Infographic: Internet Banking Vendor Timeline, 1997 to 2012

Here is a monster infographic from our friends at Mindful Insights LLC, a boutique consulting firm in the digital finance space (previous post). You can click on the image for a larger version, or better yet, grab the PDF version here. We appreciate the opportunity to publish it.


Launching: Balance Financial Introduces Hybrid Billpay/PFM/Bookkeeper

image Internet-enabling every service and device on the planet creates fascinating new business opportunities. And we are seeing our share of them in the fintech space (note 1). Knowing how to deliver the proper blend of personal service and automation is an area of extreme importance to financial institutions: The optimal solution varies by customer, by product, and even by time of day.

One relatively neglected area involves premium services that offer state-of-the-art tech married to specialized human service, for a fee. Large banks have private banking departments that handle the bills and day-to-day finances of households with millions in assets. But those that fall outside the private banking threshold are generally offered free, self-service tools available to everyone.

Back when only 10% to 20% of households were online, that distinction was necessary. But now that 60% to 70% or even more of a bank’s households use the Internet, there are enough customers to slice and dice financial management services into a variety of offerings and price points. There’s a lot of revenue available for service offerings in the wide range between free and private banking.

Enter the newest player in high-end bill payment: Balance Financial, an angel-funded company based in Seattle that launched its new service this week. CEO Devin Miller was also involved in the launch of one of our favorites new services of 2010, Finsphere’s PinPoint mobile location-aware fraud-alert service (previous post).


How it works

image Balance is a unique mixture of automatic bill pay and human bookkeeper, with an online PFM thrown in to help keep track of it all. The company has built a rich PFM, added billpay powered by Online Resources, and given each customer their very own actual person who oversees the account.

Unlike previous generations of billpay and the scan-and-pay offerings from PayTrust and others, Balance Financial does everything for you. It receives the printed or electronic billing statement, it uploads the docs to its website, and then the most important piece, it pays the bills automatically based on your prior instructions, just like the private banking officer. The end user is only contacted if the bill falls outside the preexisting parameters.

Sound too good to be true? Maybe, if it were free, but it’s far from it. The company tested a variety of pricing options and settled on a price that’s borderline ridiculous for the retail banking mindset: $75 per month.



Are they crazy? Maybe, but probably not. The company has been delivering personal bookkeeping services for seven years, and has paid more than 100,000 bills for its clients (note 3). It knows from experience there are affluent households and small businesses that are happy to offload this task for much more than $75 per month. When paying larger bills, the late fees alone can easily be in this range (note 2).

Balance admits the audience for $75/mo is tiny. But as its technology gets better, and its bookkeepers can take on bigger client loads, it believes it can push this price down, maybe even way down. So if you are interested in finding a new way to serve your mass affluents with something they can’t get anywhere else, take a look at Balance.

Balance Financial integrates the human side throughout the Web-based app (3 March 2011)

Balance Financial integrates the human side throughout the web-based app (3 March 2011)



1. From the look of the applications for the upcoming FinovateSpring, the number of startups is growing at an even faster pace.
2. Our record penalty for paying a bill late at our business is $1,100. We’d just made a huge charge and by being that one day late, our APR was bounced to 25%, and we went into revolving mode over two cycles. Even though we paid the balance off within 7 days of making the charge, it still cost $700 one month and $400 the next. Anyway, that one incident alone would pay for Balance for 1.25 years, not to mention avoiding the huge frustration of making a thousand-dollar blunder.
3. The original bookkeeping service was founded in 2004, by Devin’s wife, Rebecca Miller.
4. For more on online personal financial management (OFM/PFM), see our Online Banking Report.

Banks Help Fundraising Efforts for Haiti Relief

image One of the lasting benefits of the Internet is it’s ability to quickly rally resources. The latest proof point: raising funds for Haitian earthquake relief. The big Internet companies, such as Amazon, Google, Bing, Craigslist and PayPal, post links almost immediately to provide site visitors with a trusted path to donate funds (see screenshots below). 

Consumers trust those companies and visit frequently, so it’s a great way to raise awareness and funds. But there’s another group of Internet powerhouses that historically have not participated in Web-based fundraising: financial institutions.

Even during the New Orleans flooding in 2005, we found only three top-50 banks linking to the Red Cross. It’s not a whole lot better this time. But one major bank, Citibank, has a homepage link to earthquake relief (screenshots below). Also, we found two other top-50 banks with homepage links: Astoria Federal and Webster Bank (see screenshots below). None of the largest 10 credit unions had links up on Saturday.

Several major banks, such as Wells Fargo and Chase, have homepage references to their own donations, but no way for their customers to participate directly. 

Online bill-pay fundraising
imageAnother welcome addition to bank-enabled fundraising was launched by Online Resources just two days after the earthquake hit. The bill-pay provider created banners and splash pages for its clients to use in publicizing the availability of bank bill pay for use in donating to the Red Cross (see inset right and top of the page; link to ORCC page with examples).

As of Friday, ORCC had commitments from about 10 clients to participate in the effort.

Mobile fundraising
imageIt was also interesting to see the role mobile is taking in the current crisis. Websites and television networks have done a great job publicizing a simple way to donate $10 to the Red Cross: text “Haiti” to the shortcode 90999. Once you authorize the transaction via a return text message, $10 is automatically added to your mobile phone bill. The service is powered by mGive, a nonprofit based in Colorado. In a Friday blog post, the organization said $8.5 million had been raised so far, a number likely exceeding $10 million by now.

Banks with links: Citibank, Astoria, and Webster Bank (18 Jan. 2010)

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 Links for Haitian relief at Google, PayPal, Amazon, Craigslist, and Microsoft Bing (18 Jan. 2010, 11 AM PDT)

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Web-based Self-Service Debt Collection Makes the News


It’s not often that bank collection techniques make the business press, and when they do, it’s usually not a good story. But last week’s WSJ article by personal finance writer Jane Kim featured a relatively positive spin on how banks are working harder to collect revolving credit debt.

She cited two examples of Web-based self-service applications trying to turn early collection efforts into a non-confrontational, positive experience including:

  • WaMu’s self-service website, <>
  • The Virtual Collection Agent powered by Online Resources that is being rolled out by three of the top-10 card issuers. The system was first shown to the public at last year’s Finovate conference (video here)

You can only look at the WaMu collection site if you have a WaMu credit card (screenshot below), but in perusing domain-ownership records, it appears to be hosted by Online Resources, so it likely resembles the screenshot below, a generic mockup from the Online Resources website.

Note the settlement offer listed at the bottom of the page. This offer can be produced dynamically based on input from the user as they use the self-service site.

What’s innovative?
While it won’t work for everyone, collecting past-due debts is one of the trickier areas of bank operations. Financial institutions have to be careful not to be too aggressive early on so they don’t appear heavy-handed and end up driving away an otherwise profitable customer, not to mention that customer’s friends and family.

That’s why a gentle email/text reminder with a link to a self-service support area makes so much sense. Not only can you speed repayments from delinquent borrowers, but also garner valuable goodwill by offering a positive experience via a collaborative online tool. Given the current environment, Web-based collection efforts could maintain precious account relationships.

Virtual collection agent from online resources (19 Sep 2008Virtual Collection Agent from Online Resources 19 Sep 2008

WaMu’s Web-based collection website <> requires a WaMu card number for login  (19 Sept 2008)


Why Are Only 1% of Prepaid Gift Cards Sold by Banks?

One of the biggest changes in the payments landscape during the past decade is the use of prepaid gift cards, especially during the coming holiday period. According to the National Retail Federation, $28 billion changed hands via prepaid gift cards during the holidays last year, almost $300 per U.S. household.

Assuming a $50 average load per card, the $28 billion holiday spending translates into more than 500 million individual cards. At a conservative $2 per card in revenues, that's $1 billion at stake during the holiday period alone.

It seems that banks and credit unions would be ideally suited to cash in on this interest. Yet, a recent Marketing Workshop survey revealed that only 1% of gift card purchases during the past year were at banks. Granted, it's difficult to compete with card sales at the end-retailer, but nearly a third of buyers used other channels, a significant revenue opportunity.

Here's a card-purchase breakdown from the last holiday period, according to the National Federation of Retailers (research conducted by BIGresearch, 10 Jan 2007).

  • 75%bought at the store where cards will ultimately be used
  • 17%other brick-and-mortar locations
  • 13%purchased online, retailer-direct
  • 4%third-party website

The directories at Visa and MasterCard (see list below) list only 19 financial institutions offering prepaid cards online. An additional 30 financial institutions sell cards thorough Visa's online site here.

Why such low FI sales?
Back to the original question, why aren't banks more heavily invested in gift card sales (see list of sellers below)? Part of the explanation has to do with the general unwillingness to take on the added fraud exposure, especially from online sales. However, financial institutions can mitigate much of that by offering the cards to established customers only.

Another reason is the lack of merchandising expertise. Bank branches and websites are generally not set up to merchandise spur-of-the-moment products. That weakness can be overcome online with tight integration into the online banking area. If banks had a "gift card" tab available in online banking, I believe it would become the primary option for many customers in the market for a gift card.  

Financial institution opportunities
Even though brick-and-mortar sales dominate with an 85% share of transactions, physical  locations by no means have a lock on the business. I recently purchased several store cards at a third-party location (Safeway). While it was convenient and free, I wasn't at all sure that the Safeway clerk actually activated the cards, a significant drawback in the buying experience. 

It's tempting to think banks could recreate the success of other retailers by selling cards in branch. But without the retail POS systems needed by card wholesalers to plug the bank into their card-selling networks, it can be costly to equip bank branches with a card-selling system. Add to that the expense of training tellers, educating customers, and potentially backing up the teller queue on Christmas eve.  

So the better opportunity for most financial institutions is online sales. You already have the traffic; the technology expense can be centralized in one fulfillment location (or outsourced); and it's easier to educate customers online. Online Resources is one established bank-tech vendor with a turnkey, multi-card solution, CardHQ, introduced last year.

Banks and credit unions could become players in this market if they did some or all of the following:

  1. Expand from Visa/MC/AmEx used by 12% of buyers, to store cards, used by 90% of the market (see list of card types below).  
  2. Provide written activation guarantees with each card.
  3. Allow users to check balances online or through text messaging.  
  4. Keep prices competitive. Safeway charged ZERO for the Nordstrom card I purchased there, apparently content with the commissions received from the retailer. Because of the activation guarantee, banks could charge a few dollars per card, especially if the card is packaged in an attractive envelope or box that reinforces the guarantee and the bank's brand (see #5).
  5. Use online banking to promote the cards. 
  6. Offer a variety of packaging alternatives and/or personalization to improve the cards appeal as a gift. Starbucks, the granddaddy of prepaid cards, is offering a $25 package in its stores that includes a personalized $20 card and a gift box. The package is bought in-store, but the personalization is fulfilled online.  

Card types
Here's the list of most common card types purchased (offline and online):

  • 38%—department store 
  • 27%—restaurant
  • 18%book store 
  • 16%—electronics store
  • 15%—discount store
  • 12%Visa/MC/AmEx
  • 11%coffee shop
  • 11%home improvement 
  • 9%clothing  
  • 7%grocery store
  • 6%gas station
  • 5%salon/spa
  • 5%sporting goods
  • 4%home decor/housewares
  • 3%craft store
  • 3%online merchant
  • 2%office supply
  • 2%catalog
  • 2%shoe store
  • 10%other 

Source: National Federation of Retailers, research conducted by BIGresearch, 10 Jan 2007

Companies Offering MasterCard or Visa Gift Cards Online


Western Union Prepaid Card

H&R Block Bank
H&R Block Emerald Prepaid MasterCard

HSBC Prepaid MasterCard GiftCard

Best Present Holiday Bonus & Incentive Card

AccountNow Vantage Debit MasterCard

All-Access MasterCard Prepaid Card

Washington Mutual
Washington Mutual Prepaid MasterCard Gift Card


BCU (customers only)
Available to BCU members only
Financial Institution

Comerica (customers only)
Phone: (800) 955-4212
Available to Comerica customers only
Financial Institution

Phone: (866) 874-9029

Desert Schools FCU (customers only)
Phone: (800) 456-9171
Available to Desert Schools FCU members only
Financial Institution

First National Bank of Omaha
Financial Institution
Phone: (877) 944-3822

Phone: (636) 536-6897

IDT Gift2go
Phone: (800) 995-3065

M&I Bank
Financial Institution

National City
Phone: 877-990-GIFT (4438)
Financial Institution

Navy Federal Credit Union (customers only)
Available to Navy Federal Credit Union members only 
Financial Institution

PNC Bank (customers only)
Available to PNC Bank customers only
Financial Institution

Phone: (800) 318-0210
Financial Institution

U.S. Bank
Financial Institution

Wells Fargo (customers only)
Financial Institution

West Suburban Bank
Financial Institution

Source: Visa, 3 Nov 2007.

Online Banking & Lending Tools at FINOVATE

Much of what we cover at NetBanker falls under the traditional "marketing 4 Ps": product, place, price and package. But, there are also hundreds of important things going on behind the scenes that can make or break a company's Web presence. We are lucky to feature two important tools at our upcoming FINOVATE conference Oct. 2 in NYC.

Online Account Opening from Andera
During the past two years, few areas have received more attention within banks and credit unions than the tricky business of online account opening. It's an absolutely critical element of turning a profit online but also an area rife with risk, error, and the potential for turning away potential new business. We are pleased to have Andera on stage, a company we are seeing more and more of as we drill down through the offerings of major credit unions. The company is a major force in online account opening with more than 125 clients including: Alliant Credit Union, Associated Banc-Corp, General Mills FCU, American First FCU, Toyota Federal Credit Union, First Mid-Illinois Bank & Trust, Energy First Credit Union, CSCEFCU, Service Credit Union, and Bank Rhode Island. Its recent alliance with Yodlee (press release here) opens up even more opportunities. We look forward to seeing its account-opening process in action at FINOVATE.

Web-based Collections from Online Resources
I first met Online Resources in 1992, when its national sales rep visited Seattle to show us their cool smartphone-based banking service. I was new in my R&D assignment looking at alternative delivery methods for US Bancorp, and I really thought there would be a market for this hybrid call center/online banking solution. Of course, that was before the Web burst on the scene three years later. Luckily, Online Resources didn't have all its eggs in the telephony-based basket and adapted quickly to become a leader in Internet banking and electronic payments. The company is a two-time OBR Best of the Web winner, in 2003 once for its novel MoneyHQ premium online banking service and via acquisition of InCurrent which, in 1998, took home one of our first awards for its futuristic online credit card management service. 

At FINOVATE, Online Resources will be showing its Virtual Collection Agent. I have not yet seen it in action, but from the briefing it sounds like a smart way to improve actual collection yields while maintaining the customer relationship during a very tricky time.