what we believe is an important development that “raises the bar” in alt-delivery. Chase’s Instant Action Alerts are the 77th recipient since we began the awards in 1997. It’s the second for Chase. The bank also won in 2007 for being the first major U.S. bank to roll out text banking. For a list of the top innovations of all time, see our January 2010 Online Banking Report.
4. It was not mentioned within my business banking account or consumer credit card account. I don’t have a Chase consumer checking account.
5. For more information on alerts and messaging, refer to this Online Banking Report published in 2003.

Are You Still Frustrating Your Banking Customers to Save a Few Pennies?

image Have you ever had a flat tire because you forget to look at your tire pressure? I have, more than once, but not since I installed these handy little valve caps with the “green is good to go” visual signal. And they only cost about $6 per set.

Not only do they save you from the hassle and cost of a flat tire, they could save hundreds of dollars over the car’s life with better fuel economy running on properly inflated tires. And flat tires on the freeway are a serious safety issue. 

This begs the question: Why don’t car companies install these on all cars (note 1)? Is it really worth the potential thousand-dollar cost to your customers to save a buck or two in the manufacturing process? 

Relevance for Netbankers: What things does your financial institution do to save a few pennies that could end up costing your customers similar financial pain?  Here are my three pet peeves:

Rant over. Have a great weekend.

—————————

Note: Yes, I know that higher-end cars have tire-pressure idiot lights. And I’m sure there engineering-related costs and liability issues makes the price tag bigger than an outsider would imagine.

What the Real-Time Web Means for Banking

imageOne of the most important trends in the online/mobile world is the so-called real-time Web. Here’s how Wikipedia defines it:

…technologies and practices which enable users to receive information as soon as it’s published, rather than requiring that they check a source periodically for updates.

Online banking should have gone
real-time long ago, but privacy concerns and a legacy of batch
processing — not to mention the 100-year credit crisis — have kept
info delivery in very non-real-time at most financial institutions (note
1
).

As balance/transaction email alerts appeared on the scene in 1996/1997, the perfect solution to keep consumers informed on a timely basis seemed assured. But for most users, financial alerts have not lived up to their promise. Why?

1. Users must remember to establish alerts while they are banking online

2. Users must establish proper parameters so they are not overwhelmed with alerts, or receive too little info

3. Those parameters must be tweaked as necessary

4. Users must select the proper email inbox(es) for the alerts

5. Users must read the alerts in a timely fashion

6. And of course, act on them if necessary

Frankly, that’s just too much work for most online bankers. Sending alerts to a mobile device may help since it is typically more immediate than email. But that depends on the user and whether they really want banking messages in their text-message stream.

But we think many users, now accustomed to viewing a stream of info all day from Facebook, Twitter, FriendFeed, RSS, and so on, will want similar delivery of financial info. Some will want their financial info to stream into their overall news feed (e.g., via Facebook, Twitter, etc.), others will prefer a separate dedicated channel (e.g., Blippy note 2, Strings). And the old-school folk will still prefer email or text-message feeds.

Once the feed is established, users will want to interact with the data, for example:

  • Tagging entries for budgeting/tax purposes
  • Sharing specific transactions with friends, spouses, accountants
  • Forwarding transactions to bookkeeping or managers for reimbursement
  • Replying to the bank/merchant regarding incorrect transactions  
  • Flagging transactions for later review

The real-time Web turns online banking on its head. Creating a daily dialogue with customers, rather than one-time sessions where users log in every few days, then hope nothing goes wrong before their next login.

There are advantages in both models, but it’s not really your choice which one to offer. The world has gone real-time: You can either join in or have your customers migrate to Mint/Blippy/Wesabe to tap their financial feed.

Notes:
1. This is characterization of the U.S. situation; many other countries are much further ahead, and have been operating under real-time info-flow for years. 
2. We believe there are a number of practical applications for Blippy’s technology; see our previous post.
3. For more info on financial messaging and alerts, Online Banking Report subscribers should review our 2003 report on the subject.

Blippy Demonstrates the Power of Real-Time Streaming of Financial Transaction Data

image Blippy has been one of the more controversial financial entrants in the past few years. Observers have called it the “end of privacy as we know it,” a way to take “oversharing to a dizzying new level,” and a “great tool for phishers.” And those are just the people who like it.

Blippy, a kind of Twitter meets Yodlee service, allows users to stream their purchase activity to the startup’s website. Users can choose to publish data from credit and debit cards, bank accounts, and/or directly from purchase activity at ecommerce-partners sites (see list below). It’s the ecommerce transaction stream that provides the richest data describing the actual product purchased or rented rather than just a dollar total.

For example, here’s an entry from @Julia who’s connected her Amazon account directly to Blippy (note 1)  As you can see the Amazon purchases are shown in detail and one of the items, a giraffe teether, has elicited a question/comment from a friend (highlighting ours):

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In comparison, credit card transactions list only the merchant name and not what was purchased. However, Blippy allows users to annotate their transactions to add that detail, as you can see in the following entry. 

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One of the most common ways Blippy is used is to stream media consumption via iTunes and Netflix. Here are the three Netflix movies on their way to @crobertsjr:

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The Palo Alto-based startup received a $1.6 million angel round in January 2010 from Ron Conway, Jason Calacanis, Twitter’s Evan Williams, Sequoia Capital, Charles River Ventures, and others. 

How it works
I got my first taste of Blippy after it opened to the public on Jan. 14. It’s simple to get started, calling for just an email address, screenname and password. You also have the option of finding friends using your email address book or choosing from a list of 13 suggested people including Blippy founder Philip Kaplan (@PUD) and interstar Jason Calacanis (@jason).

But you don’t even need to register for Blippy to see it in action. There’s a live stream on the homepage that anyone can watch (see screenshot below). If Blippy follows the Twitter/Facebook model, they will soon have an API available that will let outside developers tap the data stream.

Usage stats

  • Number of beta users: More than 5,000 who streamed $4.5 million worth of transactions
  • Most-streamed merchant: Netflix with 54,000 entries
  • Most prolific spender (that I ran across): Foo Bar (@foo), who does not identify himself other than CEO at a gaming startup, has linked his business credit card and streamed more than 350 purchases worth more than $300,000 (he’s a big online advertiser at Google, MySpace, Facebook).
  • Most-followed user: Leo Laporte (@leolaporte), from the Premiere Radio Network, with more than 2,600 followers

Features/benefits

Data sharing within workgroups:

  • Ability to share financial transactions within a family, a workgroup, or small business. It would be a great way for financial gatekeepers, e.g., the bookkeeper, CFO, or even board members/investors to keep tabs on company spending (see @foo above).
  • Ability to annotate expense streams. Users can add short descriptions to expense items so their followers can see the specifics.
  • Ability to discuss/comment on expense items. For example, CFO can ask “why did our Google AdWords expense spike yesterday?” and anyone in the group can comment back with an answer or speculation. We use Yammer in our company for this type of back and forth. 

Product research/social networking:

  • Ability to find other customers of the same store
  • Ability to discuss product or media purchases with friends or strangers
  • Ability to post positive/negative info about purchases (yours or others)
  • Ability to find previous purchasers of a product you are considering (currently not supported through search)
  • Ability to compare how much people paid for a certain item (not currently supported through search)

Personal financial management:

  • Ability to annotate expenses for future reporting (e.g., marking taxable items)
  • Store transactions free for as long as Blippy keeps the servers running
  • Ability to search own transactions

Financial institution opportunities
1. Card companies and banks should create similar sharing functionality for alerts; especially for small business clients. While public posting of purchase data may never have mass appeal, there are many private uses for real-time transaction data.

2. PFM’s should be building this functionality now to get out in front of Mint/Intuit who could simply acquire Blippy and incorporate real-time data flow within weeks. 

3. Once the Blippy API becomes available, banks should tap it to allow their customers to use it directly from within online banking.

Analysis
Whether Blippy lives on as a standalone service is difficult to predict. It depends on whether these capabilities are incorporated into other social networks, particularly, Facebook (note 2) and Twitter. And how fast card issuers move to make real-time transaction info easily available to their own customers.

image But regardless of where the company nets out, Blippy should be credited with pioneering real-time financial transaction flow, something every financial institution and ecommerce company will support in the coming years. As a result, we are awarding Blippy an OBR Best of the Web award, our first of 2010 and just the third in the past 14 months (note 3, previous winners).   

Blippy Homepage (14 Jan. 2010 7 PM Pacific)

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 Optional sign-in to Gmail, Yahoo or AOL to locate friends on Blippy 

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Purchases/activity at these merchants can be automatically tracked
Note: 13 ecommerce merchants currently participate (Amazon, Apple iTunes, Audible, Blockbuster, GoDaddy, GroupOn, Netflix, SeamlessWeb, Stubhub, Threadless, Wine Library, Woot, Zappos)

image

The Blippy real-time transaction stream
Note: You can choose to watch all activity or just that of the people you are following

image

Notes:
1. If she hadn’t given Blippy her Amazon login info and linked only her credit card, there would be no product detail. It would just show as $80.95 spent at Amazon.
2. Blippy is similar to Facebook’s ill-fated Beacon service launched in Nov. 2007. The service was quickly toned down, then eventually dismantled, due to the privacy brouhaha that ensued. Blippy is very different because its users are signing up specifically to share purchase info. 
3. OBR Best of the Web awards, from Online Banking Report, are given periodically to companies that pioneer new online and mobile banking features. It is not an endorsement of the company or product, just recognition for what we believe is an important development. Blippy is the 76th recipient since we began awarding it in 1997. There were just two winners in 2009.

Blippy: Do We Really Want to Automatically Tweet our Purchase Transactions?

image I love startups. Just when you think you’ve seen everything, along comes someone doing something that no one would have ever thought of five years ago, or in this case one year ago.

image The latest inspiration: Blippy. The service allows you to automatically broadcast your credit or debit card purchases using the Twitter/Facebook model (see screenshot below; note 1).

The first question everyone asks is why? (see comments at TechCrunch) But really, it’s not much different than broadcasting personal details via Twitter or your whereabouts via Foursquare, especially if you limit viewing to friends. The founder, serial entrepreneur, Philip Kaplan explains in the TechCrunch interview, that he has one credit card for “social purchases” broadcast on Blippy and another for purchases he prefers to keep private.

Blippy will contain privacy controls that allow users to share everything or keep it within a closed loop of friends. The company also envisions many other privacy controls to turn the service off and on, allow users to approve transactions before publishing, suppress certain merchants, or merchant categories, and so on.

The use cases shown so far are centered around media purchases, for example using it to automatically tweet (blip?) what song or movie you bought on iTunes or social “check ins” where the service lets people know you just bought coffee at Starbucks. But I can see where it would be helpful for spouses to “broadcast” purchases only to each other. Or for a salesperson to broadcast their purchases to their assistant to build expense reports on the fly. 

The service is in closed alpha (only in use by a handful of friends and family, note 2) as the three-person company gears up for a launch. You can follow Kaplan on Twitter (@pud) for more info.

My take: I like the idea of easily sharing purchases with joint-account holders or a bookkeeper. But many (most?) online banking systems and PFMs already allow this through the alerts system. You may want to boost education efforts on this capability.

imageAs for Tweeting about songs downloaded via iTunes, wouldn’t most users prefer to maintain more control over that by simply using Twitter or Facebook to directly type a short note? But we know from experience, if there’s a way to do something with less effort, it stands a good chance of succeeding.  

I’m not expecting widespread adoption any time soon, but I think there is a market for sharing spending transactions.

Here’s something for innovative FIs to consider: Add a “share this” button next to credit/debit card transaction and let users send the info via email, Twitter or Facebook with a couple keystrokes (see inset from FiLife).

I know it sounds far-fetched, but it might be just the thing to make your card stand out with heavy users of social media.

Blippy homepage showing spending stream (16 Dec. 2009)

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Note:
1. For more info in Twitter, see our Online Banking Report on the technology published in May.
2. Twitter’s Evan Williams is using Blippy as shown in screenshot taken by CNET’s Rafe Needleman in his article earlier this week.

Last Day to File Extended U.S. Income Tax Returns, Why Doesn’t Anyone Remind Me?

image If you are like me, you put off filing the dreaded 1040 as long as possible, and may often have no clue that the final due date (for extended returns) has snuck up on you once again. Then there are those quarterly filing dates that aren’t spaced three months apart (see screenshot; note 1). 

That’s why every financial institution that serves small businesses and the self-employed should do three things:

  • Post the IRS due dates on its website (see screenshot)
  • Provide email/text reminders (opt-in naturally)
  • Blog/Twitter them

Small biz accounting startup Outright.com (a Finovate 2009 presenter) is ahead of the curve with its handy Self-Employment Tax Calendar:

 image

Note:
1. I’ve been paying quarterly estimated taxes for 15 years, and thanks to the Outright.com calendar, this is the first time I realized they were spaced 3-2-3-4 months apart. No wonder, I can’t remember. 

The Impact of Always-On Mobile Banking

image

There was an interesting piece by Jessica Vascellaro in the Technology supplement of today’s Wall Street Journal. The title says it all, “Why Email No Longer Rules….and what that means for the way we communicate.”

The primary thesis:

  • Old-school email is a passive way to communicate, more like a letter, and has been overrun by more information than the technology can manage.
  • It will be replaced by more active services (e.g., Twitter, Facebook) that are akin to a conversation with filtering technology to keep noise levels down.

But Techcrunch’s MG Siegler’s take on the matter is even more profound. He argues that the winning technology will be something that combines both active and passive communication, such as Google Wave (see inset; short video explanation here). Users will be able to choose between active or passive, or anything in between, depending on the situation.

Relevance for Netbankers
The passive vs. active communication metaphor is a good one for banking too. Passive banking is the old way of doing things. We waited for our monthly statement, balanced the account, and walked in to the branch or called customer service if there was a problem, usually many weeks after the fact.

Passive banking is not a bad thing. As long as there are no problems or financial shortfalls, it’s the desired state for most customers. 

Telephone banking, then online banking, made it much easier to keep closer tabs on your account. Instead of reviewing transaction activity once per month, most users log in at least once per week to review activity. This helps ease anxiety during the intervals between looking at your data.  

But it’s still passive in the sense that a user deals with banking only when the choice is made to log in. And that passive nature limits the usefulness of online banking in situations where a user needs to pay attention NOW! For example, security issues, low-balance alerts, over-budget warnings, and so on.

Enter mobile banking. With text messages or direct-to-the-phone alerts, users can have an always-on, or active, connection to their accounts. This is great for those infrequent, yet urgent, events such as authorizing an unusual card transaction.

But most users will want to be in active banking mode as little as possible. So the challenge for financial institutions will be to make it easy for mobile users to balance “active banking” (alerts, warnings) with “passive banking” (logging in, requesting more data, changing settings and preferences).

Ultimately, companies that well manage this communication challenge will have customers for life.

Notes: For more info on mobile banking, see our Online Banking Report: Mobile Banking via iPhone (March 2009) as well as our earlier reports on Mobile Banking (Feb 2007) and Mobile Payments (April 2007).

Best of Web: Vantage Credit Union is First to Tap Twitter for Transactional Banking

imageIn 2006, we predicted that every major bank and credit union would someday have a blog (note 1). That prediction was looking downright awful until Twitter came along. The popular, and much-hyped service, is part blog, part social network, and part text-messaging.

Financial institutions have embraced Twitter much faster than blogging because it’s low cost, drop-dead simple to implement, and relatively cost-effective to staff and manage. Our good friend, Christophe Langlois, who has been tracking social media implementations at Visible-Banking for several years, has identified 120 financial institution blogs worldwide. In comparison, Christophe is tracking more than 700 Twitter accounts. Similarly, Jeffry Pilcher’s exhaustive Twitter directory at The Financial Brand lists about 600 Twitter accounts in use by financial institutions.

Vantage CU takes the Twitter plunge
image Although Twitter can successfully be used as a simple one-way broadcast medium (i.e., microblog), it’s also a powerful two-way and group communication service (note 2). Wesabe, in 2008, and Xpenser, earlier this year, were the first online PFMs to leverage Twitter for posting transaction info to user accounts. But St. Louis, Missouri-based Vantage Credit Union took that one step further by allowing users not only to query their accounts, but also to move money between them.

At the core, Vantage CU’s Twitter service is little different than hundreds of SMS/text-message mobile-banking services already in use around the world. But for Twitter users, it allows account queries from anywhere a Twitter client is loaded: smartphone, laptop, or desktop (note 3).   

How it works
image Vantage CU posted videos showing how it works. But if you are a Twitter user, you can skip the tutorial. You’ll understand right away: After signing up for the service at Vantage (inset), simply follow the CU on Twitter (@myvcu) and send them a direct message whenever you want to see your balance, recent transactions, or to initiate a funds transfer.

While the process is relatively intuitive for Twitter users, the command-code language limits the usefulness. The results look like a throwback to the DOS command line circa 1985 (see first screenshot below). It would be much simpler if the CU offered plain English commands and account nicknames, e.g., “transfer $500 from wifechecking to mychecking” instead of “#trans f9 t0”. Ideally, the CU would support short codes for its power users and plain English commands for everyone else.

That said, it’s pretty simple to remember how to make a checking account balance inquiry, “#bal 9” (9 is the code for checking), which is the primary way the service will be used.

image

Website implementation
Few members will actually use Twitter banking, at least initially. The main reason to embrace Twitter is for the publicity and brand value, especially when you are first.  Vantage takes full advantage of its first-mover position, placing a headline on its homepage, along with a Twitter feed directly below.

Other things Vantage CU does right:

  • Posted four how-to videos (although, the CU needs to choose a faster host for the videos because the Screencast-based videos run way too slow)
  • Posted FAQs, instructions, and screenshots
  • Wrote a blog post about the new service
  • Proactively reached out to bloggers resulting in great initial coverage (Financial Brand, Everything CU, and Currency Marketing) which can help bring mainstream press coverage later
  • Allows users to subscribe to the Twitter feed via RSS (directly from the CU’s homepage)

Analysis
image The PR value alone should more than justify the expense of Vantage CU’s Twitter service. And if Twitter continues to work its way into the fabric of consumers’ daily lives, the service could attract a decent following.

In keeping with our 10-year tradition of recognizing new online “firsts,” we are awarding Vantage a 2009 Best of the Web award (note 4) for being the first in the world with full-service Twitter banking.

Vantage Credit Union homepage featuring new Twitter service (5 Oct 2009)

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Notes:
1. See our Online Banking Report: Bank 2.0 (Nov. 2006).
2. For more info, see our Online Banking Report: Leveraging Twitter (May 2009)
3. However, text-messaging users would likely prefer to make balance inquiries directly from their phone’s SMS function, rather than t
aking the time to open the Twitter app or website. The most likely user is someone already using Twitter who decides to do a quick banking inquiry while Tweeting. 
4. OBR Best of the Web awards are given periodically to companies that pioneer new online and mobile banking features. It is not an endorsement of the company or product, just recognition for what we believe is an important development. Vantage Credit Union is the 75th recipient since we began awarding it in 1997.

Out of the Inbox: ShareBuilder Email Thanks Customers After Second Month of Automated Investments

image This is the first time we’ve seen a financial services company reach out and congratulate users for a job well done. In this case, ING Direct’s U.S. retail investments unit, ShareBuilder, sent a congratulatory email message to me after two months of investing through its Automatic Investment Program, which pulls money from outside checking accounts.  

The message has several purposes:

  • To reinforce the investment decision
  • To encourage customers to use ShareBuilder Research
  • To incent users to move other brokerage accounts to ShareBuilder with the $100 bonus offer (see landing page, second screenshot)

Analysis
What’s not to like here? It’s timely, relevant, to-the-point (only 75 words in the main body copy) and makes users feel good about themselves. The same thing could be done with loan payments, debt reduction, savings account balance growth, and so on.

Email: ShareBuilder automated savings congratulations
(3 July 2009, 6:41 AM Pacific Time)

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Landing page for $100-bonus offer
Note: The offer is co-branded with Wells Fargo, which is where I originally set up the ShareBuilder account eight or nine years ago.

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Side note: Online account opening warning box
When looking at the new account application, we encountered this popup when attempting to leave the unfinished app and navigate to the ShareBuilder homepage (see note 1).  

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Note:
1. For more info on the subject of online apps, see our Online Banking Report: Online Account Opening, published two weeks ago.