Today's community bank marketers have a head‑spinning number of tactics to assess, with technology increasing the possibilities almost daily. What should strategic marketing plans focus on in the next few years? Marketers in the trenches advise that you should consider these five topics.

1: Use data to hone your marketing tactics

Data should be the foundation of many marketing tactics. It allows you to create smarter, more targeted communications that bring your audience what they truly want and need. 

First, you need actionable data. For Leah Brink, marketing and training director at $282 million‑asset BankStar Financial in Elkton, S.D., that involved using another vendor to get actionable data out of her bank's core and therefore better understand customer life cycles, what they need at different stages and how to personalize bank services.

In 2024, Brink is expecting clearer insights thanks to partnering with that experienced vendor. “The holy grail for me is working toward a marketing dashboard with customer insights that show us opportunities for better and more specific marketing of products that customers need at the time they need them," she says. 

Better data capture can be as basic as obtaining customer email addresses when they open new accounts, so banks can reap the benefits of personalized email marketing. Brink says more specific data allows community banks to truly understand who they are doing business with. For example, instead of using the broad term “ag lending" in your marketing strategy, are your target customers dairy or soybean farmers or beekeepers? 

According to Brink, a dashboard can help translate in-the-weeds data points into digestible headlines for internal stakeholders, management and boards of directors. 

“Figure out what matters to your company and how marketing can line up with what management is trying to achieve," she suggests.

Rob Birgfeld, ICBA EVP, chief marketing officer, adds, “Our customers, our markets, our communities—and the value we deliver every day—are the inputs that can feed models that make us smarter. So wherever you're engaged and seeing success, make sure you are gathering as much of that data as possible, as that will drive the bespoke models for your bank in 2024, 2025 and beyond."

Tiny but mighty

How one small team thrives

Leah Brink, marketing and training director at BankStar Financial in Elkton, S.D., says that with only four people on the marketing team, it’s “all hands on deck!” They have learned how to make the most of what they have… or don’t have. Here are some tips from her colleagues.

Working within a small marketing team and budget, you’ll always be curbed by time and resource constraints. My biggest tip is to reuse and reimagine your existing content. Review your current content library for pieces that can be adapted for different platforms or used in different formats. These changes can be small but can give your content a second life.”
—Samantha Grooters, CSR operations/marketing, BankStar Financial
My number one tip is consistency. Next, look for local opportunities for your staff, like volunteering to help create more visibility for your bank and brand. Giving back to the community is a great way to market your bank and show that you are a vital part of the community. Finally, always remember to think outside the box, listen to your customers and employees, see what your bank data is telling you, and the most important thing: Have fun!”
—Amanda Lauer, chief operating officer, BankStar Financial

2: Explore marketing technology

Marketers are buzzing about the capabilities of AI and other digital marketing tools. Yet, it takes knowledge to assess how these technologies can be effective for your specific community bank. 

“AI is going to change the game—yet it’s uncertain how exactly it will play into bank marketing,” says Heather Miltenberger, director of marketing and business services at $700 million-asset Pennian Bank in Mifflintown, Pa. Based on Miltenberger’s current uses, she predicts it won’t replace humans. Instead, she views it as an idea generator helpful for small departments. 

Brink agrees that AI is not replacing but streamlining humans’ contributions. For example, her team has used free versions of AI to save time on brainstorming for writing social media captions for a holiday post and slogans for a holiday parade. The key is to tweak AI results to match your needs. “Like it or not, AI is not going away, so our best option is to learn how to harness it as well as possible for our organizations,” Brink says.

Launching tech products for community banks works best with a mix of high tech and high touch. Grace Bruins, marketing officer AVP at $1.5 billion-asset Horicon Bank in Horicon, Wis., launched a new banking app with such a mix. The new tool, thanks to help from a fintech partner, offers personalization options such as allowing customers to bring in outside accounts, reordering accounts to move the most-used to the top, labeling accounts and adding color. The adoption rate exceeded expectations; more than 50% of digital banking customers adopted it within one week.

The high-touch portion of the launch involved Bruins’ team creating step‑by‑step guides with screen captures to help customers adapt. They also identified an employee in each branch to serve as a champion to assist customers who visited the branch asking for help. 

“If the surge in technological advancements and solutions can help a community bank reach, convert or serve customers, it’s a matter of identifying the right opportunity and the available resources to make positive change happen,” Birgfeld says.

Stay current with informative resources

With marketing options rapidly evolving, keeping current with the latest and greatest can be tricky for many organizations, especially small ones. Marketers say these resources are useful:

  • The marketing group on ICBA Community ( “From a peer-to-peer perspective, it doesn’t get any better than talking to those that are in similar roles, advancing marketing, testing, learning and sharing along the way,” says Rob Birgfeld, ICBA EVP, chief marketing officer.

  • SmartBrief ( Birgfeld appreciates the aggregated resources in the Marketing Innovation space on this site.

  • Banking on Digital Growth podcast: James Robert Lay, author of Banking on Digital Growth: The Strategic Marketing Manifesto to Transform Financial Brands, teaches banks how to optimize their brand online.

  • BankBound ( Marketing agencies that specialize in the financial sector often offer informative blogs like this one, which covers web design, content marketing, integrated marketing and social media.

3: Select strategic partners

Community bank marketers can enhance a small team by selecting the right partners. That translates into partners who share the bank's values and are accessible to their immediate needs. 

Brink says BankStar's brand, including the tagline of “Bank on the Bright Side," is colorful and quirky, so she sought an agency that understands that differentiator and can help build brand awareness. 

Partners can also help community bank marketers stay on top of a rapidly changing digital marketing landscape. 

Pennian Bank is working with a communication software partner to help make sense of the incredibly competitive search engine optimization (SEO) landscape. Pennian aims to be on the first page of searches for products including checking and savings accounts, which is a difficult goal. 

Compliance rules limit hyperspecific keyword targeting; instead, keywords must remain broad. So, the community bank leans on the expertise of its partner to navigate the ever‑changing SEO environment. 

Partners can also provide guidance on the smartest ways to spend limited marketing dollars. “In the next couple of years, we will see budgets shrinking across banks, especially marketing," says Bruins. “It costs so much to acquire a new customer that you're going to see more banks leaning into growing within their current customer base."

Marketing during the great wealth transfer

According to Cerulli’s report, U.S. High-Net-Worth and Ultra-High-Net-Worth Markets 2021, an estimated $84.4 trillion in total wealth will be transferred through 2045 mainly from baby boomers down to Generation X, millennials and, to a lesser extent, Gen Z.

How should community bankers market to these generations? As always, they must pay close attention to what their target market responds to and adjust marketing messaging accordingly. And frequently, that requires a bank to know the values of each generation.

  • Gen X will eventually inherit the largest portion of the wealth transfer through 2045. Cerulli states that Gen X may value offerings such as investment portfolio help and retirement planning. Above all, they want top-notch customer service and an empathetic and personal approach.

  • Millennials, as ICBA’s national consumer campaign has shown, have an affinity for community involvement. They want to work with companies that support their communities, and that’s at the heart of community banking. For resources aimed at the millennial market, check out ICBA’s National Campaign Toolkit online at‑campaign

  • Gen Z wants a bank that holds similar values to them: social and environmental issues, diversity and equal representation chief among them. Building a long-term relationship—before the wealth transfer starts to shift toward them between now and 2045—can help establish trust with this generation, which has high financial anxiety.

Marketing to multiple generations thoughtfully and then working to establish and deepen these customer relationships can help retain clients during wealth transfers, says the Cerulli report.

Sharpen your long-term game by getting current customers’ children involved with your community bank—ask clients and spouses to talk with their children about money, host informational sessions at the bank and ask younger employees for insights into how you can get ahead of the great wealth transfer by forging links with the young people who will eventually become your customers.

4: Take advantage of free resources

There may be no such thing as a free lunch, but there are still next-to-free marketing tools. Miltenberger likes Canva, a free online graphic platform (unless users choose to pay for premium features) that even relative beginners can use to create professional-looking graphics for Instagram and other social channels.

She's also had good results from the USPS Informed Delivery service, which is a daily email showing recipients images of their mail that day. Informed Delivery allows senders the complimentary option to make the image of their mail item clickable, an option Miltenberger says reinforces her bank's brand and has high click-through rates. “This underutilized service has been big for us," she says.  

Sometimes marketers benefit simply by bouncing ideas off their peers. Brink finds it “hard to benchmark in a small company when nobody else has your set of responsibilities." So, she placed a query on ICBA Community asking, “Is anyone interested in marketing?" The answer was yes—and her question grew into a group of more than 260 community bank marketers from coast to coast, with Brink as co-moderator. 

“That exchange of ideas is so validating to people," she says.

5: Don't forget tried-and-true techniques

Just because new and exciting tools and trends are available, it doesn't mean community banks should readily abandon their more traaditional marketing methods. 

Pennian Bank is employing budget-friendly—yet effective—guerrilla marketing tactics. For example, Miltenberger's team meets with the bank's branch managers, lenders and relationship bankers to fully understand “the small things we can do to help reach their customers and prospects." 

Based on these conversations, her team bought coffee beans from local shops and packed them into the community bank's logo mugs for gifts for customers.

In addition, Pennian's Holiday Door Decorating contest generated lots of social engagement. Even more, it accomplished the “unheard of" feat of bringing foot traffic into branches from customers excited to see bankers' office doors decked out in creative themes, from the movie Frozen to a ski lodge motif. The winning employee designer could name a local charity for the bank to contribute to, which provided additional opportunities for social media posts. 

“When people see we're more invested in our community, they are more apt to do business with us," says Miltenberger. 

Brink adds that BankStar Financial's oldies-but-goodies include traditional channels such as print ads and circulars, logo apparel and branded shopping bags that the local chamber of commerce uses to offer gifts to new members. 

Overall, when it comes to marketing, Brink says it's important to keep learning, executing and evolving. She says regardless of a community banker's age or amount of time they have spent within the industry, keep pushing: “You can always learn something new and use that to build value for your organization."