Flash Marketing: Can Groupon/LivingSocial Work for Banks and Credit Unions?

imageThe coffee shop where I do much of my writing held a huge sale yesterday. But you wouldn’t have known it from the sparse late-July mid-day crowd. The event took place entirely online through local deal-of-the-day marketer, Groupon.

The day-long sale resulted in nearly 3,000 half-price $10 coupons being sold, a huge influx of customers for a 3-location coffee shop (see screenshot below). I’m working somewhere else tomorrow when the coupon buyers start coming in. 

imageGroupon is the leader in the burgeoning field of localized flash marketing (aka social/group buying) having taken more than $170 million in VC funding to expand to more than 150 cities.

The other major player is Living Social, which I’ve successfully used a few times to buy gifts. LivingSocial has raised $50 million and recently expanded to 52 cities. Both companies have nearly 5 million unique monthly U.S. visitors (see below). And with minimal barriers to entry, there are dozens of copycat sites in operation.

There’s another sub-category in flash marketing, companies that specialize in certain types of merchandise. The pioneer here is the geeky and irreverent gadget and T-shirt marketer, Woot with 2.3 million monthly visitors. The site was scooped up by Amazon for $170 million last month. In women’s fashion, Gilt Groupe has a cult following and nearly 1 million monthly visitors.

U.S. traffic at Groupon (blue), Living Social (green), Woot (orange), Gilt Groupe (red)

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Source: Compete (link)

Flash marketing is not a new concept, and it’s not much different than the $299 laptop on the cover of the Best Buy circular. Savvy shoppers know to show up early at the store if they want to claim one of the few loss leaders in stock.  

Web-based flash marketers use email, Facebook and Twitter to inform potential customers of the latest deal. There is usually a time limit, typically a single day, and/or a limited number for sale. All the Groupon deals expire at midnight local time. Woot runs all its deals for 24 hours, or until they sell out, beginning at midnight Central Time.

Opportunity for Netbankers
While I haven’t seen a financial product sold on Groupon or LivingSocial yet, there’s no reason it wouldn’t work. In a quick search, the only financial institution participant I found was First Tech Credit Union, a recent recipient of sponsorship recognition in a LivingSocial deal for half-off tickets to the 2010 Bellevue (WA) Jazz Festival (see second screenshot).

But the promotions can be costly. The flash marketing companies typically take 50% of the sales price and require a deep discount, usually 50% or more off list prices. So retailers are getting as little as 25 cents on the dollar in the promotions (see note 1). Quantities can be limited to protect against too many takers.

While financial services don’t lend themselves to online flash sales as well as spa visits or fine dining, there are fee-based services that could work. For example: 

  • Checking account: $15 annual fee (first year) instead of $96 list price (note 2)
  • Credit monitoring: One year for $50 instead of the $150 list
  • Credit report: One 3-bureau report for $10 instead of the $30 list
  • Financial plan: $50 instead of $200 list
  • Prepaid MasterCard/Visa: One $25 card for $15 instead of the $29.95 list (assuming $4.95 issuing fee)
  • Savings account: $50 initial deposit for $15 fee (note 2)
  • VIP banking package: $25 annual fee instead of more than $100 if bought separately (rewards card, premium service, free VIP online banking, credit report, rate discount, etc.)

Or FIs could go the First Tech route and work with local restaurants, theatres, or nonprofits to sell a product bundle. For instance, a $20 dining certificate, 50% off on theatre tickets and a $10 Visa card for $20. 

Groupon Seattle deal-of-the-day at Zoka Coffee Roasters (26 July 2010)

Groupon zoka coffee offer

First Tech Credit Union gets top billing on recent LivingSocial deal (link)

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Notes:
1. That assumes all coupons are redeemed. But typically a large portion, as much as 50%, go unredeemed. That means fewer new customers in the door, but it also helps limit the amount of discounts that must be honored.
2. The problem with many financial product offers is that not all customers will be approved. But you could offer refunds for anyone declined for a checking account.
3. For more info on selling online, see our Online Banking Report on Lead Generation.

What Does Google’s Possible Entry in to Mortgage & Loan-Rate Aggregation Mean for Banks?

image Thanks to information in LendingTree’s lawsuit (embedded below) against its rate-engine provider, Mortech (see note 1), which was picked up by the NY Times, then echoed across the Internet, Google appears to be looking at providing loan rate comparison/aggregation directly in its search results. The service appears to have been beta-tested in the UK more than a year ago (screenshots here).

It’s no surprise Google would make this move. It’s long worked on ways to help online shoppers compare products and services. For example, a search today on “air conditioner” displays the usual targeted text ads on the top and right, but also shows various “shopping results” in the middle of the page (see screenshot below). There are even catalogue-like thumbnails in the right-hand column, something I’d not noticed before.

Financial services, with heavy search volumes, are an obvious area for expansion by the search giant.

The LendingTree lawsuit says the service may launch within the next 30 days. Google says only that it is “currently working on a small ad unit test that will run against a limited number of mortgage-related search queries in the U.S.”

What it means to NetBankers: The service, if successful, could help users streamline their rate-research process by eliminating a visit to a loan-comparison site. But it’s not likely to have a material impact on banks, credit unions and other mortgage lenders. There will just be more advertising dollars ending up in Google’s pocket at the expense of other financial lead-gen sites such as BankRate.com, Interest.com and LendingTree, of course.

LendingTree complaint


Search results for “air conditioner”
(27 Aug 2009, 3 PM Pacific, from Seattle IP address)

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Note:
1. LendingTree claims that Mortech, an info provider to LendingTree, would be in violation of its contract if it provided similar technology to Google. See LendingTree’s press release on the matter.

neoSaej’s MoneyAisle Generates $100 Million in Deposits in Q4 2008

image It’s so refreshing to have some real numbers to go on, even if they are self reported. Aside from Prosper, Lending Club (here), and most recently SmartyPig (here), few of the startups we track provide meaningful metrics on their operations. That’s why we use Compete website traffic estimates as a proxy for success.

Yesterday, MoneyAisle, the reverse-deposit-auction marketplace from neoSaej, released the following results for fourth quarter 2008 (press release): 

  • $1.65 billion in auctions run by consumers, up three-fold from Q3 2008 (note 1)
  • $100 million in deposits generated

That’s not a lot, but we can make a few estimates from that info (note 2):

  • Assuming 80 active bank partners, the average take per bank in Q4 was $1.25 million
  • But applying the 80/20 rule to those results means that 16 banks generated about $80 million in deposits, or $5 million each
  • And conversely, the remaining 64 banks brought in just $300,000 each
  • Assuming the average deposit balance auctioned was $20,000, five thousand separate auction winners funded a deposit
  • Assuming a commission of $37 per funded auction (note 2), neoSaej would have generated $185,000 in commission income in Q4, this is in addition to license fees and monthly maintenance fees

And for those of you who still want traffic numbers, MoneyAisle’s website usage (monthly unique visitors) has been trending upwards after suffering a post-launch dip in November. In December, visitors totaled just under 20,000. 

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Bottom line: It’s a promising start for the company which earned an OBR Best of the Web this summer, was picked by the audience as Best of Show in October’s Finovate (video here), and was recently chosen as a top-10 innovation of the year in our most recent Online Banking Report (here).

When MoneyAisle adds integrated online account opening (powered by Andera), results should be even stronger. 

Notes:
1. Deposit-generated total is 6% of total auctions run, because consumers are not obligated to make the deposit after they run the auction.

2. My speculative estimates, not provided from the company.

3. We outlined the company in a June blog post and in the pages of our Online Banking Report on New Models for Lead Generation and Online Banking Report on Growing Deposits in the Digital Age

E-Loan to Stop Direct Mortgage Lending but Will Maintain Loan Portal/Referral Business

image In the early commercial Web era (1995 to 1998), five financial startups inspired me in terms of their innovative products and services: 

  • E-Loan for mortgage
  • E*Trade for stock brokerage
  • Netbank for deposit-taking
  • NextCard for credit cards
  • LendingTree for lead generation

These were my go to companies for ideas and inspiration when covering the space in the mid-to-late 1990s. In those days, traditional financial institutions were just getting started and were not as far along in features and functionality. 

Sadly, two of the five have failed, NextCard in 2002 (here) and NetBank in 2007 (here). And the other three are struggling through the credit crisis.

The latest downer: This week, E-Loan, owned by Banco Popular, announced its exit from the online mortgage origination business. Reading the headlines, I first thought they’d thrown in the towel altogether. But it turns out they are discontinuing only direct mortgage originations. The company will continue to use its popular website (see traffic below) to attract potential borrowers who are handed off to other lenders, something it already does today for student, auto, personal and business loans, along with credit cards. This is a potentially lucrative fee-based business with zero credit risk.

It’s a cautionary tale of how critical, and difficult, the execution piece is. These were industry darlings, always in the news and at the top of the search results. Yet, in financial services especially, you have to temper innovation with prudent underwriting and business practices. All three were brought down by credit-related problems. 

E-Loan traffic has stabilized at around 250,000 uniques per month:

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Finovate 2008 MoneyAisle

imageNext up is MoneyAisle from NeoSaej. Mukesh Chatter, president & CEO, will demonstrate.

The Burlington, MA-based company launched its auction-based deposit service this summer.

MoneyAisle demonstrated a reverse auction for a CD with a winning bid of 4% APY by Commerce State Bank. The company emphasized that it’s fully transparent with no ads, and the consumer can choose at the end whether they want to accept the bid and purchase the deposit.

Finovate 2008 SmartHippo

image The first demo of the afternoon is from George Favvas, co-founder and CEO of SmartHippo.

SmartHippo is a mortgage-loan marketplace that combines user-generated content with rate information scraped by SmartHippo bots, and received directly from lenders themselves. SmartHippo was a presenter in Finovate Startup last April.

SmartHippo is launching a new rate engine later this month that has more than 200 lenders. They are concentrating on mortgages today, but are looking at other verticals in the future.

Zopa to Close U.S. Operation

Article updated at 2 PM Pacific with quote from one of Zopa’s partner CUs, Affinity Plus. 

image Zopa’s U.S. social deposit/lending site will be shuttered, just 10 months after its launch (see previous coverage here). The site, which delivered loan applications and CD customers to six credit union partners, apparently was closed by Zopa. At this point the exact reason is unclear (see update below). Zopa blamed the U.S. credit situation and said it wanted to concentrate its efforts in other markets. 

Here’s part of the statement from CEO Doug Dolton that appeared on the Zopa forum earlier today (also here’s the official blog entry at Zopa UK):

The facts are: Due to the extremely difficult consumer credit circumstances in the US, we made the decision to focus our ongoing efforts in the UK, Italy and Japan. We have six credit union partners in the US, and we have been working with them to modify our business model to offer our customers the best possible offerings, given the poor credit conditions in the US.

We’re certainly facing unprecedented economic times worldwide right now, but I am pleased to report that our UK and Italian operations are doing better than ever, and I look forward to continuing to develop those marketplaces. I apologise for any confusion regarding our circumstances.

As of this morning, the Zopa US homepage is unchanged, but you can no longer sign up as a new member and all the Learn More links redirect to USA Federal Credit Union

Implications
It’s surprising that the company would throw in the towel on the significant investment it made here. However, if Zopa’s CU lending partners had curtailed, or stopped, making loans through the site, something noticed last week by the Prosper Lending Review blog, the whole strategy would no longer be viable (see update below).

But this has nothing to do with what Prosper, Loanio (which launched last week) and hopefully Lending Club (expected be accepting new lenders shortly) are doing with person-to-person lending. Zopa US, unlike Zopa UK, was NOT a P2P lending site, it was a lead-generation site for six credit unions. When those CUs stopped needing loan-leads due to the credit crunch, it took the legs out from under the U.S. division. Even continuing to just take deposits made no sense, since each depositor was required to assist a borrower by gifting a portion of the deposit interest.

We wouldn’t be surprised to see Zopa back in United States in the future as a true P2P lending site, copying the model of its U.K. and Italian divisions. The social aspect of its offering certainly resonated with consumers and industry players as well. The company was one of four Best of Show winners in our April Finovate Startup conference, an award by majority vote from the audience (video here).

For more information, see our Online Banking Report on Person-to-Person Lending. And those attending our Finovate next week will see two companies demo P2P lending. 

Update: 2 PM PDT, 9 Oct 2008

As one of the credit unions who were partnered with Zopa, I would like to clarify that we have no credit availability issues and have changed none of our lending practices. This decision was made by Zopa.

— Sarah Mason, SVP, Affinity Plus Credit Union

 

 

Centrro Launches KnowBeforeYouApply.com

image Providing free credit scores in exchange for viewing a credit card offer seems like a reasonable value exchange (see note 1). That’s why we gave Credit Karma our OBR Best of the Web award in August and why it is on stage next week at Finovate (see previous coverage here, video at Finovate Startup here). 

It’s also no surprise that others would try the same model. Credit crisis or not, credit-worthy borrowers are still a valuable commodity. Case in point, Bankaholic’s recent acquisition by BankRate for a reported $15 million, or $50 per unique visitor (Mashable post here).

imageThe latest entry in free-credit-score lead generation is KnowBeforeYouApply (KBYA) from Centrro, a financial-search company founded in 2006 by Ike Eze and Tuyen Vo. Eze was a founder of QSpace, an OBR Best of the Web winner in 1997 when it became the first company to make credit reports available online (archived OBR article here). QSpace was acquired by Experian several years later.

KnowBeforeYouApply launched on Sept. 3, but was put on the map with Mr. Eze’s post today in The Huffington Post entitled, “Stay Away from Me, Credit Card Crisis” (see note 2). The article discusses the value of tracking your credit score and using that knowledge to find the best credit offers. Eze mentions his company along with Credit Karma, Quizzle from Quicken Loans, two other Finovate presenters, Mint and BillShrink.

Using KnowBeforeYouApply.com
It would be difficult to make the site any easier to use. Customers type in their name, address, email address, and last four digits of their social security number. Apparently, that’s all that’s needed to access your credit file and return a letter grade of A through F.

The whole process takes about 30 seconds (there is no need to enter an entire social security number), and KBYA steers clear of those pesky out-of-wallet authentication questions. Users can get an update of their credit grade every 90 days. In comparison, Credit Karma, which provides an exact 3-digit credit score, will update it daily if the user so desires.

KBYA also has a simple and intuitive sales platform. Just two offers were highlighted in the main screen, one from Chase and one from American Express (see first screenshot below). However, clicking through to “see all offers” led to 25 pages of credit cards, displayed five to a page (121 total for A-grade credit). A handy index along the sidebar allows users to find various categories that most appeal to them such as “travel rewards” or “0% intro rate” cards (see second screenshot).

KBYA appears to use the API from CardOffers.com to build a portion of its database of card offers. CardOffers.com offers its affiliates up to $20 per application or up to $160 per approved application. KBYA also appears to be an affiliate of Credit.com and Discover Card (see note 3).

The site is focused solely on credit cards for now. But a Home Loan tab is built into the user interface, with a “coming soon” label.

Analysis
All in all, it’s a good service. The site needs to beef up its FAQs, About Us, and other educational materials so users can better understand who is behind the service and what exactly the credit grade means. But as a month-old beta service, it’s presumably coming.

While I prefer the precision and peace of mind of seeing my actual credit score, a letter grade every 90 days will be sufficient for many users and should help keep costs down. And the speed of the application process and lack of social security number are real benefits.

Financial institution opportunities
Banks, credit unions, and card issuers should consider offering similar functionality both inside online banking, where private info would already be known, and on the outside where prospective loan customers could use it. With info about the customer’s credit grade, lenders could deliver tailored offers that could lead to increased application volume and approval rates. See our recent Online Banking Report for more info on lead generation sites (note 1). 

Know Before You Apply main page after login (7 Oct 2008)

Know Before You Apply homepage (7 Oct 2008)

KnowBeforeYouApply all-offers page (7 Oct 2008)

Know Before You Apply all offers page (7 Oct 2008)

Notes:
1. For a thorough discussion of the topic, see our August 2008 Online Banking Report on New Models for Lead Generation.

2. Strangely, the article doesn’t specifically disclose Mr. Eze’s affiliation with Know Before You Apply, although clicking on his name does show he’s CEO of Centrro. However, it’s left to the reader to discover on their own that Centrro is the parent of Know Before You Apply. Hopefully, that oversight will be corrected.

3. The affiliate relationships
are inferred from the redirects that take place when clicking on the Apply Now arrow.

4. This is one of the ten online finance companies that launched in Sept. (post here).

BancVue/FirstROI Launches Checking Finder

image FirstROI, a division of Austin, TX-based BancVue (previous coverage here) launched its CheckingFinder service June 2. FinovateStartup attendees received a sneak peak in April and rewarded it with a Best of Show award (video here). The innovative service helps consumers find the best BancVue-powered rewards checking account based on geographic location, APY, or total return (see second screenshot below).

How it Works
finovatestartup_bestinshow_2008The first challenge is getting customers to the site. FirstROI is investing heavily in Google AdWords to get the word out. For example, a search on “checking accounts” at Google today (note 1), displayed CheckingFinder in second place, trailing only BofA (see screenshot below).

As a relative newcomer to AdWords, the company’s bid price would have to be high to score the second slot over such big names as Schwab (#3), HSBCdirect (#4), Key Bank (#5), WaMu (#6), Chase (#10) and Wells Fargo (#11). CheckingFinder may very well be paying more than BofA, depending on how Google’s ad-positioning algorithm weighs its relevance.

image

Clicking the AdWords link results in a list of banks presorted by closest distance to the IP address used to search Google (see next screenshot). Unfortunately, the closest participating BancVue client, Altra Federal Credit Union, is 1043 miles away
(see note 2).

CheckingFinder from BancVue and FirstROI

You can also sort the results by rate (APY) or plug in an estimated checking account balance and ATM usage and have the results sorted by highest annual return
(see note 3).

After selecting the account you prefer, users land on a page that lays out the offer in more detail and includes a bright green “open now” bar at the bottom of the page and another open button in the webpage bullseye, the upper-right corner. The online account opening process is powered by Andera.

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Summary
Overall, it’s a good “micro” search engine, helping users quickly find the best checking account from the company’s client base. The big downside from a consumer perspective is that it’s currently limited to just 60 participating BancVue reward-checking clients. It will be more effective if they can get more of their 400+ banks and credit unions on board.

While I think most consumers will understand that they are searching a subset of available checking accounts, I think BancVue should disclose a bit more about its relationship with the financial institutions listed. That fact is touched on in the About Us section, but the FAQs don’t address this, nor are there any direct links back to BancVue or FirstROI. 

Notes:

1. Google search conducted from Seattle IP address at 1 PM Pacific time, 17 June 2008.

2. Verity Credit Union, which is about 4 miles from my home, is a BancVue client, but their reward-checking account, Velocity Checking, is currently paying a short-term teaser rate of 6.75% to celebrate its 75th anniversary (APY updated 20 June per Shari’s comment). When Verity returns to its normal 5% APY, its account will be available through CheckingFinder. There is also a slightly closer California bank participating, Tri Counties Bank, but it is not marketing to Seattle residents, so I don’t see it in my CheckingFinder results page.  

3. Jeffry Pilcher, who recently left Weber Marketing to found his own consultancy, ICONiQ, is also blogging at The Financial Brand. He cautions that the days of differentiating your brand with “reward checking” has passed in many markets.

FiLife Debuts, Personal Finance Powered by Dow Jones and IAC

image I’ve been reading the FiLife blog and monitoring its URL since I heard about the intriguing concept last summer. After a couple false starts, the site went live yesterday.

The unique joint effort between News Corp’s Dow Jones and IAC is a cross between a personal finance tool like those powered by LeadFusion, a finance forum like FatWallet, a voting site such as Digg, and a full-blown magazine such as Money. It’s dripping with Web 2.0 touches from the trendy design to blogging with attitude and harnessing the collective intelligence of the user base.

The core FI Deals area shown below allows users to self-assess their financial situations. In FiLife-speak, it shows how you stack up, in key areas such as income, home value, credit score, debt and even the value of your car. The people pyramid (in the screenshot below) shows an orange stick figure representing where you stand against the rest of the country.

Following a few ideas on how to improve your standing, FiLife presents financial deals in descending order of how valuable the FiLife community deems them. In this case, a mortgage offer from Citibank is listed first due to its top-of-the-line 5-point score. In this case, since it’s the first day the site’s been live, the score comes from a single review by a FiLife staffer. As the site gains users, this score would reflect the average across all reviewers.

FiLife main page with stackers completed 12 June 2008

The other key area is the FiDeals (screenshot below). Here users can search the top deals across all categories as voted on by the community. Some deals have been placed in the site via sponsorship dollars. Those are indicated by the gold pyramid. Blue pyramid offers have been added by staff members. In either case, the score shown within the colored pyramid reflects the vote of the community, which includes staff member votes.

FiLife FiDeals main page with sponsored vs non-sponsored deals  11 June 2008

First Impressions
The deep-pocketed owners have the resources to build traffic and establish the FiLife brand, if they find it profitable. Assuming it gets significant visitor traction, this could be the place to find financial and banking deals online, at least in the United States.

The business model is clearly ad-supported. There’s nothing on the site at this point that would command subscription fees. And so far, the advertising is less intrusive than many other financial portals. And the bright look and good organization, not to mention professional personal finance content, add up to a potential winner.

But FiLife faces the same problem all ad-supported personal finance sites have: how to walk the fine line between the needs of users who want to find the best price vs. that of the advertisers that do not want to compete solely on price. FiLife sponsors may bolt if the community consistently posts poor reviews on their price-value. On the other hand, Google is dong just fine with AdWords, by ensuring that advertising is relevant. It will be interesting to see how FiLife strikes the proper balance.  

And it’s no sure thing that FiLife ends up as the winner in the space. FiLife faces competition not only from startups such as SmartHippo, Wesabe, and Mint, but also from entrenched sites such as BankRate and TheStreet.com. And don’t count out the incumbent personal finance magazines, including Dow Jones’s own SmartMoney. These properties have enormous brand recognition and have already built substantial websites.