Social networking and media channels are expanding almost exponentially – whether that is in the form of internet forums, instant messaging, blogs, wikis, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, social bookmarking, etc (see Box 1). An accessible, online community gives members/users the ability to network, share ideas and content, and communicate easily and nearly instantaneously with either a discrete/defined community or the world at large.
Box 1: A Beginner?s Guide to Social Media/Networking Channels
Instant messaging (IM): a form of real-time direct text-based communication between two or more people.
Blogs: A blog (a contraction of the term ?web log?) is a type of website, usually maintained by an individual with regular entries of commentary, descriptions of events, or other material such as graphics or video (vlog).
YouTube: a video-sharing website on which users can upload, share, and view videos. It displays a wide variety of video content, including movie clips, TV clips, and music videos, as well as amateur content such as vlogging and short original videos.
Wikis: a website that allows the easy creation and editing of any number of interlinked web pages via a web browser using a simplified mark-up language. Wikis are typically powered by wiki software and are often used to create collaborative websites, to power community websites, for personal note-taking, in corporate intranets, and in knowledge management systems.
Social bookmarking: a method for internet users to share, organise, search, and manage bookmarks of web resources. Unlike file sharing, the resources themselves aren’t shared, merely bookmarks that reference them. Users save links to web pages that they want to remember and/or share. These bookmarks are usually public, and can be saved privately, shared only with specified people or groups, shared only inside certain networks, or another combination of public and private domains.
Internet forum or message board: an online discussion site. From a technological standpoint, forums or boards are web applications managing user-generated content. People participating in an internet forum may cultivate social bonds and interest groups for a topic made from the discussions.
Social network sites: focuses on building and reflecting of social networks or social relations among people, e.g. who share interests and/or activities. Most provide means for users to interact over the internet. For example:
- Facebook: users can add friends and send them messages, and update their personal profiles to notify friends about themselves. Additionally, users can join networks organised by industry, workplace, school, or college.
- MySpace: a social networking website.
- LinkedIn: a business-oriented social networking site.
- Twitter: a social networking and microblogging service that enables its users to send and read messages known as tweets. Tweets are text-based posts of up to 140 characters displayed on the author’s profile page and delivered to the author’s subscribers, who are known as followers.
Already pervasive in their employees’ personal lives, corporates have also taken up business-to-business (B2B) social media initiatives to promote more collaborative ways of working, particularly across divisions operating in different countries. For example, many employees use blogs and internet forums to brainstorm with one another.
Treasurers and finance departments are just now beginning to embrace social media. Shouldering global responsibilities, with subsidiaries and trade all over the world, many treasurers feel isolated in the depths of an organisation and don’t have a network of peers or colleagues to brainstorm with – some even admit to googling for answers to specific problems because they lack a way of extending their professional network and knowledge base.
However, the hesitancy shown by most in embracing this new way of networking stems from a fear of potential security breaches – which is a real risk as treasurers deal with sensitive and business-critical information. In an attempt to solve this problem, a few companies are now developing a social networking user policy. Sometimes that can add to the fear factor instead of reducing it because most companies tend to err on the side of caution, but these policies need to be put in place so that employees have guidelines as to what is acceptable use for each organisation.
In terms of site security, most social networking/media sites have the ability for the user to set who can see what – and many have a multitude of different security parameters, so this process can be quite granular. For example: a closed internet forum is one where only members that have been approved by the moderator can participate/read the discussions; whereas on Facebook, a user can set the settings so that only their ‘friends’ can see their profile and updates. Many sites allow members to use pseudonyms, which hides their identity.
But there has to be a balance stuck between openness and anonymity in order to overcome the fear factor and foster trust within an online community. This is particularly true in the B2B environment, where a user/member needs to be confident that the information they receive is genuine and trustworthy, but they also want to preserve their anonymity.
When SEB did research for the Benche (see Box 2), it became clear that corporate treasurers were interested in a place on the internet where they could interact and gather information, but many articulated this contradiction. First, they said that they would need to know who is contributing, from what company, etc in order to ascertain credibility and integrity. But in the next breath, they said that they themselves would not be able to write anything because they would not be able to reveal their company’s identity. Obviously, a finance professional working for a big treasury who openly requests help because they lack knowledge in a specific area is not the best advertisement for that corporate.
In order to address the reliability and veracity concern, the Benche had a strict user policy at the start and each member had to render a substantial amount of personal information, such as name, company name, email address, etc. But because of this, no one was posting comments or questions in the forum. Therefore, now the Benche has a more open attitude toward anonymity. As the administrator of the Benche, SEB knows the details of each member, but the user has control over how much of that information is shared with the rest of the community. For example, they can hide their name or the name of their company and choose a user name that does not reveal their identity.
As soon as the policy changed, corporate treasurers became active in the forum and also more confident in asking for help in solving specific knotty problems.
Box 2: The Benche
In November 2008, SEB launched the Benche Trade, which is a web-based internet community for trade finance professionals and others active in international trade. The Benche was expanded to cover cash management in addition to trade finance in March 2010. Although launched by SEB, the Benche is open to the whole financial industry, including other banks. It is free to join and independent – all members can contribute content, for example highlight upcoming industry events or blog about how the volcanic ash has affected business and travel plans.
Targeting cash management professionals, treasury directors around the globe and small and medium enterprises (SMEs), the platform provides insight and information on new local, regional and international rules and regulations, daily cash management news, single euro payments area (SEPA) webinars, country reports and analysis, as well as experts’ blogs and a frequently asked questions (FAQ) section.
The Benche offers the opportunity to gather and share knowledge and experience, and discuss among professionals. Members can discuss online how to best open a letter of credit from Singapore or payment terms in Kenya, for example. Apart from member-posted facts and discussion threads, the Benche also holds public information and news, as well as possibilities for the members to quickly and simply expand their professional networks and then create new business contacts. They can also generate new business opportunities.
The community now has more than 3,500 registered professionals and the website attracts over 13,000 hits every month. Financial experts from 200 countries have visited the site since its inception, with Sweden, the US, the UK and Lithuania, Germany and India providing the highest numbers of site visitors.
Corporate treasurers can use the Benche to find answers to difficult problems. For example, a corporate has a request for proposal (RFP) and is trying to decide between two banks. The treasurer, or the person responsible for the RFP, can post the dilemma on the Benche, outlining the situation and where they are stuck. They can seek advice from a member of the community that has had some experience with either of these two banks, in terms of the pros and cons.
Members also exchange ideas on how to expand the use of different types of social media for either internal or external purposes. The community also uses Facebook, Twitter, etc to post Benche updates. For example, there is a Facebook fan page for the Benche, which is more informal and can also be used as a type of RSS feed. As soon as there is an update on the Benche, it can be posted with a small comment on Facebook and then it will appear on the fan wall. There are now 253 fans on the Benche Facebook page.
User-generated Content – Not Expert Advice
For corporate treasurers using social media, it is important to remember that there is a significant difference between user-generated content and expert advice. Reaching out to an online community for information is not the same as having an authority on the subject or a McKinsey consultant responding to a query.
In answer to one question, they may receive five opinions from different perspectives. But that process gives the corporate treasurer a better starting point to either make their own decisions or get an idea of what questions are important to put forward to a bank or, for that matter, a consultant. It will also assuage the feeling of isolation because they see that their peers are also grappling with similar problems.
So there isn’t just one voice but a number of different ones in social media, and then the treasurer has to make up their own mind. This is a different way of looking at information. It is not black and white – the truth is grey, with many different experiences taken into account. Not everything that is written on the Benche or Wikipedia is the full truth – members have to do their own research as well.
A Bank Perspective: Helping Serve its Customers
Social media has great potential in helping banks to better serve their corporate clients, particularly regional banks whose clients have outgrown domestic markets. The bank may not have a presence in all corners of the globe, but an international online community can assist in customer support. Take, for example, a country such as Angola – as a Europe-based bank, SEB will not be able to provide detailed information or experience from Angola, but Benche members that come from Angola may be able to help with specific queries.
A bank benefits from social media because it can help it reduce customer support costs. For example, a bank may experience a high number of customer calls every day asking more or less the same question. By setting up an online community as a complement to its customer service, the bank’s clients can contact each other and get immediate feedback, which also improves their customer experience.
And through community building, a bank can be very tuned into what’s at the top of a customer’s agenda and understand the dynamics of the marketplace, in order to be better in advising its customers and developing new products, etc. Importantly, it allows both corporates and banks to listen to what is being discussed in larger sense – what is the hot topic or issue coming down the pipeline? So in that way the community also gives back.
Finally, the move to social media in the B2B arena is a worldwide trend. Recently, Obama’s administration has encouraged US industry to look into diversifying its market-base by exporting to a wider variety of markets, versus an predominant focus on the domestic market. An open community of information exchange, such as the Benche, could be very valuable for a small or medium-sized US company looking to export to the Far East, for example. Another example could be companies in emerging markets that are developing an export market and need to know how to go about it. In both cases, an online community that facilitates conversation and interaction by allowing millions of people to easily share ideas, insights, experiences, perspectives and media can be a source for them to learn how to adapt to new market developments.
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