This article titled “Big Society Capital will need a skilful social media campaign behind it” was written by Matthew Yeomans for the Guardian Professional Network, for guardian.co.uk on Thursday 5th April 2012 12.12 UTC
News that the UK’s major high street banks are contributing one third of the £600m Big Society Capital – a new fund to help finance charitable and grassroots social projects – has been greeted with a fair degree of social media disdain, to say the least.
Immediate comments on the Guardian’s own site, along with other major news organisations and Twitter, demonstrate major doubts both about prime minister David Cameron’s “big society” vision in general and the ability of the banks to do anything social in particular.
It was always going to be difficult for this new big society scheme to avoid being seen as anything but a slick new PR stunt to shift attention from a global industry with a very big image problem. Indeed, just this week, a new damning report by The American Banker demonstrated the numerous ways major US banks continued to push predatory lending practices even after the 2008 financial crisis that was brought on by their predatory lending practices. The New York Times summed up the report with a headline that pulled no punches: Why People Hate the Banks.
If the £600m project dedicated to funding micro and macro social projects is to prove its value, and if the sketchy track record of the coalition government’s other big society projects is any indication, it will need to be communicated effectively through a medium that is deemed authentic, convincing and transparent by a public that no longer settles for PR spin.
So it’s just as well that, over the past 12 months, a number of financial services companies have proved themselves adroit at communicating innovative new social responsibility and sustainability ventures, often through collaborative communities and social media.
Whether it’s Barclays’ volunteer network, BNP Paribas “For a Changing World”, Bendigo and Adelaide Bank’s “PlanBig” or BBVA’s “Friends and Family“, major financial institutions the world over are looking to rekindle a connection with their customers and greater community through sustainability ventures and community projects.
It’s not been an easy journey for the banks. Realising that they no longer have control over consumer marketing and coming to terms with a very vocal and often angry customer base has been a steep learning curve for most financial institutions. Along the way, many banks have preferred to retreat into their shells rather than adapt to the new social media communication landscape that their customers are embracing.
But, as episodes such as Bank of America’s 2011 fee fiasco made clear, pretending social media doesn’t matter is no longer an option. In that classic case study of a social media screw-up, the recipient of some $45bn in federal bailout funds decided it would impose a new $5 monthly surcharge for debit card holders – only to hastily scrap the plan when confronted with a blogger, Twitter and Facebook backlash. Studying HSBC’s student-fee Facebook fiasco of a few years before would have saved Bank of America a lot of trouble.
Slowly, consumer banks have come to terms with the need to provide social media customer service – often supported via Twitter (Citi, Bank of Scotland and, yes, Bank of America are just a few examples). Still, answering customer queries is surely the bare minimum of what banks should be doing with social media. Communicating sustainability or social commitment should be a far more rewarding challenge, not least because communities on Twitter, Facebook and company blogs or social networks deliver the authenticity, reality and transparency that good sustainability and CSR projects need to be judged by.
VanCity, a Vancouver community bank, understood this back in 2006 when it launched a pioneering new social network called Change Everything. That simple venture – asking Vancouver residents what they would like to change for the better in their city – became a blueprint for banks enabling social conversation and action online. You can see its influence in Bendigo and Adelaide Bank’s Plan Big and in BBVA’s Friends and Family — two of the most innovative social media community ventures of the past 12 months.
Closer to home for Big Society Capital, the Co-operative Bank’s Join the Revolution initiative offers a good steer for how social media storytelling can shine a light on financial-sector social investment, while BNP Paribas’ For a Changing World shows how a big consumer bank can communicate the intricate nature of micro finance in a way that connects with customers and, yes, shareholders.
Perhaps then, before the Big Society Capital fund spends any of that £600m, it might consider a social media strategy for how it will communicate what and how it is doing well. Putting those plans before the UK “crowd” would certainly go some way to help counter the accusations of big bank spin. You never know – it might be just the test needed for the entire big society.
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