Where continents divide

Two financial systems, a common crisis – but customers on one side of the Atlantic get friendlier treatment online. Enthusiasm for social media may be part of the reason, says David Bowen.

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I switched on the BBC on Tuesday morning (20 January) to hear two big stories fighting each other for the top slot. The winner should have been the inauguration of Barack Obama. But the day before The Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), not long ago one of the largest banks in the world, had announced the biggest-ever UK corporate loss. The chatter now is, first, whether it will be wholly nationalised and, second, if Britain is about to follow Iceland down the economic plughole. Even President Obama has to struggle to beat that one.
Switching on my computer I looked at the RBS home page, and clicked on a small panel that said ‘Trading update and capital restructuring’. I expect a lot of other people did the same.
Which people? Shareholders, journalists, officials to be sure, but I’d guess more customers than anyone else – if only because there are so many of them. Corporate websites have suddenly become places that customers need to go, not to find out if their banks will still love them tomorrow, but if they will still be there tomorrow. Pure marketing and selling messages have their place, but, increasingly, messages of reassurance are what are really needed.
Unfortunately, RBS is not talking to customers. Clicking the ‘Trading update’ panel – which has a little graphic with ‘Make it happen’ written across it – I got to the Announcements page. All that was in view was a search panel inviting me is to ‘select announcement type’. I scrolled down and found the headline ‘Royal Bank of Scotland – Second Price Monitoring Extn’. I scrolled down further, and found a Trading Update – the previous day’s release, written in carefully dry language.

Beyond a regulation response

Of course the bank is treading on legal eggshells, so could it do more? I think it could. First, it should not raise expectations then fail to fulfil them. The ‘Make it happen’ banner suggests that we will find something written in accessible English. Instead we are led to the home page of the regulatory announcements section – notices that quoted companies are bound to publish and are rarely gripping reads. So the bank promised something it did not deliver (I draw no parallels).
Second, it could provide something more customer-friendly than that press release. I know, because of my dedicated attention to the BBC, that the RBS chief executive, Stephen Hester, was giving broadcast interviews yesterday, so it should surely have been possible to carry one of those, or to do a special one for the site.
Have a look at the insurance group AIG, which has been through a similar mangle. Its home page (you may have to tell the site you are in the US if you are not) has a headline ‘Learn what we are doing to move forward’. This leads to a well-packaged section that includes the formal stuff, but also video interviews with the CEO. Although not targeted at customers, many of them will surely visit to learn what they can from the boss, and may even be a little comforted.
The problem with RBS, it seems to me, is that marketing has been left out in the cold. Corporate comms is in charge of the site and its targets are shareholders, journalists and the like. Not customers.

Social marketing

It is no coincidence that AIG has a more customer-friendly approach. One of the themes that stands out from the FT Bowen Craggs Index is that, when it comes to the web, Americans tend to be better at marketing, while Europeans are better at communicating with a broader group of stakeholders.
There is a piece this week in the US magazine Forbes headed ‘Why European CEOs should Twitter’. The article says that Europeans have not taken to Twitter, the ‘microblog’ services I wrote about in my first column of the year, and are in danger of getting left behind. In the way of these things the piece is followed by myriad comments, with Americans and Europeans being more or less spiky about each other.
The comments include several possible reasons why Europe is behind the US. Europeans are less likely to follow the latest fad. The story is wrong (‘I don’t know a single European tech CEO who doesn’t tweet’ – but note the ‘tech’). European companies are dinosaurs. European companies are experimenting, and will catch up. Twitter does not work on SMS in Europe any more, so you need a Blackberry or smart phone to use it on your mobile – SMS is huge in Europe, unlike the US, so this is a real disadvantage.
But I think the AIG/RBS contrast may also have something to do with it. The big driver behind commercial use of social media – including Twitter, Facebook, blogs etc – is marketing. Yes, there are interesting uses to do with communications (I described one in my new year column). But the real excitement is in their ability to create communities, and that is something marketing people just love.
In the US, marketers often have a lot of influence over corporate online activity. That is why – as the FT Bowen Craggs Index shows – American sites are often very good at marketing and pretty mediocre at everything else. But it could also by why the Americans are racing ahead on social media – marketing people have got it more quickly than comms people or (depending on your viewpoint) have a greater love of the latest fad.
Europeans can content themselves with knowing that their websites tend to be better – they must be more sophisticated because they have to serve multiple audiences. They may also be right to be bandwagon sceptics. But I really can see no disadvantage in everyone getting the best of both worlds – all that we need is for marketing and comms people to talk together, work together, and maybe even end up tweeting together.

First published 21 January, 2009
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