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. 

————————————

Note:
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). 

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

image

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.

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):

image

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. 

image

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:

image

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)

image

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

image

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.