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Why Credit Card Companies Need Some Madison Avenue Style

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Image copyright Gregory James Van Raalte

In 2012, companies like PayPal, Google and Apple made major announcements in the mobile wallets and offers space. Credit card companies were not nearly as noisy, but 2013 could be the year that all changes.

Financial institutions are embracing digital offers out of necessity because revenue from current sources is in decline. The future of the payments industry is shifting quickly to monetizing consumer relationships — particularly through mobile devices — and away from extracting new value from the payments value chain.

What many do not know is that credit card companies have experienced significant pain as a result of the capping of their lucrative interchange fees by the Durbin Amendment, which became effective in 2011. Faced with declines in what had previously been a significant form of revenue, credit card companies know that they need to open new sources of revenue. This need is becoming ever more urgent with companies like Google and Paypal joining the mix and leveraging their unique assets — novelty, retailer relationships, and extensive technology infrastructure.

The opportunity here is massive — total real-world (not online) retail commerce is $4 trillion a year in the U.S., and eMarketer just reported that mobile advertising is expected to increase by 180 percent in the coming year to reach $4 billion. Credit card companies looking to take their fair share of this revenue need to figure out how to leverage their great relationships with consumers to open up new sources of revenue.

Here are my suggestions for strategies that will help credit card companies come out ahead in 2013:

Stop chasing Chase. Instead, start acting like a media company.
To open new sources of revenue through media and technology, banks need to add new DNA that is not focused on traditional banking concerns such as regulatory compliance, security and fraud. Of course, I am not suggesting that they stop complying with regulations, or that they abandon security. But banks must become more nimble at attacking new revenue opportunities — particularly in consumer offers. At Google and other companies in Silicon Valley, teams still pull all-nighters to release alpha versions of products for consumers and partners in a matter of days to test an experience, an approach that is antithetical to the banking world. Yet if banks want to succeed in the media world, they have to figure out how at least part of their organization can play in an API-driven ecosystem that encourages collaboration and rapid product releases. First test for the C-suite at banks: Have you developed and released anything new to consumers in a single quarter?

Play ball with the competitors.
Consider the value of the ecosystem in growing your mobile offers initiative. In order to succeed in delivering a great mobile rewards program, the key is having a rich supply of merchant offers upon which to layer targeting. No one company is going to assemble enough, so think instead about collaborating with all the other players and getting the network effects of a larger audience and a bigger pool of offers. An interesting model for this kind of collaboration is WEVE in the UK, in which three mobile operators — EE, Telefonica UK (O2) and Vodafone UK — have banded together to form a large consortium. The individual companies behind the consortium still compete to acquire subscribers, but they now collaborate with a common platform for monetizing those subscribers through marketing.

Turn that marketing focus inside out.
Now that you have a great offers program, the biggest challenge is getting enough customers into it to move the needle. Each card provider today has marketing teams that focus solely on signing up new customers for their credit cards. Yet somehow, these are not the folks developing new digital offerings. These customer acquisition teams are digital media experts. Imagine focusing that valuable marketing experience on getting consumers to opt into new and sophisticated customer reward programs, and to download their new rewards apps. It is customer acquisition, pure and simple.

Don’t wait for big data.
My last and most controversial suggestion for 2013 is to let go of the obsession with big data! Many banks are building huge databases for micro-targeting customers with niche offers. Microtargeting is cool, but believe me, media is a war of attrition and all of that big data-based targeting will yield a customer segment of just a few people. Brands do not want to target only a select handful of people with their offers; they need to reach a million people in order for their investment in creating and distributing that offer to make economic sense. Silicon Valley has managed to convince enterprises that massive amounts of data will build a program that really performs in terms of offers and sales; but ultimately, microtargeting is not monetizable at scale until there are an equally large set of available offers. The real way to success is to provide a great experience with lots of offers for your entire customer base. Yes, there are a handful of important variables that should be considered, including location, time of day, gender, interests and even retargeting; but other data on top is gravy and too much is at odds with reaching a large enough number of people with relevant offers. The “big picture” is not always based on big data. (Hint: You might derive as much value from customers by asking them what they want instead.)

The Long View
As Bob Dylan said, “you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” Credit card companies can no longer hesitate while other companies race forward to make a profit on this kind of consumer spending. If credit card companies employ the strategies I propose, they will be real contenders against the likes of Paypal, Google, Apple and the mobile operators. The weather forecast is clear for mobile offers: Sunny, with billions of dollars blowing in the wind. It’s up to each financial institution to figure out how to get to market faster and catch some of it.

Alistair Goodman is the CEO of Placecast, where he leads a team of mobile, technology and marketing experts who have created the most scalable, proven, location-based marketing system currently available. Alistair has more than 20 years of experience working in marketing and product development efforts for media and technology companies.

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