The financial sector faces a constant challenge to attract new customers and keep hold of their existing client base. In the digital age, purchase decisions are still influenced by word of mouth, the difference being the broader mediums used to communicate.
Today there is a convergence between the buyer, seller, and the product. Customers wish to participate in the customisation of the products they want to buy i.e. choose how much of a loan is fixed versus variable, choose the interest rate and period that suits their needs etc. Many also write reviews about the products they like or dislike which can turn them into the salesmen for potential customers looking to make a choice between various products.
The trend towards social media and online communities is an area of great potential to create a platform where institutions and customers can start conversations, build a reputation and create value in a digital community. To accomplish these goals companies need to shift their sales and marketing from a push model e.g. paper flyers, mail outs, TV advertising etc. to a conversation model.
Microsoft Australia sought to create a fictitious financial institution that would participate in a digital community to help build its brand, start and maintain conversations with both new and current customers and look for trends in features and products the community were interested in. This would serve as a template to inspire other financial institutions and developers to build upon and expand.
Contoso Bank and the Australian Small Business Portal were born. The goal was to create a platform for generation of content, conversation and community.
The solution uses Visual Studio 2008, SQL Server 2005 and a number of Live Services including Live ID, Silverlight Streaming, IM Presence and Virtual Earth. Using Live Services allows the institution to access the 400 Million+ users with 30 billion relationships.
The community site adds value to the institution by increasing the number of ways customers can start conversations and increasing the brand awareness of an institution without customers’ immediate association.
The community forum allows users to discuss topics, ask for advice, give tips and build a reputation. It also allows staff from the institution to assist by answering questions, offering broad advice and offering their services.
The use of Silverlight Streaming allows both the institutions and customers to communicate with community members with the use of video. It provides a visual aspect to the community forums where short videos can provide community members advice, tips and reviews.
Both the community forums and latest videos allow the community to create user-generated content that can be used to spark conversation which encourages visitors to return to the site, allows participants to build reputation and communal trust through profile ranking and personalisation, give the community control over content with the use of user-selected ratings which allow the community to judge which content should be most prominent and important.
Users can engage in an online, real time discussion with domain experts with the use of the IM Presence control. This shows users which experts are available and allows them to participate in a conversation without giving away their identity until they are comfortable with the staff member. User’s then have the option to book an appointment with the experts if they want more information.
Most of the site content can be accessed by member anonymously. To participate in forums, make appointments etc. the members must sign in. The use of Live ID Web Auth for authentication and minimal profile information capture provide low barriers of entry for community participation. General location information is captured, geo-coded and presented on a Virtual Earth map allowing all members to see a summary of community location and presence. This provides the awareness of self and others.
Brand awareness of the institution is subtle but consistent thought many aspects of the site. A small bank logo is placed unobtrusively on the site. Members are able to place a “Contoso Cup” web gadget on their spaces or live.com page to track the latest sports results. As the sporting event is sponsored by Contoso Bank, the gadget is branded with the bank logo. Members also have access to a Vista gadget that will provide the latest community forum posts, again with unobtrusive branding.
The use of Live Services in the solution provides many benefits including cost and time savings. It means developers don’t have to write their own authentication and password management, site searching, online messaging, video playing and mapping interfaces.
The use of Silverlight Streaming allows the institution and consumers produce and consume videos without using their own server bandwidth. This has real dollar cost savings when it comes to server hosting and bandwidth costs.
The use of the Live Controls for .Net allow developers already familiar with ASP.Net to “drag and drop” controls and with a small amount of code, have working components such as site searching, authentication, video streaming, online messaging etc.
The project was implemented using three distinct teams located in different offices around Australia. The client (Microsoft Australia) played the role of Contoso Bank. Creative design and development were started in parallel, with two different agencies working together. Running in parallel not only allowed the overall duration of the project to be shortened, but allowed the build team to provide feedback on the compatibility of design elements with the ability of the system and controls being built.
The creative process involving visuals and interaction design, involved a 4-phase, weekly feedback process. Each phase was discussed between the Design and Build team before being placed on a test site for client review.
After design sign-off, visual assets were handed to the Build team to integrate with the system that was already functionally complete. Progressive builds were placed on a test site for client review and testing.