There is this meme going on about PR, and how the A-List tech bloggers have basically become their mouthpieces. Press-release release machines, if you like.
But I think PR people are getting quite wise to the fact that they can't just issue press releases and expect bloggers to care very much about them any more. So they've turned to "community management" instead.
I'm noticing this more and more, especially in very "social" financial services sites. Debbie Pfeifer at Wesabe has been doing it for ages. She sends out these friendly emails and responds immediately when you send back questions. Of course it is really PR, but its more sophisticated than the normal press release. Debbie makes sure that I (and I know quite a few other bloggers) see and care what Wesabe is doing. No mass mailing here.
And yesterday, I got my first email from Kelly Yahr, Community Outreach Coordinator at Virgin Money. As I said in my response to her, I was interested and impressed that such a role even existed at Virgin Money, and I'll look forward to some ongoing discussion with her as well. Especially if she plans to really open the kimono and let us see what is going on inside Virgin Money, as Wesabe often does.
But all this is so very interesting, because it points somewhere quite new, I think, for financial services. It marks another shift in the way that institutions deal with the market. In the old world, a bank gets its messages to customers through mass media channels. In the new, one reaches customers one at a time, through various intermediaries, including bloggers.
Now, I am not aware of any "Community Outreach Coordinators" yet at any major institutions, and such efforts to reach influentials is limited to the piecemeal efforts of various press offices. Sometimes, the people who manage the press don't even know they have bloggers in their institutions!
That is not true here at the bank, thankfully. But what we are doing is so new, at least from the perspective of looking out from an institution, that everyone is having to rethink a bit to get their head around the new challenges and opportunities that arise.
I don't imagine it will be long before banks are employing Community Outreach Coordinators themselves. Of course, it is PR, but ever so much more sophisticated than a press release. With bloggers, you first have to build a relationship, then tell them something new, and only then, if you have picked a topic you know they are interested in, will they write anything.
All a lot more effort, really, than spraying a press release. Because you have to know the person you're reaching out to pretty well to have much success in actually getting the message out. And getting to know people well is a skill that we, as banks, are having to learn again from the ground up.
So I think that we'll soon see banks hiring these "Community Outreach Coordinators" to build rapport with intermediaries who aggregate eyeballs. Then they'll use those relationships to get much more sophisticated messages out the door than is normally possible in a 15 or 30 second ad spot.
One final question is in my mind, though, is what use HSBC's or Citi's Community Outreach Coordinator will make of a competitive bank's blogger like myself? Will they just ignore me, or take a leap of faith and realise that the community is powerful regardless of who is in it?