What is Bank Simple?

image There’s a new “banking entity” in formation, Brooklyn, NY-based Bank Simple operating (temporarily I assume) at the .net version of its name <banksimple.net>. I chatted with the founders, Josh Reich and Shamir Karkal earlier this year and am anxiously awaiting more info on the launch.

From reading its trademark application, website, and blog, I have a feeling Bank Simple will launch as a banking front-end (eg. Mint, Obopay), and not as an actual bank. Given the market’s (and Washington’s) appetite for startup banks right now, they may have little choice. But who knows where they go from there. It sounds like they want tight control over the user experience, so they may eventually need to be a bank.

But from their FAQs and a few tidbits found through deep Googling, it sounds like Bank Simple will be much more than web-based software. Initially, it is launching a card-based service with combined debit/credit and rewards built in (de-coupled debit again?). Here’s what they say in the About section:

We will launch later this year with a simple card with in built checking, savings, rewards and a line of credit. As we add more competitive banking services, you can personalize your features as your needs change.

Bank Simple talks about customer service (answering the phone), taking deposits by mail (and this is a rumor, by mobile remote deposit) and other traditional banking activities. So that is much more than an online PFM (can we agree to call that OFM?).

They made the tech press this week when they added a new co-founder, Alex Payne, one of early engineers at Twitter. So expect streaming information, ala Blippy and Swipely, and social networking to be a crucial part of the mix.

The startup is looking for summer marketing interns, but there are no permanent jobs posted, another reason to believe they will not be operating a full-blown bank in the near term.

It sounds like a good plan. Marry the utility of PayPal with user experience of ING Direct. Throw in a little Mint-like design and some Twitter hype, and it’s a VC’s dream. 

Bank Simple’s pre-launch placeholder homepage (18 May 2010)
Note: Site is in closed beta, request an invitation through the “join” button

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Note: In Online Banking Report, we have written about creating a virtual bank, sans the charter, several times in the past 15 years. The most recent full report was in Oct. 2000, Creating the Amazon.com of Financial Services. But we updated the tables (now called Creating the Facebook of Financial Services) last year in our 2010 Planning Guide.

myFICO Forum Wins 2009 Forrester Groundswell Award

image Fair Isaac’s popular forum (powered by Lithium; screenshot below) which supports its myFICO retail credit score/report unit, took first prize among 16 entrants in the Business-to-Consumer Supporting category in the recent Forrester Groundswell awards (winners list).

The Groundswell awards are based on business results using various social technologies. In total there are 16 categories.

The myFICO forum is currently receiving:

  • 120,000 unique visitors in Sep 2009, up almost three-fold from a year ago (see chart below)
  • 20,000 new posts added each month…with more than 500,000 posts archived
  • 400,000 searches per month
  • 10,000 new registered users per month

image According to information supplied with the application, the forum is helping Fair Isaac in the following ways:

  • Lowering call-center volumes: Total call center volume was down 1% in 2008 compared to a 23% gain the prior year.
  • Reducing call-center talk time: 10% of callers are referred to the forum for more information and/or help from other users.
  • Driving traffic: Traffic to myFICO.com from the forum equals about 40% of the volume from search engines.
  • Improving sales: The average amount spent by a customer grows by two-thirds after they join the forum and 13% of all myFICO sales online involve a forum view.

While myFICO was the only financial services winner, Bank of America was one of four finalists among 23 entries in the B2C Talking category for its Morris on Campus student-banking campaign as was MasterCard Brazil for What’s Priceless to You

Significance to Netbankers: myFICO’s busy forum shows that despite the proliferation of blogs and social media, an old-school online forum is a good way to build a community and off-load the tech support burden. Of course, forums don’t run themselves, and you’ll spend a considerable time moderating them. But considering the alternative, it’s an expense worth considering, especially if community-building is part of your strategic goals. Intuit has also had great success with its community forums, attracting 130,000 monthly unique users (see chart below).

myFICO forums (link, 29 Oct 2009)

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Website traffic for myFICO and Intuit forums from Compete (link, 29 Oct 2009)

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For more info:

Banks and Credit Unions on Twitter

image If you haven’t been following Twitter the last few months, you may not realize it now has almost eight million monthly unique visitors according to Compete. That’s almost double the traffic it had just two months ago and a nearly a nine-fold gain from a year ago.

To put that traffic in perspective, it’s more than half that of the NY Times and slightly more than banking giant Wachovia (see Compete chart below).

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Banking activity
Financial institutions are pretty new to the micro-blogging platform. In a search today, we found 15 U.S. banks and 22 credit unions with active Twitter feeds (see notes 1, 6-8). There were also and nine international banks for a total of 46.

See the table below for the non-inclusive list ranked by number of Twitter users that follow the bank’s feed (note 2). Wachovia (now owned by Wells Fargo), the only major bank that has promoted Twitter on its main website, leads with 2,000 followers (see previous post on Wachovia’s foray on to Twitter).

Opportunity 
Participating in Twitter is a low-cost entry into social media that can actually help save a customer relationship or three. Compared to blogging, it is much less labor intensive. It’s also less of a marketing platform given the 140-character limit in posts. But in the current environment, perhaps less truly is more. By all means, find a gung-ho Facebook devotee in your bank and let him or her get you into the Tweeting game.

Table: Banks and Credit Unions using Twitter (updated 16 March 2009)

Name Twitter URL (4) Updates Followers
1. Wachovia (Wells Fargo) /wachovia 257 2,058
2. Bank of America /bofa_help 557 1,486
3. Wells Fargo (3) /wellsfargo 4 548
4. ING Direct (6) /ingdirect 50 451
5. North Shore Bank /northshorebank 194 319
6. MSU Federal CU (7) /msufcu 180 270
7. Chase /chasebank 11 260
8. Pioneer Credit Union /pioneercu 225 251
9. 1st Mariner Bank /1stmarinerbank 140 227
10. Group Health CU /ghcu 353 219
11. GLS Bank (Germany) /glsbank 279 204
12. Brewery Credit Union /brewerycu 65 194
13. Bellco Credit Union /bellco_cu 67 192
14. Banco de Chile (Chile) /bancodechile 175 181
15. First Federal /firstfederal 89 177
16. Oklahoma Employees CU /oecu 14 148
17. CU Credit Union /mycucommunity 73 147
18. Allegiance CU (7) /allegiancecu 29 141
19. Heartland CU (7) /heartlandcu 33 125
20. Hopewell Federal CU (7) /hopewellfedcu 74 122
21. Tech CU (7) /techcu 62 115
22. Ubank (Australia, 8) /ubank 151 113
23. Banco Sabadell (Spain) /bancosabadell 2,272 111
24. FORUM Credit Union /forumtalk 19 97
25. Citibank /citi_forward 16 96
26. Fidelity Bank /fidelity_bank 11 92
27. Northeast Bank /northeast_bank 5 84
28. Banco Popular (Puerto Rico) /mi_banco 15 65
29. U.S. First Credit Union /schecking 43 61
30. Oklahoma Central CU (7) /okcentralcu 5 60
31. First Arkansas Bank /fabandt 27 59
32. SEB Bank (Germany) /seb_bank 37 59
33. 66 Fed Credit Union /66fcu 8 47
34. Telesis Credit Union /telesiscu 18 46
35. University CU (7) /universitycu 18 46
36. Nicolet Bank /nicoletbank 15 43
37. Chesapeake Bank /chesbank 8 41
38. Libra Bank (Romania) /librabank 14 38
39. KU Credit Union /kucreditunion 8 32
40. TwinStar CU (7) /twinstarcu 19 32
41. Capital Credit Union /captialcu 7 30
42. NW GA Credit Union /nwgacu 18 30
43. Banco de Guayaquil (Ecuador) /bancoguayaquil 77 28
44. COP Credit Union /copcu 7 26
45. Webster Bank /websterbank 3 20
46. Friesland Bank (Netherlands) /frieslandbank 8 10

Source: Online Banking Report, 13 March 2009 (see notes 6,7,8)

Notes:
1. To be considered active, the bank or credit union had to have set up a Twitter account, customized it with its logo, have made more than 1 update or “Tweet,” and have at least 10 followers. 
2. This is not a complete list. With a few exceptions, we only looked for financial institutions with “bank” or “credit union” in their name.
3. Wells Fargo’s Twitter page says it will be launching soon.
4. Twitter URL = www.twitter.com/<shown below>
5. For more on bank blogging, see our Online Banking Report on Banking 2.0
6. List and totals updated with ING Direct and First Federal on 16 March 2009
7. Searched on “CU” and found eight more credit unions on 17 March 2009. Thanks Gabriel Garcia.
8. Added NAB’s Ubank from comments, unsure why it didn’t show up on “bank” search

Bank of America Launches a Blog…Finally

image What better way to start the new year than to blog about a blog. And it’s big news. Bank of America, through its Center for Future Banking (see note 1), launched a blog called The Future Banking Blog. The blog, quietly began after Thanksgiving (note 2), has averaged about 2 posts per week,  about right for a banking blog (note 3).

The content so far has been wholly unrelated to Bank of America or its products. The blog is part academic, part strategic, bringing insights from the Center’s joint team of MIT academics and BofA business execs.

The design however, is pure Bank of America (see below). It uses the BofA color palette and includes a prominent powered by logo in the upper right. It’s also housed under a bank URL <futurebanking.bankofamerica.com>.

All in all it’s a good effort, positioning BofA as a thought leader in the upside-down world of commercial banking circa 2009.

image

Note:
1. The Center is seeking an Executive Director. The position was posted on Dec. 16, but given the holiday, it’s not too late to toss your name in the hat.

2. Hat tip to Colin Henderson at The Bankwatch for writing about it.  

3. For more info on financial institution bloggin, see our Online Banking Report on Banking and Social Media.

PNC Bank Takes on Mint & Quicken with PNC Virtual Wallet

image Just when you thought Mint, Wesabe, and Geezeo had a lock on all the headlines for Gen Y personal finance, along comes a truly inspired effort from a major U.S. retail bank. Furthermore, it’s not from Wells Fargo, Bank of America, Chase, or even ING Direct.

Pittsburgh, PA-based PNC Bank, the 15th-largest U.S. retail bank with $83 billion in deposits (see note 1), today launched a new online combo account called PNC Virtual Wallet.

The account comes with a checking account, bill payment, and two types of savings accounts. It also features several unique personal financial management features with an emphasis on functions most likely to appeal to a 20-something audience:

  • Cash flow: debit card, checking, online bill pay, financial calendar, recent transaction report
  • Savings: two types of savings accounts, automated savings options, wish list, and a random video-game-inspired savings tool called “punch the pig” (see below)

Finally, the account is priced well:

  • No fees (except $0.50 per written check after the first 3 per month and the usual penalty fees)
  • Free overdraft protection among linked accounts
  • 3% APY on the growth savings component
  • ATM-free rebate (but only if there’s a $2000 average monthly balance in the checking account portion)

What’s innovative? (note 2)

  • Package of three deposit accounts: Spend Account (e.g., checking), Reserve Account (e.g., savings) and Growth Account (e.g., high-yield savings or money market deposit account)
  • Ability to move money among the three accounts by moving a slider across the screen, called the Money Bar
  • Automated savings function called Savings Engine that allows users to set up time-triggered (e.g., once per week) or event-triggered (e.g., each debit card use) automatic savings transfers
  • Savings game called Punch the Pig, a video-game-inspired savings gimmick: Each time the pig appears on screen, users can elect to “punch” it to automatically move money from checking to savings
  • Wish List with savings goals and progress reports

What can be improved?
Four areas that are noticeably absent, or at least not mentioned:

  • Mobile functionality, especially text banking and alerts
  • Online customer support: Customer can apply online through the Andera-powered app; however, there is no link to any online-support options such as chat, IM, text, or even a Web-based input form or old-school email address
  • Social aspects: forums, reviews, blogs, or even testimonials (note 4)
  • Credit: credit cards, line of credit, auto loans, and so on

The website design is impressive and very un-banklike, yet it lacks some basics:

  • No demo: There are several Flash instructional videos that show most of the key features, but there is no all-encompassing demo for users wanting a tryout before buying.
  • Lame homepage videos: Granted, I’m not in the Gen Y target market so I could be wrong, but if I think the videos are lame, what do you think a 22-year-old will make of them? I say lose the “man on the street videos” or reshoot them in a less-scripted manner. 
  • Extensive FAQs: The FAQs need to be expanded tenfold. Currently, only 16 questions and answers are up, but with so many unique features, that number doesn’t come close to answering many basic questions, such as “Are there account alerts?” or “What’s the rate of interest on the reserve account” (note 3), or “How long are transactions stored?”

PNC Bank virtual wallet homepage (14 July 2008)

PNC Bank Virtual Wallet home 14 July 2008

Explanation of “Punch the Pig” savings feature

PNC Bank Punch the Pig feature in VirtualWallet 14 July 2008

Notes:
1. Deposits as of 31 Dec 2007; deposits were up 25% compared to $66 billion as of year-end 2006.

2. PNC has applied for a patent on the account and tools.

3. Eventually, I did find a link to interest rates and fees on the “how to apply” page

4. See Online Banking Report on Social Personal Finance for more info

Enliven Your Website with Streaming Activity, Tickers, or Counters

One thing hard to approximate online is the hubbub of a busy branch, retail outlet, or event. Other than the occasional popup inviting you to chat about whatever financial product you’re viewing, most financial websites are lonely experiences. Sure, Web-based video can personalize the online experience, but that’s still a one-on-one experience. That’s why building an online community is so important in the long run (see note 1).

Zillow mortgage rate quote ticker 18 June 2008

Geezeo public newsfeed 18 June 2008One way to demonstrate just how much activity takes place at your website or through electronic banking, is to show a stream of real-time activity. For example, Zillow’s new mortgage marketplace shows realtime mortgage quotes as they come in from the mortgage brokers using the site (see above).

Geezeo recently added a public news feed to its site, similar to what social media users experience at Facebook.

And ING Direct has counted up the interest in pays customer in a little meter within online banking, as of a few minutes ago it was $4.5 million shy of $9 billion. 

ING Direct interest paid counter 18 June 2008

But the most daring example is Progressive Insurance which displays actual specific rate comparisons to its competitors in the center of its homepage
(see screenshot below). 

Progressive Insurance quote feed on homepage 18 June 2008

Financial institutions could show streams of activity in the following areas:

  • credit/debit card transaction data: $63.42 at JC Penney’s Minneapolis, MN
  • bill payment transaction data (only to major merchants): $124.22 to PGE, LA, CA
  • funds transfers: A.C. transferred $1500 from checking to savings
  • results from online calculators: $15,000 vehicle at 6.5% for 5 years = $432/mo
  • mortgage quotes/locks: $572,000 purchase mortgage locked today at 6.375% with 1% fee
  • insurance quotes: $1,000,000 10-year level term for 42-year-old nonsmoker for A.E. in  Tampa for $1123/yr
  • interest paid on deposits, checks processed, loans funded, website visits, online banking login, bills paid
  • comments in blogs/forums
  • search terms used on-site and possibly the top results
  • questions asked/answered online

Of course, you’ll need to make certain there is absolutely no data streamed that could be traced back to an individual user.

Note:
1. See the following Online Banking Reports for more information:

WaMu Posts Best Banking Facebook Page So Far

image As a marketer you have to love WaMu. They are bold, quirky, and not afraid to poke fun at conventional wisdom. I haven't liked all their advertising campaigns, but that doesn't matter as long as the bank is reaching its target markets and delivering results.

While the bank has its challenges cleaning up the mortgage mess, its marketing department and ad agency are still producing good work. Case in point: WaMu's new Facebook page (below).

I realize that all banking pages in Facebook will appear lame to just about every 20-something that happens to stumble across them (see previous coverage here). But 20-somethings do still need checking accounts, debit/credit cards, vehicle loans, and so forth. So they will buy banking services. And what brand will they choose? The one that is at least making an effort to meet them on their turf with Facebook pages, text messaging, and humorous advertising, such as the talking banner campaign shown below.  

WaMu's Facebook page, which looks like it was posted April 17, contains videos, a crossword game, a branch finder, a checking account application form, a fan area and a communications app (note 1) that can be added to your Facebook profile. Take a look yourself here.

Excellent work: A

WaMu Facebook Page (23 April 2008) (note 2)

WaMu Facebook page

Notes:
1. Even though I added it to my profile, I'm not sure what the WaMu Facebook application does. It appears to be a way to communicate with friends on Facebook and has 49 daily users.

2. The bar across the middle of the page is unrelated to the WaMu page; it's the new Facebook chat feature, that appears along the bottom of all screens, and messes up my screenshot. It does show you where the "fold" exists on a 13.3 high resolution laptop screen.

Suggestion Box 2.0: Is MyStarbucksIdea a Blueprint for Banks?

image One perk of working for a large company is being recognized, or winning prizes, for contributing useful suggestions. While employees can be pretty cynical about the whole process, overall, it’s good for employee relations to solicit and reward suggestions. Employees appreciate the opportunity to voice their ideas to senior management and do their part in making the company/products better. And if they win a free dinner, it’s all that much better. 

The same concept can work even better with customers where you don’t have to worry about favoritism and corporate politics. But how do you solicit meaningful suggestions without getting bogged down in an expensive and time-consuming evaluation process? And more important, how do you prevent the really innovative ides from getting killed in the marketing/customer service/IT department, where the not-invented-here bias rules?

Interactive suggestion box from Starbucks
Amidst a sweeping round of innovations announced at its annual shareholders meeting today (see note 1; press release here), Starbucks provided a glimpse of the future of customer feedback with its MyStarbucksIdea, a user-generated discussion forum revolving around product and service suggestions (see screenshot below).

By involving users every step of the way, the system helps remove the inherent bias that plagues most company-run programs. The key is allowing registered users the power to vote on each idea, the best rise DIGG-like to the top, where other customers, along with the Starbucks top-brass, are likely to see them. Other than light moderating of the forum, Starbucks only has to process the very best ideas.

To provide the all-important company feedback to the community, the Starbucks site (note 2) has an area that will showcase the ideas that are actually implemented. The site says there are no monetary rewards, but I would expect that wining ideas will receive some small token of the company’s appreciation such as a $50 Starbucks card or t-shirt. You don’t want the incentives to be too high, or the system will be gamed and its appeal damaged. 

The most popular idea at Starbucks has to do with providing discounts…no surprise there. But the company has wisely introduced a dozen idea categories to help spur discussion in other areas. For instance, in “Other Product” section (second screenshot below), I found two that I voted for: microwave ovens to re-heat coffee and providing small stickers to keep the coffee from sloshing out the drinking hole while driving.

Implications for financial institutions
I believe that every financial institutions should have some type of suggestion program even if it’s just an email address (suggestions@yourbank.com). And I think the open Starbucks approach could work very well. However, if there are no ground rules, most banks and credit unions will be innundated with “ideas” to lower fees, raise savings rates, and so on. As much as you don’t want to stifle discussion, you may have to restrict or even forbid suggestions about pricing. Most people will understand that your pricing decisions are not made via the consensus of a public user forum no matter how many votes “interest-free loans” receive. 

To help spur ideas outside the usual complaints, create a list of categories such as online banking, wire transfers, checking accounts, branches, and so on to generate ideas for your different product lines.

MyStarbucksIdea homepage (19 March 2008)

Starbucks mystarbucks idea homepage

Top ideas in “Other Products” category

top ideas in "other products" category

Notes:

1. Starbucks also announced a set of rewards for users of its prepaid card including free premium drink upgrades such as soy milk, free beverages with the purchase of coffee beans, and the big one for the WiFi set, 2 hours of free Internet access with a purchase.

2. Interestingly, Starbucks new app is built on the Force.com platform from SalesForce.com.

Social Networking Meets Savings Accounts: SmartyPig Launches this Week

Update March 6: I added two clarifications pointed out in the comments. First, that normal ACH deposits to your own SmartyPig account are free of charge. Second, that the retailers bonus on withdrawals to their gift cards is UP TO 5% (not a flat 5%). 

imageHow about this recipe? Take a basic FDIC-insured savings account, spice it up with automated electronic transfers and email communications, mix in gift/debit cards, wrap the whole thing up in a social network, and top it with a memorable name. What do you have? SmartyPig, the most innovative financial service we've seen since Prosper launched two years ago.

The site is in the final week of private beta. To register, you still need an invitation code. The company asked me not to publish it, but it's OK if I distribute by request via email. Send a note to info@netbanker with "SmartyPig" in the subject line. Or simply wait until after this weekend when the site goes into public beta.

How it works:

image1.  Users create savings accounts at the site. Deposits are held at West Bank, a Des Moines, IA- based financial institution with $1.3 billion in assets. Funding is through ACH (electronic) transfers from outside bank accounts. SmartyPig currently pays a high, 4.3% APY on deposits. 

2. After the account is established, users are encouraged to create savings goals funded through automatic monthly ACH transfers until the goal is met.

3. Now here is where SmartyPig diverges from a typical bank account. The savings goals can be made public or kept private. Public goals can be funded in part, or entirely, by outside contributors. Think of grandma and grandpa contributing birthday money to help junior buy a new bike. Contributions are funded through credit card charges with a maximum charge of $500 and a per transaction processing fee of $4.95. To make sure grandma's $50 doesn't go to a Mario game, the money cannot be withdrawn until the savings goal is met (or canceled by the primary account holder).

4. After goals have been met, the user can elect to take the funds out in the form of a MasterCard debit card or a gift card from a retail partner such as Amazon.com. Participating retailers add up to 5% bonus to the savings goal so that $1000 saved for the plasma TV is worth $1,050 if redeemed via Amazon gift card. That's a great added incentive to use the service.

Gift Cards
SmartyPig gift card SmartyPig also sells gift cards that can be redeemed towards new or existing savings goals. These cards, issued in denominations of $25 to $500, are meant to be given as gifts or employee incentives. They cannot be redeemed outside the SmartyPig system. Physical card are produced and delivered for a processing fee of $4.95 plus delivery fees of $5.95 or more. Or consumers can deliver a virtual card through email to eliminate the delivery charge (but the $4.95 processing fee remains the same). 

Summary of Fees

  • Your own deposits: Free (via ACH transfer)
  • Public contributions: $4.95 flat processing fee for each contribution made by an outside contributor. Contributions can be from $25 to $500 and are funded via credit card.
  • Gift cards: Gift cards incur a $4.95 processing fee and an optional $5.95 shipping fee. The shipping fee can be avoided if a virtual gift card is chosen which is fulfilled via email.

Analysis
Although, not everyone is going to want to go through the extra steps to save this way, we are impressed with SmartyPig and are awarding it our first OBR Best of the Web award for 2008 obr_bestofweb(see note 1). We like how it's part gift registry, part savings account, and potentially a big help in getting users in the habit of saving for larger goals. The look-and-feel is very Web 2.0 and should resonate with teens and twenty-somethings.

There are a few rough edges that need better explanation and/or minor redesign. For instance, there is no way to simply add funds to a savings account without first setting up an automatic funding plan. But the site isn't even officially launched yet, so these issues should be ironed out during the beta period. 

The processing fee for outside contributions of $4.95 per transaction is a bit on the high side (there is no fee for funds transfers from your own bank account). One could argue that it's worth price of a triple mocha for the convenience and benefits of the savings account. But for smaller deposits of $50 to $100, it's a pretty high percentage of the overall deposit.

It would be nice if the company could lower the fee, perhaps by creating an ACH funding option. Another way to reduce costs is to lower the 4.3% APR. I'm not sure the savers attracted to this account really need that high of a rate. A lower interest rate combined with lower fees might make the service more palatable overall.   

The company may have to tweak its business model going forward. But the real lesson here is that savings accounts can be made stickier with automation and incentives. Leave it to the Iowans to show us the way (note 2). 

Screenshots

1. The main account screen: I set up a savings account for my son. Then set a savings goal of $300 for a new bike. SmartyPig requires that the savings goal be funded in equal monthly withdrawals from the linked checking. It would be helpful if you could opt out of the automated savings plan so that the savings goal could be funded manually. 

image

 

2. Public goals: If you opted to make your savings goal public, anyone can find it by searching via email address under the "Friends' Goals" tab on the top (you can see this one by searching for jim@netbanker.com).  SmartyPig widget

Users can publicize their goals with a widget (see inset, and link at bottom of screen above) or by sending email to friends.

After making a contribution, the following screen is displayed.

SmartyPig contribution thank you screenshot

 

Note:

1. Online Banking Report (OBR) Best of the Web awards are given for products that "raise the bar" in online financial services, usually for pioneering a new feature. Recent winners are covered here. Five awards were been handed out in 2007: two for Wesabe, and one each for Jwaala, Buxfer and Obopay. In the past 10 years, 67 companies have won the award.

2. Full disclosure: I was born and raised in Iowa and my brother lives within a few miles of the SmartyPig world headquarters.

Finally, a Major U.S. Financial Services Company Not Named Wells Fargo is Blogging (PayPal)

Update: Quicken Loans has also published a recruiting blog for the past year (thanks Ann-Marie, see comments below and NetBanker post here).

I've been a big proponent of blogging. In my Online Banking Report on the subject published last fall (here), I predicted there would be 300 financial institution blogs by the end of this year. While there is no definitive listing, OpenSource CU's blogroll lists just 15 CU company blogs. Even if you add the CU employee blogs, MySpace pages, and four blogs from Wells Fargo, the grand total is less than 100 today, and unlikely to get much higher than that by year-end.

Why the slow start? Having worked inside several banks, I do not underestimate the difficulty in creating a new communication channel. And from what I've heard, many banks and credit unions just don't believe the benefits, which are largely intangible, will outweigh the costs. And with so few banks blogging, Wells Fargo being the only major in the U.S., it's hard to show examples to demonstrate the power of the blog.

That's why we were happy to see one of our favorite companies, eBay's PayPal unit, launch a blog a few weeks ago (here). As you can see it's not too fancy, and they post to it only a few times each week. But it really hits the mark, in my opinion.

Here's why:

1. Humanizes the organization: The initial posts are by various department heads or senior staff and discuss briefly what they do and a major initiative each is involved in. Each post has a small head shot in the upper left that increases the credibility of the posting (see screenshot below).

2. Educates in a more interesting way: PayPal managers are obviously excited about their projects as their enthusiasm comes across in the writing and makes the reader interested in the subject. For instance, last week CIO Michael Barrett posted seven paragraphs (here) on improving the safety of your online computing experience. It's a good way to get a simple message across, that users should use up-to-date operating systems and browsers. Usually, that advise is buried  five layers deep in a security FAQ.

3. Sells with a more "consultative" approach: Several of the blog entries are designed to "sell" but again, when the head of consumer marketing blogs about the latest program, as Hillary Mickell did about PayPal's back-to-school shopping portal (here), it's much more believable than a banner ad slapped onto the homepage (see screenshot below).

4. Communicate during an outage or severe service problem: The most recent entries (here and here), both posted on the Sept. 2 holiday, informed and reassured customers about the problems with subscription services.

The challenge is generating readership. Would I subscribe to the blog if I was a consumer making an occasional PayPal purchase? Unlikely. But if I'm a merchant, and the PayPal system is an integral part of my livelihood, you can bet I'll pore over every word (note 1).

So, financial institutions, if you want to get into blogging, find the communities where you really make a difference and start speaking to them (see note 2).

Note:

1. The press and analysts will subscribe, spurring articles on your company such as this one.

2. Although perhaps just a shade too critical of the industry for my tastes (see the first comment for some balance), Verity Credit Union's latest post (here) speaks from the heart about the sub-prime lending fiasco and the CU's "Keep the Dream" fund to help at-risk borrowers keep their homes. Great post. Great program. Unfortunately, I couldn't find anything on the website about it.