First with Facebook banking

FNB came tops in the financial services sector of the Top Companies Reputation Index with a score that was high enough to earn it a third place in the overall gold-standard list of winners, even though it did not secure a place because it was not one of the top 30 companies by advertising spend. Interestingly, First Rand – the mothership – was a top 30 advertiser, but its reputational performance was a lot weaker than that of the flagship FNB brand.

FNB is definitely doing something right with its social media and internet channels – of the local banks, it has by far the largest number of people in its Facebook, Twitter and YouTube communities. 

“We have close to 70 000 fans of our Facebook page and a very high engagement score. In fact, we’re the second-largest banking community in the world behind HSBC. We also have the biggest community on Twitter (compared to competition),” said Bernice Samuels, FNB’s marketing chief.

This translates to 76 542 likes on Facebook (, 7 948 followers of RBJacobs ( and 164 subscribers on YouTube ( The last one is perhaps not so great, but South Africans and South African brands are still getting into the online video thing and not many people subscribe yet to local brands’ YouTube channels. FNB’s videos had 136 416 video views, which is not quite as successful as Belgian TV channel TNT, which had more than 29-million views of its “A Dramatic Surprise on a Quiet Square” video that when viral.

Still, said Samuels: “On YouTube we’re the leader in South Africa. We take it very seriously and use it as a default broadcast environment.”

And then there is LinkedIn. “On LinkedIn we were slow starters. We’ve put a lot of muscle into it as a recruitment tool,” she said.

That sums up the interest in social media and the incredible versatility of online channels to publicise, engage, educate and recruit.

Why go social?
But let us take a step back. Why go to online channels and invest millions in it?

Nielsen estimated that FNB spent R370-million in 2011 on advertising, of which FNB said it spent 10% to build and manage its online social networks. It is a lot of money, even though social media spend is still playing catch-up with the real money channels: TV and print advertising and sport sponsorships.

FNB has moved so actively online because it fundamentally believes that it is a requirement for 21st century consumer banking, where loans and deposits are just a fraction of the services a bank can offer.

But there are risks in social media. First, it is new. Second, it is virtually uncontrollable. Third, it plays out in real time, all the time.

A soapbox for the seriously angry
The danger in a company opening itself up to social media channels is that they will become a magnet to people wanting to complain loudly and publicly. Another danger is that if you do your job well and resolve complaints or questions quickly, customers may stop using the traditional channels you have spent many years building. Instead of going into the branch or phoning the call centre, they may just tweet or write a comment on Facebook.

Whereas the call centre is usually run by the operations people, the new-fangled social media stuff is often set up and run by the marketing department, potentially leading to duplicated effort or a disconnect in how customer care systems address customer problems.

FNB deliberately set up its social media channels to feed into its existing customer care system. “We don’t see a fall-off in volumes through the standard channels,” said Samuels. “The intention in having RBJacobs (the online avatar for FNB) is that online has become quite pervasive; people want an immediate response. Sure, people are increasingly using it as a complaints environment, but all the customer care channels escalate to the same spaces.”

Whether in the social media team or the call centre, the bank does not necessarily have a credit card or home loans expert, but if a call comes in the matter is transferred to the correct people. “The person in the relevant area would resolve it and forward it back to the social media channel,” Samuels said.

“We didn’t intend to create a complaint resolution system [in social media], rather, we wanted to monitor conversations and monitor sentiment intensity. If we’ve just released a new ‘Steve’ ad, we’d have quite a lot of engagement around it.  We monitor key threads and see if they are overwhelmingly positive or negative.”

Get it off
Social media channels are very different from personal conversations or phone calls. With the latter, the conversation is private no matter how angry – or happy – the customer is. Although the individual can fume later to friends and family, during the interaction only two people know about it. On Facebook, however, the whole world can watch as it happens and even chip in.

Online, people will see something they do not like and share it. The priority with an aggrieved person is to limit the spread. “We absolutely move an argument offline as fast possible,” said Samuels. Best practice is typically to ask the fuming customer for their contact details and then contact them directly. Once the situation has been resolved, one can take the matter back online to let the rest of the community know that the issue has been settled.

Another risk in using social media for corporate communications is that there are online celebrities: the super-connected individuals with lots of influence in the network. The temptation may be to respond to these people most actively. The risk is that a web celeb with 5 000 Twitter followers could make a lot of noise, but a Facebook unknown who is an ultra-wealthy industrialist in real life could cause a serious business problem.

Samuels insisted that FNB specifically avoided prioritising high-profile, highly connected “netizens”. “It is unlikely that this would happen. In terms of what we attempt to do there is no filtering process – we deal with the subject at hand.”

Sell online, care offline
“For FNB, our social media space is an engagement space. A lot of what we bring to market is technology-intermediated products [for example, PayPal and loyalty schemes]. It is very important for us to make those links. Our ads are around pushing people to our digital channels – that is where we can do acquisition, switching or cross-selling,” Samuels said.

It is important to Samuels that customers do not treat offline channels as any less important, especially because so many of them are not internet users either due to a lack of resources, or they are simply not interested. But because so many banking functions can be done online, the idea is to shift the branches towards becoming more sales and services oriented.

Do or do not. There is no try
What factors should businesses watch out for if they want to engage with customers online through social media? The main one is that it is easy to start but not so easy to continue. “You can start a Twitter account by yourself in two seconds, but once you start to respond you have to continue. You need to start integrating it with online advertising, with your search engine optimisation and other parts. You have to be available when the customer is talking to you, if that’s how you define your presence. The main challenge is around responsiveness. If you have presence online, that’s great. But if they knock on the door online and you don’t respond, you’re in trouble,” said Samuels.

So where does FNB see social media going? “We are increasingly seeing social media being used by our business clients using digital channels to give customer feedback,” said Samuels. It is, however, not a priority for the bank. “Business clients will use RBJacobs, but very seldom. Relationships are highly personal in business banking and customers are on a first-name basis with our people.”

Added to this is that most businesspeople do not want to air their affairs in public – what starts online usually stays online – and thereby spread them to competitors.


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