Finding voice amid traffic

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Financial services companies are showing renewed interest in marketing post-recession—particularly in branding and social media efforts—but as the din of competing messages grows louder, these marketers must begin by carefully considering their target audiences' needs, experts said. Marketers in this category are once again considering large branding initiatives, said Jennifer O'Connell, director of business development at brand communications agency Partners+simons (see Q&A, this page). “In 2008, people stopped spending any money on marketing,” she said. “In 2009, they spent money on telling people "We're still here; we're solvent; we're safe and secure.' Last year, we saw people starting to move beyond that, and this year we're seeing people proactively look at growth ... [saying], "We're here, now what do we stand for?' That's the next evolution in the branding continuum.” But financial services companies may face a challenge in differentiating themselves, in part because consolidation among industry players has created “a state of sameness,” said Jocelyn Dimsey, senior brand strategist at Addison, a brand strategy and communications design company. “Everyone's claiming to have the same expertise and the same diversity of services,” she said. “There's also a tremendous amount of competitiveness. ... There's greater pressure than ever for them [financial services executives] to perform and show their value.” Because financial services marketing can be complex, with several tiers of intermediaries, marketers must create a clear and understandable version of their story, said Max Dietshe, senior simplification strategist at Addison. “It's surprising to me that more companies haven't oriented themselves around clearly stating their value proposition and creating repeatable stories,” he said. “Ironically, they often do have repeatable stories that do differentiate them, but they get immersed in the details and give you the engineer's view of what's going on rather than a useful and usable story.” Kevin Clancy, co-founder and chairman of Copernicus Marketing Consulting, a firm that works with many banks, said clients are becoming more interested in segmenting and targeting their audience because they are tired of making the wrong decisions. “They're trying to figure out who the most profitable targets are in a given category, what those people want, what they read, what they listen to, what their social media profile is,” he said. “That kind of info is extremely helpful to them.” Clancy recommends that clients do an audit of their segmentation and targeting practices, as well as their positioning. A positioning audit, for example, might survey customers and prospects about the problems they have, he said. The marketer can then position the company around solutions to those problems. “I've been arguing for a number of years that the bigger the problem you solve, the bigger the market response will be,” he said. B-to-b financial services marketers are showing increased interest in social media but so far have been conservative in their uptake of it, often because use of such sites is limited by client organizations' compliance or IT departments. But that's starting to change, said Michael Greene, analyst at Forrester Research and author of the May 2010 report, “Building Successful B2B Financial Services Social Marketing Programs.” “Financial decision-makers are actively engaged in social media and, slowly but surely, we're seeing financial firms beginning to selectively open up some social media access so they can understand what's going on in the social media space and, going forward, then start to engage in conversations and communicate through this channel,” he said. In a professional environment, financial services executives tend to want more secure, specialized social media sites, such as LinkedIn and LinkedFA, a social network for financial and insurance professionals, Greene said. “There's been a large realization that a lot of the b-to-c sites that have become so popular with everyone from automakers to [consumer packaged goods marketers] probably aren't incredibly relevant when we're looking at the financial services space,” he said. Financial services marketers can also use social media for research purposes, Clancy said, surveying customers and prospects about their social media usage and doing a content analysis of blogs and social sites. “To me, as a longtime survey researcher, it's amazing to discover how much information can be pulled from the blogosphere so inexpensively,” he said. “If you talk about doing a very serious marketing strategy study using survey research, the cost is $250,000, or $300,000 or more. ... To do content analysis of millions of blogs will cost you $30,000—a tenth of that. It's not the same depth of information, but it's very useful and can be gathered very quickly.” Based on such a survey, marketers can then begin to develop a digital strategy about how to communicate their messaging and positioning to the people who are most influential in the social sphere.
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