Regulatory Reality

Feb 10 2011   4:07PM GMT

Should banks and social networking coincide?

David Schneier David Schneier Profile: David Schneier

A few weeks back my wife asked me, as a favor, if I could join one of Facebook’s community-based games because the more “neighbors” you have, the easier it is to succeed and so I did. Truthfully it was a rare moment of weakness for me because I tend to avoid those sort of things as if it were the plague. It detracts from my primary reason for being on Facebook which is to keep in touch with my extended network of family and friends. In the two weeks since joining the game I’ve been receiving nearly a dozen requests per day from others in my Facebook network who also play the game.  The net result is that my Facebook screen is filled with what can best be described as Spam and I’m not happy. There’s already so much clutter coming through on Facebook that the last thing I needed or wanted was something not directly related to why I spend time on the hugely popular site.

I’ve recently come to the conclusion that several of my Facebook choices are proving to be questionable across the board. As a baseball fan I “Liked” several Facebook pages to track my favorite team and any of their front office moves. As a movie fan I “Liked” certain movie pages, as a fan of certain shows I “Liked” their official page, as someone who moved away from Long Island I “Liked” the regional newspaper and also “Liked” the town blog from where we moved away from. I also wound up “Liking” a few charitable organizations we support, a few local businesses we frequent and one online electronics retailer because that was the only way to enter into a contest they were promoting. Lately it takes me forever to sift through all the Facebook chum to find out what’s going on in the lives and minds of real people that I actually know. It’s become something of a mess, pretty much the equivalent of having mixed my legitimate email with everything in my Spam folder, sorting it in no particular order and then trying to figure out what deserves or requires my attention.

Which got me to thinking, why are financial institutions looking to leverage this remarkably unwieldy domain?

The FDIC has been talking up their role in providing guidance to member banks on how to implement and secure controls focused on social networking. Both the FDIC and NCUA have designated internal resources to firm up and promote their own social networking strategies. Several of my banking clients have entered into the Facebook fray to try and market their products and services to a variety of market segments. LinkedIn routinely displays ads from the big banks (e.g. Chase, Bank of America, etc.).  And while I haven’t signed up for any related Twitter feeds I know there are several financial institutions tweeting away.  OK, does anything sound less like a respected financial institution than when you can say they’re “tweeting”?

I’m not one of those technology nay-sayers who’s always questioning why we need all of these new fangled devices. Quite to the contrary, I tend to embrace advances in both technology and its capabilities. I’m a fan of mobile and online banking. I consider email alerts from my bank an important tool in both managing and monitoring my financial life and have always felt that way right from the beginning of when it was first offered.

However, I just don’t see where I need to receive updates from the FDIC, the NCUA or my (very big) bank via Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace or Twitter. They’re not going to be able to provide me with anything beyond what I already receive via email or can access upon demand. They’re only going to leverage these platforms as a way to expand their marketing strategies and I just don’t see how that benefits the common user. I don’t want the FDIC posting bank closing announcements on my Facebook page sandwiched between the latest Frontierville requests and pictures from a friends bachelor party (a very real example from yesterdays News Feed). I’m already souring on Twitter as an effective communication tool because a few of the feeds I signed up for and which I considered to be worth my time inundate me with run-on, cryptic sentences that often require I click on a link and navigate to a website. So the odds that I’ll notice a special loan rate being offered via Twitter by my personal bank in a timely fashion is slim at best. I just conducted a basic tweet-test; I went looking for the most recent tweet by one of my favorite Information Security sources (Security Curve’s, Ed Moyle) and couldn’t easily find it. Ed sends outs several such tweets each day and I’m not a heavy Twitter user so you’d think it would be easy enough to find, it wasn’t. It’s easier to simply navigate to his website and find what I need there.

I receive about a dozen email bulletins/alerts each week from the various sources I prefer to receive industry content from. When they arrive in my inbox they’re automatically moved into a special folder I set up for such things and when I have time I scan through them and read what I like (and the headlines and subject lines are typically complete sentences that don’t require learning a new form of shorthand). Plus I can do most of this offline and on a full-blown display, not my impressive-for-what-it-is but too small Droid screen.

This rush that’s underway to move into the social network space within the banking industry is reminiscent of what lemmings go through each year when the begin their mad, senseless but instinctive rush to dive off that cliff and swim away to their all-but-certain demise because that’s the direction everyone is moving in. I suggest that someone be forced to  come up with a legitimate business case for why banks, credit unions and their regulators should establish social media presences beyond “because everyone is doing it.” Besides, so many businesses block Facebook and Twitter access anyway, you have to question the logic in relying upon such forums as a legitimate communications vehicle.

Here’s the kicker though, I just checked up on those clients of mine who established Facebook presences over the past two years and guess what I found? Nothing new, literally. There are no recent posts, no recent planned events and nothing that would ever inspire me, as either a customer or member, to visit their pages. I went to their respective websites and found plenty of relevant and current content but none of it found its way to Facebook. I don’t know for certain why that is but am willing to speculate that when the people in marketing are formulating their strategies and Facebook comes to mind, visions of Farmville, poke-ing and embarrassing pictures with funny captions subliminally affect them.

Do I want to know about special teaser rates from my bank? Yes. Do I want it to be tweeted as “Spcl tzr r8 4 xisting cstmrs”? No. And I don’t want it to be embedded between weather commentaries from my connections in New York and daily quotes from the movie “The Princess Bride” on Facebook or MySpace. I suppose in the end I would remind the banking world that all because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

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