Coutts is the wealth division of RBS Group. The bank, which is 300 years old, offers banking, investment and wealth management services. 

Since 2009, it has been active on various social media channels. 

I’ve been talking to head of digital Phil Allen about the bank’s social media strategy, the unique challenges for financial brands, and how he measures the results of social engagement. 

Why have some financial brands been slow to embrace social media?

Compared to many other industries, banking has taken a cautious approach, largely because the sector is heavily regulated. 

I think there’s a misconception that brands can just jump into social media without thinking it through or deciding on the most effective strategy. This may be possible for some brands, but if banks are using social media, the pros and cons need to be understood first. 

You need to understand the positives and negatives. Whatever we say will be seen as representative of the brand, in the same vein as if we were communicating through a letter or phone call. For example, we can’t be seen to be giving ‘advice’ on Twitter so thinking carefully about what we say or even retweet is important.

Coutts has been using Twitter since the end of 2008 so we feel ‘established’ in this space now. Our presence in the digital space has grown quickly over the last two years as we gained more confidence and learnt more about what social media can do for us.

Returning to the subject of regulation, this is an important influencing factor on digital strategy, as banks are measured by the FSA on their handling of complaints, and there are set timescales for responses. Often these are measured in days and weeks, but the expectation via social media is for a speedier response. 

Taking this into consideration, it is understandable why banks have been relatively slow to adopt social media. 

Is social media more manageable for smaller banks such as Coutts and first direct? 

Having worked in more retail-focused areas of RBS I understand the challenge of dealing with the greater volumes of customers. Although private banking serves a smaller audience, the financial requirements of these clients tend to be more diverse and they require a more bespoke service.  

We must therefore take this into consideration with our approach to social communications.

At Coutts, we are fortunate to have a positive sentiment score of nearly 70% from the online community, demonstrating that we are getting the balance right.

How can banks use social media effectively? 

For Coutts, we had to think about what we wanted to say and how we wanted to listen and engage, across social media. 

For example, we wanted to increase awareness of the investment side of our business so we tied the use of Twitter closely to all the investment publications we produce.

We create some excellent publications, which showcase the intellectual capacity of our research team, and we can now tweet about these and upload them to our Facebook page, canvassing feedback.

We are continuously responding to the demands of our clients for social media and reshaping the way we communicate accordingly.  While our private bankers are in constant dialogue with their clients, there are instances where digital can serve as a complementary communication channel. 

We do have a team dedicated to digital communications, of which social media is a key component. There is the debate of whether to outsource management of an organisation’s social media activity, or keep it in house. 

How do you manage social media? Do you have a dedicated team?

I’m a strong believer that it should be kept in-house, though agencies have a role, and can be valuable with analytics and their broader industry view. 

However, we are the ones who know our brand and products best of all, and we need to be consistent across all channels, so what we say via social media has to correlate with other client communications. 

Over the next twelve months, we aim to continue to integrate activity throughout the business. Coutts’ digital team is already coordinated with our PR department to ensure we are dovetailed in all our activity and messaging.  

As we move forward, it is possible to envisage this as a regular part of what we do across all areas and markets in which we operate.

What targets are you setting and how are you measuring social media ROI? 

We’ve been working with LBi for the past year, and they produce a quarterly ’buzz’ monitoring report for us. 

This measures sentiment around Coutts in comparison to that of our market peers.  We are currently seeing just a 9% negative sentiment reading which is particularly low for a financial services brand. 

We support this through the use of additional tools such as ‘Twentyfeet’ and ‘Tweetreach’, which provide insight into key message reach. 

I always want clear insights into how we measure against our competitors. Who are our influencers? Who are we influencing? 

Have your social media initiatives produced any noticeable search benefits?

Two years ago, we started to make short films about Coutts’ products and services. We had lots of great content from this on our website, which received strong feedback. 

However, I was still looking at ways to use this content to drive awareness and acquisition. The natural evolution was to launch a branded YouTube channel, providing us with further means of distribution. 

With the synergies between Google and YouTube, our search results were increasingly complimented by video. Additionally, having our video content on YouTube enabled us to have more visible search results. Users are 50% more likely to click through if you’ve got video in search results.

Before using Twitter, Coutts had a level standing with key competitors on some of our search rankings, but we are now in a stronger position due to a combination of our SEO strategy and consistent use of social media.

How do you innovate in areas like this while still meeting client expectations?

Clients look to us to provide an exceptional private banking and wealth management service, and this is key to what we deliver.  However, due to the increasingly mobile nature of our client base, we must ensure that we are connected and innovative.

Digital is a fundamental part of this strategy, you only have to look at the wider market place to see some interesting developments in the financial sector, such as Zopa with its peer-to-peer lending model. 

Zopa isn’t a bank in the traditional sense but has broken into this territory by building a relationship between borrowers and lenders. It had one of the lowest bad debt ratios during the financial crisis. This is a great example of a social lending platform. 

I think there is something that banks can learn from this. 

What’s the next big game changer for banking?

Within the banking sector, mobile is a significant game changer. At Coutts, we have a challenge to address this over the next 12 months. One of our next key developments being a mobile optimised website, which is something we are currently developing. 

Mobile internet is becoming ubiquitous handsets and networks constantly improving. Smartphones provide the ability to undertake a number of tasks, so why not banking? If I can book a flight, buy my groceries or book some theatre tickets there should be no reason why can’t I check my balance, or make a payment? 

We’ve also touched on this already – but the reality of social media and the proliferation of channels is now right part of life. It’s no longer acceptable for banks not to have these channels open for clients to communicate with us. 

Commentary about banks and banking within social media can have a real impact. For example, a Facebook campaign earlier this month was urging customers to switch from banks to credit unions in the US. This had a direct impact on banks in the US and many thousands of people moved their accounts. 

Also, it is likely to become easier to switch banks in future, perhaps even through something like a Facebook app, and that in itself is something that could be a game changer. 

How this plays for use and our clients, I’m not sure yet, but its something we have to be part of, or we risk losing out.