Wells Fargo 2.0
Wells Fargo & Co. has a rich and storied history, but it's grounded in the here and now as one of the first banks to enter the Web 2.0 world in earnest.January 2008 By Melissa Campanelli
At its founding, Wells Fargo & Co. gained success by harnessing the Old West. The venerable bank is having a similar experience today, harnessing another wild frontier — the Internet and, in particular, the Web 2.0 space.
In fact, Wells Fargo has had many “firsts” when it comes to Web 2.0: first U.S. bank with a blog; first bank with a blog dedicated to student loan information; first bank with a business banking blog; first bank with its own virtual world; and one of the first banks to have a vice president of social media.
“We have a philosophy that we want to serve our customers when and where and how they want to be served. Today, more and more consumers are consuming social media, so we want to be there,” says Tim Collins, senior vice president of experiential marketing at Wells Fargo. “It is just a natural extension of our approach of being where our customers are.”
Wells Fargo was founded on March 18, 1852, in New York City when Henry Wells, William Fargo and others signed articles of association for a joint stock company to do a banking and express business in distant California.
Wells Fargo grew with the nation as it rushed for gold and silver in the West, doing business over land by pony and stagecoach; coming through for miners, merchants, farmers and ranchers; building on the frontier; offering “Ocean-to-Ocean” service by 1888 — and is part of American history.
Wells Fargo currently is a diversified financial services company based in San Francisco that provides banking, insurance, investments, mortgage and consumer finance through nearly 6,000 stores, the Internet and other distribution channels around the world. The bank has $549 billion in assets and 158,000 employees across its more than 80 businesses.
Wells Fargo launched its first blog, Guided by History, in March 2006. It originally was planned as a temporary blog, launched to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, which where important parts of Wells Fargo’s history. At first, it included information about earthquake and disaster preparedness, such as how to pack survival kits and write disaster plans. But the blog was so successful, the company decided to keep and expand it.
“The readership really continued to build even after the anniversary,” Collins says. “And we learned that we needed to expand our focus. Today, the blog is not just about disaster preparedness; it’s broader than that. It’s about history, where we look at our archives and compare events today with what we’ve learned in the past.”
Ed Terpening, vice president of social media for Wells Fargo, adds that Guided by History was a learning experience for the bank.
“The blog allowed us to get comfortable in the space and to listen, and we used some of that learning to develop some of the other blogs,” he explains. “Blogs are really about interested communities, and when we looked around at our business we learned there are a lot of other interested communities as well.”
For example … people interested in the financial intricacies of a college education. In September 2006, Wells Fargo launched the Student LoanDown blog, which offers resources for financing college and managing debt. Students, parents and graduates can get guidance on the financial aid process, discuss various borrowing and repayment options, and share experiences with a team of Wells Fargo experts.
“There is a passionate audience around the whole college education process,” Collins says. “If you are a parent who has a sophomore in high school, for example, you are intensely interested in college education and how they are going to fund it, as are high school sophomores and college students.
“We felt there was definitely a broad, interested community around this subject that we knew we could tap into with blogs,” he adds.
Wells Fargo then found another interested community — the large, commercial enterprises it serves — and, as a result, later that year launched the Commercial Electronic Office blog, targeted to larger businesses.
In 2005, it launched a pilot version called Stagecoach Island. The free, multiplayer, online role-playing game was designed to teach 18- to 24-year-olds important lessons in financial literacy.
The company developed Stagecoach Island with experiential marketing agency Swivel Media and uses a virtual gaming platform from Activeworlds.
The game allows players to select a virtual character and participate in an “island adventure.” Participants can explore the virtual island — lush parks, hip cafes, dance clubs, trendy shops, amusement parks, hair salons and more — and interact in dozens of virtual, social situations, such as concerts, bingo tournaments and sports like skydiving, Jet Skiing or playing paintball with other participants. They also can chat with others in the community via online messages.
Players gain access to some activities, such as renting a motorcycle, playing paintball and buying clothes for their avatars, by earning, saving and spending virtual money. They earn money by visiting the Virtual Learning Lounge and answering trivia questions about banking basics. The Learning Lounge content is derived from Wells Fargo’s signature financial literacy program, Hands on Banking.
Since its launch, tens of thousands of players have visited the Stagecoach Island Learning Lounge. As a result, the island has more than 80 virtual millionaires, and users collectively have earned more than $4.7 billion in interest on their virtual bank accounts.
In 2006, Wells Fargo also added the Stagecoach Island Community Site and Blog, where players can give feedback on new features, chat with other players, share pictures of their avatars, and set up real-time events like birthday parties and ski races. The new Web site, built using Wells Fargo’s blogging platform, features information about the latest features and can be found at http://blog.wellsfargo.com/StagecoachIsland.
“We got feedback from this community, and we used that information to launch the next iteration of Stagecoach Island [in 2007],” Collins says.
To promote Stagecoach Island, Wells Fargo launched a MySpace page in early 2007. So far, the company has had a lot of success with this type of promotion.
Wells Fargo also launched its first consumer-generated video marketing program late last year that combines one of its major sponsorships — Los Angeles’ Tournament of Roses Parade — with an online video contest and sweepstakes.
The program offered an opportunity for musicians, filmmakers and stagecoach enthusiasts to produce a music video rendition of “The Wells Fargo Wagon” song from “The Music Man.”
Consumers also were given the opportunity to enter to win a VIP Rose Parade experience, including a ride in the Wells Fargo Stagecoach during the parade, tickets to the Rose Bowl game and travel accommodations.
A panel of judges made up of representatives from Wells Fargo and the Tournament of Roses selected a Grand Prize winner, and his video was included in Wells Fargo’s national TV ad spot during the Tournament of Roses Parade and also is available via www.wellsfargo.com.
While the blogs and other work Wells Fargo has been doing around Web 2.0 certainly have helped it from a branding perspective, there’s no real proof that the efforts have brought in any considerable amount of new business.
“Wells Fargo has long been associated with innovation, so I think this experimentation is good for their brand image,” says Jim Bruene, editor and founder of Online Financial Innovations, which publishes the Online Banking Report and the NetBanker blog. “The positive PR from these efforts makes it worthwhile, even though the measurable business from Web 2.0 work is probably negligible.”
Bruene says Wells Fargo def-initely tracks the media mentions and the Web site traffic from its social media projects. But, “while there likely has been some improvement in the bank’s image among 18- to 24-year-olds, it’s probably not enough to measure in a survey.”
Nevertheless, Bruene says, it’s a coup that Wells Fargo was able to pull off these initiatives since, in most banks, “it’s a lot of work internally to get something like a blog approved.”
“And for the most part, it goes against the grain of a large, public company to facilitate public ‘conversations’ with customers,” he explains. “And without a tangible business case, and no measurable revenues in the short term, most of these proposals are being shot down.”
Overall, Bruene says, he likes what Wells Fargo is doing, especially the Student LoanDown blog. The one area that’s lacking, he says, is “some type of Facebook integration or at least a presence there.”
Finally, he adds, every financial institution should have a blog with an RSS feed, “even if it just disseminates press releases and other company-approved messages.”
Stagecoach photo courtesy of Wells Fargo & Co. Photo of Ed Terpening and Tim Collins (Wells Fargo) by Jack Hutchinson.