Feature Friday: Free Financial Consults for BankMobile VIPs

bankmobile_watchYou can’t imagine how many times I’ve gone to Google looking for results to “bank + VIP” and similar searches. The bifurcation of digital banking into a free standard service and a fee-based gold version has been one of my longest-standing, and so far, lousiest predictions (for example, my 2006 rant). So I was pretty intrigued when I saw the email pitch from BankMobile’s PR folks about its new VIP offering (press release).

The digital-bank division of Pennsylvania-based Customers Bank (powered by Finovate alum, Malauzai), which has grabbed 3,000 accounts in its first four months, added two perks to anyone who drops $1,500 or more into their checking account each month:

  1. ATM rebates: Unlimited reimbursement for use of any of 400,000 U.S. ATMs
  2. Free Financial Coach: Unlimited consults with a financial adviser

The ATM rebate is pretty standard and makes sense for a digital-only player. But the unlimited free financial coaching is a unique feature I’ve not seen before.

On the surface, it’s an awesome benefit. Who doesn’t want the ability to check in with “a person with a wealth of knowledge and tools to help you reach your financial goals”? But, it’s going to take some effort to convince BankMobile’s young customer base to trust these advisers. I am hopeful the bank will get those folks blogging, tweeting, facebooking, instagramming and just generally answering customer questions in public to build credibility.

Final thoughts: I think BankMobile is on to something here: recognizing loyal direct-deposit users with additional benefits. But I also think the bank should add a monthly or annual fee for the VIP option. Like many card programs, the fee can (should?) be waived the first year (or more). The fee would give the account more credibility, more perceived value and eventually measurable revenue that can be plowed back into more value-adds.

4 Amazon Fire Smartphone Features that Should Be Used in Mobile Banking

imageSeattle was abuzz today with the launch of Amazon’s long-rumored smartphone, dubbed Fire. Naturally, I look at everything through a digital banking lens. So here are its innovations that could be leveraged or imitated for mobile banking.


1. Tilt to scroll

imageDescription: Fire users can tilt or swivel the phone to navigate through an app. For example, on the Kindle app, users can advance the page by tilting the phone so they don’t have touch the screen every time you get to the end of the page.

Mobile banking use: Tilting would make a convenient way to page through transaction records. It could also be used to open additional functions such as tagging transactions or initiating a payment (e.g., Starbucks “shake to pay”).

Verdict: Until I get my hands on the phone, it’s a little hard to know how useful this feature will be. But it sounds like a nicely useful UI improvement (note 1).


2. Mayday button

image Description: Like the Kindle Fire, the Fire smartphone has one-button access to 24/7 video customer service with response time measured in seconds. Amazon calls it the “mayday” button. 

image Mobile banking use: Most mobile banking applications include telephone integration for a voice call to the call center. Instant video conferencing could be a good premium feature for high-value and/or fee-paying customers.

Verdict: While video customer support is not a killer feature, it has a nice ring to it when listed on your feature/benefit list. Certainly, banks should work on quicker response times for various types of products and/or customers.


3. Unlimited cloud storage

image Description: Amazon raised the bar for photograph storage, promising unlimited storage for all the pictures snapped from your Fire’s camera.

Mobile banking use: Unlimited cloud storage for all transactions and statements.

Verdict: I know your compliance team gets queasy when discussing long-term data storage. But it’s time to rise above all that and invoke one of the best customer-retention tools imaginable, unlimited secure storage of all banking records (see note 2).


4. One year of Amazon Prime membership

image Description: Fire smartphone buyers get one year of Amazon Prime membership free of charge. This savings of $100 covers half the cost of the 32GB phone ($199 with 2-year contract).

Mobile banking use: Premium channel

Verdict: Digital banking channels need an identifiable revenue stream to help pay for needed innovations and specialized services. A $4 to $5/mo “bank prime” membership program would go a long way in making digital a profit center (see previous post, note 2).


1. For more info, see our latest OBR Report on advanced mobile features (published June 2014, subscription). 
2. For info on fee-based financial services, see Online Banking Report (subscription) on fee-based online services (May 2011); paperless banking and online storage (late 2010); and lifetime statement archives (2005).

Unitus Community Credit Union Charging $2 Monthly for Geezeo-Powered Online Financial Management (PFM)

image In what I believe is a first in the United States, a financial institution has begun charging a small fee for online personal financial management (PFM) services.

image Portland, OR-based Unitus Community Credit Union, with 68,000 members and $800 million in assets, launched its new Geezeo-powered PFM Total Finance in late 2010. Members pay $2 per month for the service following a 30-day free trial.

According to Laurie Kresl, VP planning & biz development at Unitus, the CU has 661 members signed up for the service as of this week, or about 1% of its member base, which is a solid start considering the monthly fee is not mentioned on the public website, but is disclosed as members sign up for the service (note 1). 

Quick take: While online/mobile access will remain relatively fee-free, we’ll begin to see more fees for optional value-added services such as advanced financial management. Congratulations to Unitus for taking the lead on this one.

Unitus CU homepage features its new PFM offering (6 Jan. 2011)


PFM landing page (link)

Unitus Credit Union Geezeo PFM landing page

1. To sign up, customers first log in to online banking. The CU says it plans to add fine print to the landing page (above), disclosing the monthly fee.

PayPal Launches Advantage Program for Frequent Buyers

image When it comes to online marketing, I’m a sucker for rewards programs, sweepstakes, and the rarest of the rare (at least at financial institutions), premium/VIP services. So I was pretty thrilled when I got an email from PayPal two weeks ago with this headline (see first screenshot):

Jim, welcome to PayPal Advantage

According to the email, I qualified by spending $5,000 in the past 12 months (no problem considering we use PayPal to pay several business suppliers). The email included a $10 gift certificate for use with any eBay purchase (through 20 Dec.).

Taking a page from airline companies, PayPal’s main account page now contains a progress bar showing how much you need to spend to qualify for another year of Advantage membership (see last two screenshots).

The website lays out the PayPal Advantage benefits (link):

  • Cut to the front of the line when calling customer service
  • “Advantage hotline” phone number
  • Premium support via “most senior U.S.-based customer service specialists”
  • Faster dispute resolution
  • Exclusive events with executives meet-and-greets
  • Advantage member community/forum (coming soon)
  • Advantage member email newsletter (received one issue on 19 Nov.)
  • First to hear about the best shopping deals

Analysis: While none of the above is as exciting as the free travel rewards big-spending credit-card customers are accustomed to, these softer benefits are not as expensive either. And receiving recognition, combined with the red-carpet treatment from your financial provider, is an unexpected surprise and excellent customer-retention tool.

Welcome email with $10 certificate for any eBay purchase (17 Nov. 2010)

PayPal advantage Welcome email with $10 certificate for any eBay purchase

 Interstitial displayed at login (27 Nov 2010, 1 Dec 2010)

Interstitial displayed at PayPal login

PayPal Advantage landing page (link)

 PayPal Advantage landing page
PayPal Advantage benefits page (link)

PayPal Advantage complete benefits page

Widget on main page shows progress towards Advantage status

Widget on main page shows progress towards PayPal Advantage status

Details page showing specific progress

Details page showing specific progress towards PayPal advantage qualification

Summary box close up


Has Mercantile Bank cracked the code for generating online banking fees?

imageWe are always on the lookout for examples of U.S. financial institutions charging fees for value-added services online (see note 1). In the past seven or eight years, the sightings have been rare. 

But today, we have a great one. And like most brilliant ideas, it seems pretty obvious in retrospect. The new service from Mercantile Bank of Michigan is called Funds Manager (PDF FAQs here) and it’s not only a great service innovation, but also promises to bring fees back to online banking.

How it works
Funds Manager is basically a consumer version of positive pay, a standard offering in commercial banking. In the commercial version, clients look at checks and electronic items being presented for payment, and can nix any that are fraudulent.

Mercantile launched similar capabilities for its retail customers, allowing them to peek at their pending checks and ACH items a half-day before they are withdrawn from their account (see note 1).

Between 11 AM and noon, the bank posts the checks that will be processed that evening, giving customers a few hours lead time to make a transfer to avoid an upcoming overdraft. Customers have until 5 PM to make a branch deposit or 7 PM to make an online transfer to cover a shortfall.

Mercantile’s online and mobile banking are powered by S1.

Business case
Sure, the service would impact OD/NSF income. But the bank makes up for that by charging a small fee, $4/mo, for the service. Given the type of customer who’d be drawn to this service, $48/yr should more than cover any lost OD income. And it provides a service that improves customer satisfaction and differentiates the bank from others. Business customers pay $30/mo, a potentially lucrative small-business service.

According to an article in Friday’s American Banker, the bank has signed up a quarter of its retail online banking customers for the service (558 of 2,361). While the $27,000 in annual revenues to Mercantile barely covers costs, if Bank of America experienced similar penetration, it would be worth more than $250 million per year, a nice boost to the online banking P&L.

Not only is consumer positive pay a nice standalone service, it could be the cornerstone of a premium online banking option that could be priced at $5/mo or more. 

It would be even better if users received email or text-message alerts whenever they had items to review. And it would be a great addition to an iPhone/mobile app where the items could be reviewed, and transfers initiated, right on the phone.

1. Please email other examples to me or add them to the comments.
2. The advanced look does not include branch deposits, ATM transactions, wire transfers, or telephone transfers.  

How Can Online Banking Develop its Own Black Card?

image Yesterday, I looked at a list of free services likely to come under pressure as banks work on the Herculean task of returning to normal profitability. One area that’s likely to remain free for the foreseeable future is online and mobile banking, at least the core account-access portion of it.

But we continue to believe that financial institutions are missing a revenue opportunity to provide premium fee-based services to certain segments.

imageIf American Express can command $2500 per year for its black Centurion Card and Barclays $495 per year (see note 1) for its slightly more pedestrian Black Card launched in December (see note 2), why can’t banks get $10/mo for a similar premium version of online and mobile banking? The short answer: They haven’t tried.

Just for the sake of discussion, here’s a “gold online banking” service for which I’d pay $15 per month without a moment’s hesitation:

  • High-end website and iPhone app
  • Long-term (7+ years) online storage of images, transactions, statements
  • On-demand credit score like Credit Karma 
  • Credit bureau alerts when negative items hit
  • Account aggregation with weekly summaries like Mint
  • Email customer service with 30-minute or less turnaround time
  • VIP phone and tech support with no phone tree
  • No overdraft/NSF charges (within limits of course)
  • Travel rewards/sweepstakes on electronic transactions
  • Pre-filled one-click credit application
  • Extra security options
  • SMS balance inquiry
  • Iron-clad, no-fine-print security guarantee with 100% immediate reimbursement and emergency credit line

For more elaboration on these benefits, see our Online Banking Report on Pricing Online Services.

Visa Black Card homepage (15 Feb. 2009)
Includes one-page online application


1. The benefits of the Visa Black Card are similar to those from many gold/platinum cards. One of the biggest differentiators is free limited membership to Priority Pass which gets cardholders into 500 airport lounges in 250 cities. However, according to the FAQs, Black Card holders are limited to two complimentary visits per year, so this would cost $154 annually if purchased directly from Priority Pass. In fact, for $349 annually, you could get unlimited access to airport lounges. 
2. The Visa Black Card has been advertised with full-page ads in the New York Times, the latest on 10 Feb. 2009 on p. A5 (national edition).

Tax Prep 2.0: Does H&R Block’s Tango Provide a New Model for Pricing Online Financial Services?

imageFive days from the U.S. income tax deadline, tax prep ads are everywhere. I don't usually notice them because I still file the old-fashioned way, via CPA (note 1) and paper check. However, yesterday I noticed H&R Block's banner strung across the top of TechCrunch (screenshot below).

It caught my eye for a several reasons:

  • 24/7 access to live tax help, a real benefit to the legions of last-minute filers.
  • The "Tango" branding really intrigued me. How could a tax service be interesting enough to have its own brand, especially one as off-beat as Tango (note 2)?

The Tango product, complete with YouTube videos, <wannatango.com> URL, and more, deserves a post of its own, but here I want to focus on Block's pricing/segmentation.

The tax-prep giant divided its online services into two distinct categories, both catering to the computer savvy do-it-yourself crowd. Block calls the segments: "Do it Myself" and "Do it With Me" (screenshot below) with pricing as follows:

Do it myself:

  • $14.95 for 1040EZ
  • $29.95 for 1040 with itemized deductions
  • $59.95 for 1040 with state return

Do it with me:

  • $70 Tango option — complete online and submit yourself with unlimited 24/7 support (includes state return)
  • $99.95 (+$34.95 for state) complete yourself and then route to an H&R Block agent to review and e-file
  • $99.95 (+$34.95 for state) and above (note 3) to fill out an online questionaire and submit your data to have someone at H&R Block complete the return for you


NetBanker strategic action item
Banks, take notice. Block's pricing strategy is brilliant and if applied to online banking, could revive the difficult business case. Online banking, like electronic tax prep, is a mature business, and has long ago proven itself as valuable and convenient.

Now it's time to cash in on that convenience. While levying fees across the board would create customer ill-will, it's possible to segment your online banking base into customers who want plain vanilla services for free and those that want the best, and are willing to pay for it. Block's Tango is a good example of how to price for those who want to go it alone for the lowest cost and those that want high-tech online services AND high-touch tech support.

A bank or credit union could mimic the Block program:

  • Do it myself (FREE): Download data, set up my bills, create triggered alerts, monitor my own security settings, read my own credit report, store my own statements on my hard drive, and so on
  • Do it with me ($5/mo): 24/7 access to an online specialist who will provide advice, assistance, and help doing any of the above. Added bonus: lifetime storage of all transactions, statements, and check images!!!

Call it VIP Banking and start turning online banking into a profit center. With dedicated fee income you will have fewer problems during the looming crisis in online banking measurement

For more on online banking pricing and how to develop a premium-priced online banking service, see our Online Banking Report: Pricing – The "Fee" vs. "Free" Controversy (#109).

H&R Block Banner on TechCrunch (9 April 2008, 1 PM Pacific)

H&R Block Tango advertised on TechCrunch

Landing page from TechCrunch banner (9 April 2008)

H&R Block landing page from TechCrunch banner

Tango homepage (9 April 2008)

H&R Block Tango home


1. In testing Turbotax and TaxCut, I have found both to be intuitive and surprisingly easy to use, even for relatively complicated returns with business deductions. This year, I did my teen's return on the free TurboTax online site, which was very slick. My son's already deposited his $2 refund into his online bank account.

2. H&R Block's Tango actually has a Wikipedia listing (within the H&R Block entry). That's something you don't see too often. According to Wikipedia, the Tango service first appeared last year for 2006 returns, but was plagued by computer glitches that forced the company to issue refunds. But it received good reviews this year, scoring an 82 here, just two points less than leader TurboTax Online. Tango finished ahead of the other four sites reviewed (here).

3. My federal returns would cost $199.80 through this most expensive option, about $500 less than my CPA.

Mobile Access May Be New Anchor for Fee-Based Premium Online Banking

What's the biggest obstacle to online banking innovation in the United States? No, it's not security, ease of use, or customer education. The biggest problem is lack of fee income.

Unfortunately, online banking came of age in a golden time for U.S. financial institutions, with rate spreads at historical highs, customer loyalty at a peak, and fee income on the rise.

Banks, flush with profits in most business lines, decided not to bother with the difficult task of wringing fee income out of the new channel. So we ended up with near-universal adoption of the FREE model despite little economic justification for the subsidy. Sure, online banking customers are more profitable, but so are safe deposit customers. And you don't offer those free across the board.

The results are predictable. With online banking being cash-flow negative, many management teams have under invested in the online channel, while subsequently over investing in branches (see Online Banking Report #128, The Demise of the Branch). 

Fighting free
There is no way to eliminate free online banking altogether, but you can nip away at the edges, convincing some customers to voluntarily pay fees for value-added services. 

One promising avenue is converting users into a premium, fee-based online banking option, the same way American Express convinces its members to increase their annual membership fee two-fold by trading up to a Gold Card.

But in order to convince customers to voluntarily give up their free service, the fee-based version must have compelling benefits. The following three hot areas could be used to anchor a platinum online banking service. The first two we've looked at before (see previous coverage here), but mobile banking is the newcomer that offers much promise:

  1. Unlimited storage: Taking a cue from Google's Gmail that offers virtually unlimited email storage, banks should allow their gold-account customers to permanently archive e-statements, transactions, and images for no additional charge. Everyone else sees their transactions disappear after a few months. And every month, right before erasing another month of data, provide customers with an opportunity to upgrade to premium banking (see Online Banking Report #118, Lifetime Statement Archives).
  2. Unlimited credit report access: The second most powerful premium benefit is simple online access to credit reports directly from within the logged-in online banking area. Users could assess their previously downloaded report at any time, and order a new one several times per year. In addition, customers would be protected by daily credit bureau account monitoring (see Online Banking Report #83/84, Credit Report Monitoring & Identity Protection).
  3. Full interactive mobile access: While the previous two items are relatively easy to do today, in the United States, the mobile market is just revving up with Cingular's recent announcement to add a banking application to its mobile "desktop." We've seen a live demo using a real bank account, and it's impressive. The partners on the service are Firethorn and Checkfree (see upcoming Online Banking Report #138, due out in late January 2007).

Any premium online banking program should include one or more of these three core, value-added services. Then, additional minor services, such as security alerts, can be layered on to further differentiate premium banking from plain-old banking (POB).

For more information about online banking pricing and premium service offerings, see Online Banking Report #109, Pricing

Platinum Upgrade from American Express

Despite intense competition from MasterCard and Visa issuers, American Express has been able to maintain a substantial share of the high-end market for credit/charge cards. For the twenty years we’ve followed the company, its marketing has consistently conveyed an upscale image.

Amex_email_premium_serviceCase in point: The email we received today asking us to upgrade from our existing Gold Card to an American Express Platinum (click on inset for a closeup look).

The subject line said it all:

     Upgrade to a card with premium service

The benefits cited included:
* Complimentary airline ticket on any of the 18 participating airline partners
* Airport club access (Continental, Delta, Northwest Airlines)
* Hotels & resort special privileges
* Free Membership Rewards program
* By Invitation Only (privileged access and tickets to events that, in many cases, can’t be purchased through any other source)

The American Express solicitation is heavily oriented towards travel and entertainment benefits which plays to the company’s strengths. A bank could do the same by concentrating more on the "premium service" aspect. For example:

  • Front-of-the-line service: Your service request, whether by email or phone, always goes to the front of the queue
  • Branch manager access: If you ever need to go direct to the top for any reason, just call (212) 555-1212 or email branchmanager@yourbank.com
  • Preferred access to product specialists: If you ever have an unusual problem, whether it be accessing your online banking account from your laptop, or how to fund your Roth IRA, we will connect you with a specialist with state-of-the-art knowledge in that area
  • Ft. Knox security: You need not worry about the safety and security of your bank accounts with our upgraded security and authentication algorithms

For more ideas, see "E-Service 2.0" (OBR 105/106).

Provident Bank Launches Premium Option

Provbank_premium_featuresBaltimore-based Provident Bank <provbank.com> with $4 billion on deposit from 590,000 accounts, is the largest U.S. bank to segment its online banking access into two levels, My Account Online and Premium Internet Banking with Bill Payment.

As the name suggests, the primary difference is bill payment. But also the premium version provides a combined statement whereas the basic version still requires separate logins for
each product. Premium also allows downloading into Quicken/Money (click on inset for an account comparison).

Basic online banking is free; premium is priced at $5.95/month, a popular price point in the days before bill payment became free. The bank encourages trial of the premium service with a generous 6-month fee-free period.

It’s a good start, but it would be more effective if the premium version had more benefits such as extra service, more security, longer archives, and so on. The bank also needs to support the product better with website graphics, copywriting, and imagery that reinforces the premium image.

Reference: See OBR 109, for a report on online banking segmentation.


Premium Banking Examples

1st_source_premium_bankingFor years, whenever we needed to show an example of product line segmentation, we’ve used 1st Source Bank’s Premium Online Banking, a $6/mo upgrade for users if its free online banking service.

Our most recent research uncovered several more examples:

American Savings Bank
Free: Online Banking
Free: Online Banking Plus
$5.85/mo: Online Banking Premium

North Shore Bank
Free: Epay
$5.95/mo: All Pay

We’ll be covering this subject in great detail as numerous premium online banking programs are launched during the next few years. For more information on multi-level pricing, refer to Online Banking Report #109, published in August 2004.


Gold Credit Report Package from Equifax

If you are looking for ideas on how to create a steady stream of fee income from your online presence, look at how the credit report marketers have continued to command premium prices even as the government mandates annual free credit report access.

We like Equifax ‘s approach. A laundry-list of features and benefits divided into a GOLD and SILVER offering. Gold, at $100 per year provides little more than Silver at $50 per year, but with a 30-day free trial, why not give it a try. Cleverly, the cheaper Silver plan does NOT have a free trial period. Many consumers will check out the Gold and never remember or bother to switch back to Silver.

By the way, we first heard about this offering through a banner ad on eBay in June.