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HSBC banks on slow but steady social-media revolution

Ever wondered why banks don't tweet?

Ever wondered why banks don't tweet?

HSBC: Social media

HSBC has dabbled with social media but compliance rules make replying to customer queries via Twitter trickyPhoto: Andrew Wales

Ever wondered why banks don't respond when you send irate tweets about problems with your account? You might think they're silently hoping you'll be sucked back into the cyber-ether. But it's more likely concerns about compliance are keeping them quiet.

Case law from 1924 means financial services companies can't publicly identify an individual who has an account with them - which makes responding to customer queries via quasi-public forums such as Twitter a legal minefield, according to Aden Davies, innovation technician at HSBC.

"We're not allowed to publicly disclose that you have a relationship with us," said Davies, who was speaking at a Dell roundtable on B2B social-media use in central London. "It's very, very difficult the kind of conversations that we can have publicly," he added. "[Case] law that's from 1924 can't ever have envisioned [social media]."

Banking regulations mean apparently simple customer care queries submitted via the likes of Twitter have to be routed through traditional secure channels of communications to avoid falling foul of compliance law. Engaging in social-media discussions about complex investment products such as pensions involves navigating an equally complex compliance minefield.

"Banks are quite a conservative industry. Anything new is quite scary and we obviously have regulatory issues to consider - so what we can and can't say, what we can and can't do is mindboggling," said Davies. "The argument [for engaging with social-media users who have publically contacted us] is: have you given me express permission to talk to you and to publicly acknowledge that you have a relationship with us because you've stated yourself, 'I have an HSBC account'?

"In a normal world, we want express permission to talk to you."

Despite compliance-related headaches, HSBC has dabbled with social media - running two initiatives: a student bursary competition on Facebook, and its 100 Thoughts competition for business execs which included a Twitter account. The Facebook campaign especially was something of a tipping point for the bank, said Davies, as it showed how much appetite there was for discussing banking services on social forums.

"The Facebook competition was a fantastic use-case for us," he said. "The competition ended and we weren't posting any content for about three months but the number of Facebook Likes went up. People were still interacting on the page and we weren't even doing anything. That made the penny drop for a lot of people - that a lot of people on Facebook might want to talk to us about banking."

HSBC has now set up a cross-business social-media working group to look at...

...how it can expand use of social media - without breaking any laws or causing senior management to have a panic attack. But building a social-media strategy and writing a social-media rule book have to come first.

"There's a whole set of things that we needed to get right [before we expand our use of social media] - what we can and can't say. Banks like prescriptive processes - you can talk about this, you can say this," said Davies. "We also talked about how you take that conversation from a public online space, get it into secure channels and tie those things together seamlessly without it being clunky.

"I've sent a tweet - that's a very easy interaction for me but if I have to go into secure email, or something like that, it's a bit more complex from my mobile so it's getting that experience as seamless as possible, as well as getting the understanding of what we can and can't say."

Banks face other big issues too - not least correctly matching social-media users to their bank accounts, and HR challenges - do banks have the right people in the business to make social media fly?

"How do we move people from certain jobs into these new jobs that didn't exist two years ago?" said Davies. "Who's going to be the first banking community manager, for example - these are new job roles. It's going to take time."

Despite all the challenges, Davies said HSBC will be ramping up its social-media use this year. "There's going to be a lot more [social-media engagement] from all areas of the bank in the UK as we work through those issues," he said.

"People want a new way to interact with their bank. They want to have this two-way, asynchronous, semi-public dialogue - I think there's a desire for that. I think there's also business benefit from that - you don't have a customer sitting on a phone line waiting in a queue. I can post a comment and someone can reply to it in their own time.

"It's just something that banks are going to have to do. They will do it, it's just going to take time."