The next time you complain about your bank in a tweet or a Facebook posting to your friends, don't be surprised if your bank notices, and even tweets or posts back.
That could happen if you're a customer of Bank of America or M&T Bank, both of which are actively using social media sites like Twitter and Facebook not only to post news, events and tips, but also to see what customers are saying about them, or complaining about them.
"We don't wait for the customer to come to us," said Brian Huey, senior vice president and social spaces servicing executive at Bank of America Corp. "We're listening, and we're trying to find out how we can help."
That's just one of the ways that banks are now using social media as the newest way not only to promote themselves but to reach out to clients or employees to head off problems.
"It's all part of our strategy for communicating the way people communicate today and providing information where they look for it," said C. Michael Zabel, group vice president and manager of corporate communications for M&T Bank Corp.
"We think it's important to establish a presence. We recognize that it's something that's going to build over time."
As the social media wave continues to build, banks are plunging into the waters in pursuit of their customer base and communities. They're on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and LinkedIn, accumulating friends and followers, and boosting their brand and awareness.
They're posting or tweeting about accomplishments, news, product changes, financial tips and community activities. They're hosting pages around special event sponsorships. And they're recruiting for jobs.
"We are experimenting with various social media tactics," said Leslie Garrity, spokeswoman for Buffalo-based First Niagara Financial Group, which used Facebook last year to promote the Empire State Games, even showcasing individual athletes and updating 2,000 followers on various competitions. "It has worked well for us."
But perhaps most importantly, they're seeking ways to interact with and engage their customers in a place where consumers spend an increasingly significant part of their time.
"The bank wants to be in places where customers are and where they need us," said Chris Smith, senior vice president of enterprise social media at Bank of America. "Social media is just a place where people are spending more and more of their time. So we need to be there."
And they're listening. "You never know when and where you are being talked about on the Web," said Jim Holding, vice president of communications for Northwest Bancshares, parent of Northwest Savings Bank. "Putting forth the monitoring efforts can help identify areas that need attention."
At the same time, the banks are keenly aware of the importance of preserving customer privacy. So they provide more detailed and specific help by phone.
"Personal financial information is strictly protected," Zabel said. "If somebody tweets us and asks us a question about their account, that's not something we're going to engage in in a public forum. We're going to take that offline."
Banks are tapping into the tremendous popularity of social media like Facebook and Twitter, which have given rise to new obsessions for Americans. According to research firm Aite Group of Boston, more than half of banks and credit unions have a Facebook page today.
"It's caused us to have to take a step back and ask some questions," Bank of America's Smith said. "Are we listening? Are we hearing what customers are telling us that they want and need? And are we learning from that and observing how can we be useful in these places?"
In fact, that's what led Bank of America in January 2009 to launch its first Twitter "handle," BofA_help, which now has about 11,000 followers.
The bank's team of official "Twitter representatives" work from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. during the week and from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday, scanning Twitter for references to Bank of America. Specifically, they're looking for customer complaints or problems that they can address.
When they find one, they tweet a note offering to help, with 75 percent to 80 percent of the customers accepting the offer. An employee then calls the person.
"We take a vast majority of the conversation offline into secure space. We don't do it through Twitter," Huey said. "We reach out and try to solve the problem with them, and the vast majority of the time we do."
About 95 percent of the cases are resolved, often prompting the customer to tweet their praise for the bank's service. Based on that success, the bank expanded its Twitter presence. It now also has its BofA_careers handle, which already has 5,274 followers and is the No. 1 job recruiting handle on Twitter.
Most recently, it launched three additional "handles" -- BofA_News, BofA_community and BofA_tips. The first provides news alerts to journalists, with 677 followers. The second offers updates about local community activities for consumers and nonprofits to 157 followers. The third, with 642 followers, gives money-saving tips.
The bank also has narrowly targeted Facebook pages, such as for the Chicago Marathon, but no corporate page yet. It's posted videos on YouTube. And on LinkedIn, it has a small business forum and a recruiting site. Between Facebook and LinkedIn, the bank has hired more than 400 people, Smith said.
Smith said Twitter and other social media are "part of a whole group" of ways to service customers, noting that "consumers are more on the go, more connected than ever" and companies have to think about how to communicate in ways they haven't in the past.
"This is getting more ingrained over time," he said. "Just as we need to be in the physical community, we need to be in these virtual communities."
Like Bank of America, M&T is also active on Twitter, where it began tweeting last summer. It had 388 followers and 121 tweets as of early January.
Zabel said M&T tweets about company news and updates to its website, with links to financial planning and consumer information. It's tweeted about mobile banking, the M&T Bank Concert Series, its Touchdown for Teachers program with the Buffalo Bills and the opening last year of a time capsule.
The bank also has a Banking Built for Baltimore YouTube page that includes video of Baltimore Ravens players Todd Heap and Ray Rice answering questions posed by bank customers. After the bank posted the video, it tweeted a link.
"We're trying to do it in a way that helps us learn and helps us be effective and that ultimately, the end users will find meaningful to them," Zabel said.
Indeed, he added, that's a big challenge. "People tune out if you overload them with information or material that's not relevant to them," he said. "We try to find material and information that we think will be interesting and informative. It's still a learning process. We're certainly not experts at it."
And it has to be maintained, which is why M&T is not on Facebook. "It takes time, and effort, and energy to create relevant and informative content," Zabel said. "If you're going to make a commitment to it, your customers expect a certain amount of content. They want to understand what they're going to get out of it."
On a much smaller scale, tiny two-branch Alden State Bank this month launched a Facebook page and a YouTube site.
Jesse Jerge, the bank's 29-year-old loan operations manager and director of marketing, said the bank "dabbled" with social media nearly two years ago to test consumer response, but found that "it wasn't taking off and we weren't willing to throw our time and effort into it."
However, that's now changed. Alden's Facebook page will focus on the bank's new iTunes account, because of "the nature of the account and who we're targeting with it," Jerge said.
The free checking account offers customers Apple iTunes rewards if they meet certain requirements. Alden is the only local bank offering it, and indeed, the launch of that account is the main reason for getting into social media, Jerge said.
The bank will use YouTube to air videos offering news and information, including from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and a national banking trade group, as well as from experts on topics such as fraud. Alden is also developing "a few cartoon shorts" that will promote the iTunes account.
The goal is to improve the demographics of its customer base. "We're looking toward a younger crowd that we want to attack with that," he said.
Northwest "began getting our feet wet with social media" in December 2008, as part of its "switch and win" campaign to draw customers, Holding said.
The campaign gave officials an opportunity to gain some insight from customers about why they liked Northwest by offering a chance to win an iPod if they posted comments on the bank's Facebook "wall."
It now has 1,234 fans on Facebook and 322 followers on Twitter, plus 228 on LinkedIn, and Holding said officials want to use customers' input as they explore other initiatives.
Executives also want to expand the bank's educational efforts by posting videos on YouTube.
"Our customers participate in these online platforms and we feel it is important for our company to participate," he said. "What they think is important."
Others have been slower to join. "We haven't entered into it yet, but it's highly likely that we will," said Kevin Brady, vice president of marketing at Evans Bancorp in Hamburg. "We're in the process of probably starting out with just a Facebook page."
Brady said Evans would mostly post about its community involvement, branch hours and locations, as well as about special promotions such as customer appreciation days.
"We can't afford for it to consume us and take a lot of resources," he said. "We need to have a presence, and that's how we're going to start."