3 Ways Financial Marketers Must Protect Their Institutions Online

Poor online consumer ratings, negative reviews, and snarky social media comments concerning your bank or credit union must be addressed, never ignored. Even such basics as accurate branch locations, hours, and phone numbers face risk on the web. Maintaining your financial brand's best face requires continual effort and vigilance. Smart banking marketers will go on the offensive — including a major rethink of what search is about.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” may have been true when telephones had cords and dials. But in the age of the smart phone your financial institution can easily be injured by words put out on the internet by angry consumers — or even unscrupulous rivals.

In fact, while nasty social media jabs can hurt the reputation of a bank or credit union, a negative comment coupled with a low- or no-star rating on Google or any number of review sites may undermine an institution’s marketing efforts even longer. Tweet storms pass, but ratings and rankings hang around.

“Bad online reviews can really hurt because Millennials and Gen Z live on the internet and on their apps.”

Suffering bad word of mouth has never been good for any business. But bad online reviews can really hurt because Millennials and Gen Z live on the internet and on their apps. Long before they walk into a branch — if they ever actually walk into it — they will have checked out an institution online. It’s dead certain they will begin with Google. Try entering your own institution’s name by itself into Google and what you’ll see will likely follow this example for a community bank in a New York City suburb:

  • An entry for the bank’s own website.
  • A small Google Maps image showing nearby offices, with addresses and phone numbers for the three closest locations. (Google calls these “Local Packs.”)
  • A rating page apparently based on regulatory data from a service owned by LendingTree. Though no public ratings for this institution are shown, the page can accommodate both star ratings and written comments.
  • Two more entries for other ratings sites’ pages about the bank. A few entries down, after a link to an actual news story, there’s a link to yet another rating site.

In this particular institution’s case, there’s no Google box off to the right (called a “Knowledge Panel”), but we checked out some other institutions and they did have Google boxes, including star ratings and a link to reviews. There’s also comments and ratings posted by the search giant’s own “Google Local Search Guides,” complete with their names and pictures, in a couple of cases. Other services show up in the search, such as Facebook, and even Yelp, which most people think of when they want to eat out. For some institutions you might find ratings and comments from employment oriented sites such as Glassdoor and Indeed.com.

Under today’s circumstances, having negative comments online about a bank or credit union “is as if there were signs posted outside your building discouraging consumers from walking through your door because of poor service, long wait times, or a lack of suitable products,” says Brooke Henderson, Senior Director for Strategic Partnership Growth at Yext. “The only difference is that this is happening on your institution’s digital storefront. Consumers are judging your business.”

In fact, one Google Guides review for a highly respected community bank in the Midwest tells a story about an experience with a teller that can only be described as bizarre, and a bit unbelievable. (Google Local Search Guides are volunteers who earn perks.)

But here’s the catch: “It is impossible to remove negative reviews online,” says Robert Ropars, Senior Digital Marketing Strategist at Harland Clarke.

Henderson and Ropars, speaking during a webinar presented by The Financial Brand, explained how to address troublesome reviews as well as additional online challenges.

1. Fight Negative Ratings by Encouraging Positive Ratings

Winning the battle of ratings, rankings and reviews begins with monitoring what’s being said about the institution online.

“Ignoring this feedback could result in lost revenue,” says Henderson. “These reviews impact how decisions are made about your brand on a daily basis.”

“Search engines look on it as a responsible brand practice to actively respond to the good, the bad, and the ugly.”
— Brooke Henderson, Yext

Assuming awareness of what’s being said, an institution has to work at visibly responding to a large portion of the negative comments that are made. The experts indicate that responding to between 60%-70% of such comments is necessary to impress upon that search engines that the institution recognizes the importance of reviews. But they also point out that cookie cutter responses will not satisfy this requirement. Instead, organizations must treat complaints and other negative comments seriously, and reply in that spirit.

In fact, time-consuming though it is, the speakers suggest that all comments should generally receive a response. “Search engines look on it as a responsible brand practice to actively respond to the good, the bad, and the ugly,” Henderson explains.

While this may sound like keeping the robots happy, the matter is actually a bit more complicated.

“Most of the time, when someone gets upset and leaves a bad review,” says Henderson, “it’s because they haven’t been heard.”

So, they retaliate, she continues, “and give their verbal dislike to the digital storefront.”

Making the effort to acknowledge a consumer’s complaint, and then offering to try to set things right, not only addresses the negative comment, but can set up a recovery, Henderson suggests. Instead of staying mad, the consumer, having been offered help, may change their thinking about the institution. And that may result in them filing a fresh, positive comment or rating. Henderson says taking pains to get this right can increase consumer loyalty and keep them in the institution’s fold when they might have gone to competitors.

“It’s an opportunity,” says Henderson.

This brought the speakers to the value of actively encouraging positive comments. Institutions have opportunities to ask satisfied consumers to put up favorable ratings, rankings and reviews. Ropars believes that institutions should encourage not only positive reviews of the bank or credit union overall, but more specifically — asking people to comment favorably on branches as well as specific specialists, such as wealth managers or mortgage lender who have been helpful.

While negative reviews can’t be removed — even if you asked, Ropars suggests, sites wouldn’t comply, out of a commitment to transparency — promoting good reviews will help.

“It’s a way of drowning out the negativity,” he explains. This is especially important because financial institutions tend to see complaints when people get irked, but not so many notes of praise when they do well.

How to get things rolling? Simply ask. Ropars suggests that adopting something like the “How am I driving?” stickers that appear on trucks and other vehicles driven by professionals could work.

2. Make Sure Your Locational Information Stays Correct

Not so long ago, every phone was local and didn’t move around. White pages basic listings in paper phone books listed people and businesses by name, and the yellow pages, offering the opportunity for display listings, presented financial institutions and other businesses by category. A bank or credit union would pay for its yellow pages ad and so much for what passed for local search until next year.

“Sometimes disgruntled employees change data relating to the company, and sometimes competitors do. Simply changing an office’s hours, or indicating that the location has been closed permanently, can wreak havoc.”

Now there are many ways that a financial institution may be found, but they don’t hold still like a printed yellow page ad. Listings are compiled through feeds from information brokers and others, and also curated through internet driven research. However, these are subject to change without the knowledge of the institution, based on what the online services see elsewhere on the internet. In time, without the institution stepping in, a high degree of wrong information can begin to float around out there, and one of the marks of the web is that people feel free to repeat things without verification.

Beyond that, online business listings have been subject to widespread fraud. Google itself has been fighting attempts to create fictitious businesses in its map listings and elsewhere. In 2019 it indicated that it had eliminated three million fake business profiles, most of them before they could be seen by the public.

Ropars says another development has been scammers specifically attacking listings for financial institutions, especially phone numbers. One gambit is to substitute a number being used by the fraudsters in order to trick the unwary out of private account information that can be used to steal from them.

During the webinar, the speakers held an online poll in which 16% of responding listeners said their institution had been the victim of malicious third-party updates to their Google records.

Not every such effort has criminal intent. Sometimes disgruntled employees change data relating to the company, and sometimes competitors do. Simply changing an office’s hours, or indicating that the location has been closed permanently, can wreak havoc with both the institution and its consumers.

The Google My Business service, which allows institutions to set up free listings with much information about their company, such as locations, hours, location, and phone number, has one drawback, Ropars says. The legitimate owners or managers of the business aren’t always notified when a change is made in the listing, based on information picked up or falsely submitted.

Institutions have to work at keeping all information concerning the listings for their locations on Google and other services current. This may be either by direct action or by engaging a service that monitors and attempts to secure listings.

Either way, institutions can’t just cross their fingers.

“You just don’t have a lot of second chances anymore,” says Ropars.

3. Don’t Keep Thinking in Key Words in a World of Questions

When search engines first came on the scene, different operators had different ideas on how search should work. One, originally called AskJeeves.com, named for the fictional butler, was initially designed to answer user questions. Google came to dominate search, with nearly 90% of searchers relying on it. Google used key words for searches and consumers adopted the convention.

However, with significant chivvying along by the growing role of voice search via Alexa, Siri, and other digital assistants, search is increasingly driven towards an “ask a question, get an answer mode.” (It’s estimated that voice search could represent 50% of searches by 2020.) This shift is not just a matter of moving towards a natural way of searching. Henderson indicates that the change is being pushed.

“We’re witnessing a major paradigm shift in the world of search right now,” says Henderson. “We’re going from keyword requests to questions, and we are going from links to answers. The entire population of the world is being retrained to ask for things.”

Henderson gave pizza as an example. A traditional search in a browsing mindset would have yielded a variety of information, such as a few blogs about pizza pies, to some recipes, to some rankings of the best pizzerias. The user then refined their search further.

Gradually, searchers have begun looking for more specific answers, such as, “Siri, who around here offers the best pizza?” Asking the digital assistant that question yields a single, “I found this” answer plus a list of other pizzerias with ratings. People may search this way in other formats, too. Googling the same question yields similar answers, followed by more conventional search results.

But the growing bias towards answers instead of raw information can also be see in the increasingly seen Google feature “People also ask…” This section appears in the same column as the main search results. It can be somewhat subtle, so you may have been seeing it for a couple of years and not quite registered what was changing. It may be high or low on the first search page, but it is generally there, and search experts consider landing your institution among those results as a prime place to appear.

Being able to be the answer to a Google question requires publishing sufficient information on the bank or credit union’s website to synch with the question. Henderson says this often means having more data uploaded, and having more information coming up to the site from all over the institution.

Henderson uses the term “answers ready” to describe the mode that institutions must adopt to be prepared for this shift. This readiness is especially important because consumers increasingly don’t search by specific brands, but for generic needs. Make it easy for search engines to determine that your institution meets that need and it will have good visibility.

As an example, Henderson points out that many consumers may want to find a financial institution branch where there are tellers who speak Spanish. They are much more likely to ask, “Where is there a bank where they speak Spanish?” than “Which [insert your institution’s name] branch has Spanish-speaking tellers?”

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