Did your bank just send you a snapchat?

Conversations with customers are what 2016 is supposed to be all about in marketing land. The technology is all there – any firm can set up a Hootsuite account, automate their marketing, buy a sophisticated CRM system. But does the fact that it’s easy make it a good idea? Ian Henderson checks his social media feeds to find out.

Social media is where modern conversations happen. Look around you on the train, in the street, even at home. A survey by eMarketer says 34.9 million of us in the UK used social media platforms last year – that’s 54% of the total population. And among 18-24 year olds it’s an almost-universal 96% – with email and phone calls becoming as relevant and useful to them as a zimmer frame.

So if you’re a bank and you want to have a conversation with your customers (especially those yummy high-lifetime-value millennials) you pretty much have to be using social media. The channels of choice are Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Snapchat – or, for older people, LinkedIn and old-fashioned texts.  So far, so obvious. But then there’s that slightly more challenging problem of what to say and how to say it.

When I was a member of that 18-24 demographic, I frankly wasn’t that brilliant at conversations. It was before smartphones were invented for one thing, so they had to be done in that much more awkward, old-fashioned way involving, ah, talking. Late to emerge from the long dark tunnel of adolescence, I slowly learned how to keep the ball of banter in the air; but even then I knew that mucking about with your mates was conversationally very different to, say, a meeting with the bank manager.

As I learned from those painful conversations long ago, it’s all about being who you actually are, being aware of the context you’re in, and actually listening to the person you’re talking to. So while smiley faces, LOLs and jokey chat might seem like the way to for a bank to be at one with its millennial audience, it’s really, really not. In recent research for BNY Mellon, millennials described it as “creepy” – and that’s an ultimate turn-off.

What they want is for a bank to do its job. Be secure, helpful, responsible and to know a thing or two about money. And when they’re not thinking about those things, they’d very much like the bank to go away and talk to someone else. (Being a “beg” or a “scrape” – begging to join in or scraping around conversations you’re not invited to – are not terms of endearment.)

First Direct are a good example of getting it mostly right – their people understand exactly what the brand represents which gives them the confidence to have a conversation on its behalf. The brand has worked hard at building a strong culture and sense of identity away from the mainstream. Some of the newer entrants are trying to copy that – but would be better advised to find their own voice.

Others like Natwest keep it fairly functional, more like a utility or a service. Following a train company will tell you if your train’s going to be late; you’d hope a bank might be able to tell you useful things about interest rates or respond quickly to problems with online banking. And that’s mostly what people want – they don’t want a bank to be cool or try and join in with their lives.

Use the right technology by all means (which is unlikely, at the moment, to include snapchat – unless you’re talking to teenagers). But to have a good conversation, you need to be confident about who you are; listen before you speak; match the mood and mode of the other person; be useful and if possible, interesting; and most of all, don’t be creepy.

This article first ran in Chartered Banker magazine.