Thanks to new competition for financial services accounts, it’s more critical than ever that community banks have reliable ways to acquire and retain new customers. Some traditional marketing methods still work, but bankers say the most effective game plans combine face-to-face relationships, consistent outreach and community involvement. Adapting these strategies to your community bank could help it stand out in a crowded market.

“Being visible in the community is really important,” says Geoff Thomas, chief product officer at Harland Clarke, a payments and marketing services provider in San Antonio, Texas. “Banking remains a highly personal thing and it’s best served with relationships, which are generally formed through some kind of contact. It’s important to put yourself in a place with that context, but have it be relevant and appropriate.”

Having extended business hours or buying an ad at your local stadium may not be enough to get people to bank with you. Thomas says community bankers should volunteer at events and visit prospective customers where they congregate. Dropping in at the local coffee shop and becoming part of the fabric of your community can spread awareness.

Community involvement is an integral part of the customer acquisition strategy at $115 million-asset New Market Bank in Elko New Market, Minn. Its 35 employees take turns participating in parades and expos in the three communities where it operates branches. For example, they dress in bright blue shirts—the bank’s signature color—and throw candy to the crowd during the Fire Rescue Days and Lakefront Days parades. The community bank sponsors or sets up tables at local events and even gives away discount tokens at a nearby farmers market.

“It’s hard to quantify the results, but I just think you’re raising that brand awareness, and the community sees your name over and over,” says Karen Ramola, New Market Bank’s assistant vice president and branch manager.

The community bank is also boosting its social media presence by regularly posting useful articles, such as those about credit or mortgages, on LinkedIn. And every month, employees pick a charity, make a donation and post about it on Facebook for the bank’s Giving Back to the Community campaign.

“We try to hit home that we’ve been in the community a really long time—over 100 years; we’re fourth generation,” Ramola says, “and our mission is to make banking as easy as a handshake.”

For $522 million-asset Franklin Savings Bank in Franklin, N.H., a combination of in-person and online efforts bring customers in. The community bank uses a series of online ads that cycle through a few different messages, such as “Simple Choices. More Options. Smarter Banking. Easier Living.”

Clicking on the ad takes consumers to a landing page for more information. “They have the ability to open the account online if they want to,” says Dawn Beers, Franklin Savings Bank’s vice president and marketing officer. “From there, we’re able to track how many accounts we open during a timeframe.”

Even if the customer doesn’t take any action, they will still see the ads on other websites through remarketing, which serves ads elsewhere on the internet to people who have already visited your website. The community bank also targets different audiences via Facebook and Instagram using a small visual, short copy and a call to action that leads to a landing page.

In January 2020, Franklin Savings Bank’s ads received 122,068 impressions and a clickthrough rate of .09%. “For the retargeting during the same period, we had a clickthrough rate of .19%, which is good for this type of tactic. We opened three new checking accounts,” Beers says.

Branch managers will also contact HR managers at local businesses about coming in to speak with staff about the bank’s services. “We have the ability on the spot to open an account, or we can take their information and make an appointment to come into the branch, or they could do it online as well,” Beers says.

The community bank’s board members will hand out referral cards to prospects that they want to cultivate. When the prospect comes in and presents the card to the retail team, the bank deposits $25 into the new account. Beers adds: “We do get a fair amount of business out of them.”

Putting together switch kits

Older customers, who have often been with their bank for many years, usually need more handholding during a switch, while millennial customers are not as intimidated by the process. Community bankers say customers are more aware of what’s involved because of access to information online. That said, there are things your community bank can do to make switch kits more efficient.

Put yourselves in your customers’ shoes. Daniel Rivera, marketing coordinator at The Bank of New Glarus in New Glarus, Wis., went online to see what a potential customer would find about the process and prepared a switch kit that would anticipate any questions new customers might have. The kit can be downloaded or printed out at a local branch.

The kit at New Market Bank in Elko New Market, Minn., has a direct deposit and withdrawal form to record money that comes in or out from the current account, a direct deposit change request form to notify any companies that send direct deposits, an automatic payment authorization form for direct withdrawals and an account closing letter form to notify your old bank.

Franklin Savings Bank in Franklin, N.H., recently updated its switch kits, according to Dawn Beers, the community bank’s vice president and marketing officer. Staff uses the kits to collect information from new customers on direct deposits, ACH transactions and more to set up their new account up accordingly. Staff will fill out the forms upon request and even go to a business customer’s location to complete them. Its kit includes a close account request to be sent to the customer’s old financial institution, as well as direct deposit and automatic payment authorization forms for the customer’s service providers.

Get engrained in the community

Being an active part of the community is also a big part of the acquisition strategy for $316 million-asset The Bank of New Glarus in New Glarus, Wis.

“We take it upon ourselves to find a way to maybe do some guerrilla marketing or something outside the box that the community doesn’t expect,” says Daniel Rivera, the community bank’s marketing coordinator, “but in a good way.”

“We take it upon ourselves to find a way to maybe do some guerrilla marketing or something outside the box that the community doesn’t expect, but in a good way.”
—Daniel Rivera, The Bank of New Glarus

For example, staff handed out sunglasses with The Bank of New Glarus logo at a popular tubing spot. One tuber who forgot his sunglasses said it saved his life and shouted that he loved the bank. “It’s ultimately the message that we are here for you when you need us,” Rivera says.

Employees have volunteered to serve lunch at an elementary school, clean up a highway and deliver care packages to fire and police departments. “One branch went to a local senior center and offered to paint the nails of any of the ladies that wanted their nails done,” Rivera says. “It doesn’t cost much more than the time and effort, but they so appreciated it.”

The Bank of New Glarus uses direct mail stamped with “You’re invited” on the outside envelope to invite prospects to seminars. They have also started to make the transition to more robust digital efforts. Facebook is its biggest channel to post information about community involvement efforts. “People in small communities are tied to social media,” says Carrie Stapp, senior vice president of product management at Harland Clarke. “They will not only find out that you’re involved, but they’re finding out about these events through your [social media] pages. That makes other businesses in the community also want to be tied with you because you’re doing a good job helping to market on behalf of the entire community itself.”

Keep engaging customers

All your efforts at acquiring new customers will be wasted unless you have a strong retention strategy for holding onto them. “What works for one customer may be different for another,” says David Acevedo, senior vice president and national sales director at 360 View, a bank CRM and growth platform based in Nashville, Tenn. “You should have a defined program of touchpoints in place. Maybe a phone call, a business event, a gift. Whatever the program, make sure you have the right tools to reach them how and when they want to be reached.”

“What works for one customer may be different for another. You should have a defined program of touchpoints in place.”
—David Acevedo, 360 View

Every customer who walks into New Market Bank is greeted by their name. All calls are answered by a bank team member, not an automated phone system.

“We hope that retains them,” Ramola says, “because they get that small feel, but we also have all services of any large bank—a full mortgage department, investment banking, mobile banking and mobile deposits—but hopefully we do it differently.”

New Market Bank regularly trains team members to offer up-to-date answers to any customer questions, and it’s streamlining the account opening experience. Leveraging its history is a strong selling point. “It’s our service,” Ramola says. “That’s our passion.”

Community banks should make sure their brand’s customer experience is seamless. For example, contact customers any time you make a change in your organization, such as a platform conversion or branch hours. Supplement that with postings on any of your social media accounts, since you never know where, when or how a customer gets their information.

Dramatic activity in a customer’s account, such as changes in their balance, could signal that they’re preparing to switch banks. Contacting the customer to see what’s going on demonstrates conscientiousness, but it also might uncover something else, such as a bad experience. Any request by a customer should be followed up promptly. Taking a proactive approach could resolve the problem and retain the customer.

“For any issue in progress, update your customer at the end of the day, even if the message is just, ‘I am still working on it,’” Thomas says.

A listening ear

The Bank of New Glarus greets everyone who walks in the bank and sends birthday cards to customers. Perhaps the most important thing employees do to retain customers is that they listen to what’s going on in their lives. For example, Rivera says, if a customer mentions that they might add a new patio to their house in six months, a team member will ask if the bank can call them in six months to talk about a home improvement loan.

Relationship banking is also a strong component of Franklin Savings Bank’s retention efforts. Customers are greeted by their first name when they enter the bank and all calls are answered by people, not automated attendants. The bank holds customer appreciation barbecues, shred events to destroy customers’ unwanted financial documents securely, and other events for select account holders. Staff call customers whose CDs are coming due to renew or convert them to another CD.

“Acquisition and retention [efforts should be a part of] every single day, whether your branch is open or not,” Thomas says. “You have to re-win that relationship every time you interact.”

Tips for a winning customer onboarding strategy

New customers will form their strongest impression of your community bank at the very beginning. To increase your chances of a favorable response, consider the following steps for a successful onboarding strategy.

David Acevedo, senior vice president and national sales director for 360 View, says to start by doing something meaningful for the customer. For example, reward them for opening an account by making a small donation to a charity of their choosing. Have a customer’s account representative mail a handwritten thank you note. Acevedo suggests an annual review to see what’s changed in the customer’s life. And in your external messages, send emails with useful calls to action with embedded links to sign up for online banking or bill pay.

Geoff Thomas, chief product officer, and Carrie Stapp, senior vice president of product management, at Harland Clarke say community banks should get to know customers to make sure messages are relevant and targeted. Find out why they opened an account, what their financial goals are and what their preferred method of receiving messages is. If you know a customer has accounts elsewhere, lay the groundwork for bringing those accounts in house down the road.

Dawn Beers, vice president and marketing officer at Franklin Savings Bank in Franklin, N.H., turns the customer relationship into a timeline. On day one, a bank representative should send an email thanking the customer for their business. Two weeks in, make a call to make sure they’ve received their checks and ask if they need any other assistance with mobile or online banking. In two months, call to check in and offer assistance with any electronic services the customer has signed up for but has not yet taken advantage of. And in a year, mark the occasion by sending a card thanking them for their business.