Internet users are more likely to go to the Web site of a bank that sponsors online content than one that relies upon traditional banner advertising, according to the preliminary findings of a new survey by New York Internet consulting firm NetSmart America. The study, entitled America.com: What Makes America Click, could be a wake-up call for banks, the majority of which have lagged behind online brokerages and other financial services firms in the area of sponsorships on portals such as Netscape’s personal finance center, and niche sites, such as TheStreet.com and Gomez Advisors, according to bank industry watchers.

The study, which surveyed 1,000 consumers, found that Internet users are not going to individual bank Web sites to find information about personal finance, but rather to portals and content aggregators, such as price evaluation Web sites, before making decisions about with which institutions to conduct business, according to Bernadette Tracy, NetSmart America’s president. When banks sponsor content that caters to a consumer’s particular need or demographic group, it creates a level of involvement that is key to attracting consumers on today’s ad-saturated Internet, she said. “Now with all the [Web advertising] noise, people are becoming very selective, “Tracy said. “When [consumers] see content they find relevant…they will favor the institution that sponsors that information and go to its site hoping for more in-depth information about their specific need.”

Indeed, industry players have started to acknowledge the benefits of online sponsorships over simple banner advertising.  Many large players, including Citibank, have entered into sponsorships with portals in an attempt to target customers pre-disposed to their services. Union Bank of California (UBOC) has a deal with America Online to be one of five highlighted premier banks on its personal finance channel, and also has a sponsorship with Women.com (www.women.com) that includes a combination of banner ads and logo buttons linking to information about the bank’s products and services, explained a spokeswoman for UBOC. Such sponsorships have been very effective in increasing brand awareness and site traffic, she said, unable to offer exact figures.

Kate Graham, v.p. of alternative delivery channels at Sanwa Bank California, noted that content agreements can be extremely effective when a firm sponsors content on a niche site and shows a knowledge of or interest in a particular group, because it demonstrates the firm is actively thinking about the consumer. Additionally, consumers do not tend to view sponsored content as advertising and often appreciate the soft-sell approach, she explained. To date, Sanwa has not sponsored content, but is considering it for future marketing campaigns, she added.

In addition, banks that rely on banner ads are not getting high click-through rates, with only 29% of study participants indicating they had clicked on a bank banner ad within the past year, a decrease of nearly 50% over the past year. This indicates time-strapped consumers are becoming more selective and will lean toward financial institutions that sponsor content relevant to their particular situation, such as articles detailing how to choose the proper IRA, or the ins and out of purchasing a home, Tracy said.

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