Banks have a message for you, the disgruntled consumer: We're different now. And we want to help you. That's why dozens of financial institutions have recently launched consumer-friendly sites that look more like online magazines than places where you simply transfer funds and check your balance.
"There's no question that banks are providing more content around financial management topics," says Ron Shevlin, senior analyst at the research and advisory firm Aite. One reason, he says, is that their recession-weary customers are hungry for financial help. Another is that they want to rebuild trust among current and potential customers in the wake of taxpayer bailouts. "People need help saving money, minimizing fees, and managing their financial lives. Banks are not only responding to that demand, but they also see it as a way to grow," adds Shevlin.
Whether or not the sites successfully expand business depends on just how useful and user-friendly they are. With that in mind, we found these six top-notch consumer sites run by financial institutions:
1. SunTrust's www.LiveSolid.com: This site has dozens of stories on topics ranging from vacation planning to money management within marriage to teaching kids about money. Calculators let users figure out how much house they can afford and the future value of annuities. The goal is to educate without selling services, according to the bank. According to SunTrust, this type of consumer-oriented site is the "wave of the future, as banks gravitate towards more meaningful interaction with their customers." Denise Johnson, senior vice president at SunTrust, explains, "I've seen some sites where every [consumer financial] problem leads to a solution of a product from the institution. We didn't want to be so sales-oriented but more advisory."
The most popular stories relate to lifestyle issues, such as how to have fun on a tight budget and what kind of luxuries to cut back on. LiveSolid's Facebook page has garnered some 8,500 fans. The related Twitter page (@livesolid) has more than 1,000 followers and offers tips of the day such as "Challenge your kids to help create family meals for under $10."
2. ING Direct's wethesavers.ingdirect.com: From posts on pop culture to economic polls, this ING Direct blog reads more like someone's personal money Web site than a corporate one—and that's a good thing. Chief executive Arkadi Kuhlmann even posts commentary on occasion. ING urges visitors to sign a "declaration of financial independence" if they agree to such rules as "We will spend less than we earn," and "We will ignore unsolicited credit card marketing."
3. TransUnion's zendough.com: Run by one of the large credit reporting agencies, this site provides users with information on paying down debt, improving credit scores, and maintaining a healthy debt-to-income ratio. While some of the information, such as a breakdown of the factors that influence credit scores, is easy to find and useful, the site also puts a lot of emphasis on signing up for a "free trial" for full access to the site's resources, including your credit score. If you don't cancel the subscription after the trial, it costs $14.95 a month.
4. Texas Dow Employees Credit Union's www.youngfreetexas.com: This site, full of videos, contests, and blog posts, appeals to 20-something customers. Each year, the credit union hires a 20-something spokesperson to travel throughout Texas, blogging and reporting on saving money and other financial quandaries. (Recent post: "Remember when I said I was never going to eat out again? Well, it isn't going so well …") Young and Free Texas's Trey Reeme says the goal is the reach out to customers without turning them off with excess product offers. The credit union wants to send the message, "We want to learn from you, as well as help you—not just take your money," Reeme says.
5. GTE Federal Credit Union's www.u224u.com has a similar message, and has hired the Tampa Bay Rays' Evan Longoria to help spread the word. (The "U22" checking accounts are designed for consumers ages 12 to 22.) The site's blog includes information on everything from summer jobs to bank fees.