Banks woo youth with social media

Robert Cartwright drives a company car. He has a laptop, iPhone and video camera paid for by this employer, and rarely spends time in the Bridgeton headquarters of Vantage Credit Union.


Instead, Cartwright is often online where he chats with 'fans' on social networking site Facebook, posts videos on YouTube, microblogs to 'followers' on Twitter, and does the kind of stuff you'd expect from a 26-year-old.

But he's not goofing off. Cartwright is spokesman for the credit union's youth marketing program, a key effort to win the financial business of the young demographic group Gen Y.




Vantage and many competing financial institutions are connecting with their next generation of customers by speaking their language -- social media -- and reaching them on smartphones.

"This age group, Generation Y, it's what we're on all the time," Cartwright said.

Several banks are also rolling out new accounts specifically geared to Gen Y, with no fees if they get their statements online and deposit checks electronically instead of visiting a bank branch.

The group's age range varies, but it generally includes teenagers up to 32-year-olds. It was dubbed "Y" after following Generation X -- typically defined as those ages 33 to 46 -- that succeeded the baby boomer generation.

The focus on youth is a way to build brand loyalty for future banking relationships, bankers say. In 2010, Gen Y's personal income, $2.4 trillion, accounted for one fifth of the total personal income in the U.S., according to Javelin Strategy & Research, a California-based financial services research firm. By 2025, when the last of the employed boomers draw closer to retirement age, Gen Y will account for 46 percent of personal income.

Financial institutions have been slow to use social media, because of regulatory and privacy issues. That's beginning to change as they realize that social media and smartphones are the main way to reach this coveted demographic, which prefers to 'tweet' or text instead of visiting a bank branch. Banks are primarily using social media for marketing and connecting with customers instead of account activity.

"Gen Y is influenced more by the comments of their peers than traditional advertising" such as TV and radio ads, said Jay Sinha, an associate professor of marketing and supply chain management at the Fox School of Business at Temple University in Philadelphia.

Financial institutions are following the lead of consumer products companies such as Adidas and Victoria's Secret that have used social media to increase sales, he noted.

"It adds positive cache to a brand, provided that it's not crass commercialism. Gen Y is really turned off by that," Sinha said.

To make sure Vantage's marketing message gets out, Cartwright posts dozens of Facebook and Twitter messages a week, showing up at baseball games and movie theaters that he tells his hundreds of online followers about and giving out free tickets and gift cards. He writes five blog posts a week on his website, youngfreestlouis.com and creates videos he posts to YouTube with tips on saving money and other topics.

"Most college kids are really bad with their money," he said. "I wish something like this would have been around when I was 18." Vantage Credit Union, which has 15 branches, hired Cartwright last year as its first "Young & Free" spokesman.

The job, which pays $30,000, lasts a year. In June, Vantage will begin the search for the next spokesperson. Cartwright, who has a degree in education, got the job after he created and posted an audition video online that was voted on by the public.

The program has paid off for Vantage, says Executive Vice President Eric Acree. Since last summer, 2,500 customers have enrolled in its account geared to 18- to 25-year-olds, which offers free checking and additional benefits, and 40 percent of those are customers new to Vantage.


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