Grow4Students Lifestage Microsite for Millennials is a stand-alone banking website from Grow Financial built specifically for Gen-Y college students. The $1.8 billion Florida credit union essentially stripped down their primary website and reskinned it with a lifestyle veneer. The Grow4Students subsite focuses only on the products relevant to a college-age audience, packaged along with a few tips and advice.

The website has a wonderfully detailed interface, drawing heavily on Flash animations (sorry iPad users) to create an immersive, clickable environment with a genuine sense of discovery.

There’s actually a lot going on at this rather simple website. In fact, a young Grow Financial member should be able to find most of the banking tools vital to college students available right from the Grow4Students homepage, including secure access to online accounts.

The website has 18 different primary links:

Open Account (neon “OPEN” sign) – Visitors will be redirected to a PDF membership application that they must either bring to a branch or send in the mail. Sadly there is no online account-opening option.

Contact Info (yellow “don’t forget” PostIt) – Hours and phone numbers only. No email option or contact form. The site’s live online chat feature is another “contact” option missing here.

Branch & ATM Locations (roadmap) – Redirects to the main website’s branch locator.

Checking & Credit Cards (credit cards on desk) – A window pops up with basic information and facts on Grow Financial’s e-Checking account (paying 1.50% APY) and their Student Visa. Taking the next step redirects to the main website.

Student Loans (mail at far right) – Redirects to Grow Financial’s online Student Lending Center, a fairly robust microsite.

Auto & Renters Insurance (car keys) – Redirects to Quorum Insurance, presumably a CUSO, but there is no explanation about the relationship between Grow Financial and the insurance company. Is Quorum simply a third-party company Grow Financial is happy to recommend? Or is there a vested interest?

Videos (collection of DVDs far left) – Redirects to Grow Financial’s YouTube account with 10 videos mostly about college financing.

Blog (books on left) – The Grow4Students blog has financial tips and perspectives about college planning, college life and post-graduation.

Rewards (gift in the left front) – Three different rewards unique to college students: a $100 graduation bonus, a good grades bonus, and a 1.00% APR reduction on the Student Visa.

Upcoming Events (calendar) – Upcoming seminars, such as “How to Prepare, Pay and Stay in College.”

Contests (trophy) – Nothing happening. All it said was check back later.

Discounts (jar of coins) – Redirects to a site with some online coupons for a mix of companies — OfficeMax, Nutrisystem and Papa Johns.

Music Downloads (iPod) – When you open a Student e-Checking account or Student Visa, you get five free music downloads form Puretracks.

Mobile Banking (Blackberry) – Info about

Financial Calculators (calculator) – Redirects to calculators at the main Grow Financial website.

e-Statements (wad of trash) – Information and instructions about making the switch.

Live Chat (video interface) – Redirects to Grow Financial’s live, interactive chat subdomain. (No, it isn’t video chat, despite the video camera icon you click on to access it.) The service is available Monday through Thursday from 8-5, Friday from 8-6 and Saturday from 9-1.

FAQs (mug with pencils)

The dorm room interface is a fun metaphor, although not entirely practical. A site visitor might enjoy exploring the virtual Grow4Students world on their first visit, but they could get annoyed if they were looking for something quick and specific.

“From a design perspective I think the website looks great but I find it annoying to navigate,” says Ryan Gagné, General Manager of NOW-IC, an interactive communications firm for credit unions. “I don’t like how I have to navigate away from the website for more information, and the brand isn’t carried across.”

“Overall I would prefer a more traditional website that contains all the relvent information rather than always having to click off the site to get more information,” he adds.

Some in the industry have wondered if sites like Grow4Students signal the future of next-generation banking websites — a switch from Web 1.0 information portals to…well, something else. Financial institutions have been scrambling to build this kind of cool, custom, website, but only seem to do so for the Gen-Y segment. Why is that? With a few simple tweaks, there’s no reason websites like Grow4Students wouldn’t work for everyone.

The only thing that’s certain at this point is that online “best practices” are still being defined. In the meantime, banks and credit unions keep experimenting with innovative combinations of microsites, custom accounts, PFM solutions, mobile banking, blogs, forums and social media tools like Twitter and YouTube. The prize for the perfect mix — banking’s current Holy Grail, or so it would seem — is still up for grabs.

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