The level of commitment that banks are showing towards Twitter over the past year has increased markedly with 2013 witnessing substantial growth in both the activity and popularity of financial services Twitter accounts. The numbers speak for themselves. Hannah Smithies reports

The average increase in Twitter followers for the top ten ranked financial institutions stands in 2013 is an impressive 468%.

In the space of just 12 months, the bottom slot in RBI’s Twitter Top 60 has risen from 3,508 to 28,922 followers while thirteen banks that last year did not make the top 60 have now secured strong presences.

There has also been a visible increase in the amount of resources banks are putting into social media. Almost all banks now have not just one but multiple accounts which are dedicated to geographical area or function.

According to a Timetric report, dedicated social media teams are becoming larger. Mastercard and Wells Fargo, both in the RBI Twitter top ten, have planned specific bricks-and-morter social media command centers.

Chase has already made a particularly loud statement with its command centre. Its high-profile street-level location at the Columbus headquarters comes complete with large LCD screens broadcasting updates and statistics to passers-by.

Perhaps this new found sincerity regarding online interaction is timely. As banking profiles on Twitter gain more traction their potential for impact increases, but events in 2013 have also proven that their potential for brand damage rises as well.

To name two but high profile examples in the last few months, JPMorgan’s #AskJP campaign was cancelled after being hijacked by an insulting tweet onslaught and RBS/NatWest has received large quantities of abusive tweets as the bank experienced extended downtime.

These pitfalls are inherent on a platform that is, in essence, a public space for comment and debate. But arguably, more resources will allow social media teams to cope with such issues, transforming them into positive opportunities for change and growth.

BBVA is the new leader of the RBI rankings for 2013 by over 400,000 followers, with two year leader American Express usurped and now ranking second.

BBVA’s online and social media communication spokesperson Óscar García Díaz comments on BBVA’s focus on social media in 2013:

"For BBVA, social media is one more way to improve the relationship between people working at the bank and our stakeholders.

"Twitter is the present and the future and we want to be there in a proactive way."

BBVA’s success has been largely due to its sponsorship of the Spanish football league, via the @LigaBBVA page. Through a 30 tweet per day effort, @LigaBBVA became the first banking Twitter page to generate over a million followers in July last year.

"We are very proud of our LigaBBVA page. It is not easy to build and maintain successful brand-owned pages, especially in the financial services industry, which we know it is not very glamorous. It’s a way to bring both clients and non-clients closer to the bank.

"We use football to talk to them about our bank and our services, and it is amazing how they interact with us."

Highlighting the power of Twitter as a means of gathering feedback from customers he added: "We build a content strategy with that information in order to give them the content they demand.

"Big events like El Clasico (Real Madrid vs. Barcelona) can offer us a view of the whole community and the needs they have. We work closely with that information to bring our ideas and projects in line with our customer’s needs."

There has been significant movement in the top ten. Whilst BBVA has leapt from sixth place to first, Visa, Chase and Wells Fargo have stormed into the top ten from 18th, 27th and 22nd respectively.

Visa’s success is particularly conspicuous, rising to third place overall from eighteenth with a percentage change in followers of over 1700%.

Its most successful pages have been the @Visa (US) and @VisaBrasil profiles, with around 150,000 and 190,000 followers respectively. The content between the accounts varied but both show signs of being driven by customer engagement targets.

@Visa’s campaigns included #GoInSix, a creative multi-media effort across video, pictures and text that aimed to inspire people to travel, eat, shop and experience by short form content, whilst #MyFootballFantasy offered users money-can’t-buy competition prizes dreamed up by die-hard NFL fans.

These included a hot wing eating competition with the Buffalo Bills and a guest appearance from Clay Matthews at a two year old’s tea party.

The @VisaBrasil account announces offers and discounts to customers with Visa Platinum and Visa Infinite cards and there’s a torrent of content that ties in with its sponsorship of the upcoming FIFA World Cup.

Visa, like BBVA, suggests that the content generated from sports sponsorship is a Twitter-winner.

Wells Fargo has had similar success in gaining traction on social media in the last year, but with a slightly different strategy to Visa or BBVA.

The main Wells Fargo page, @WellsFargo mainly offers in-Tweet advice and links to education about finance. Other content is centered on unifying community events such as Black History Month, Lunar New Year and Wear Red Day.

The company also has an impressive customer service account with 21,000 followers, @Ask_WellsFargo.

Head of enterprise marketing and multicultural communications at Wells Fargo, Christina Kolbjornsen, said: "Last year, across our social media accounts we drove more than 700million social impressions and more than a million social engagements.

"Our corporate communications team has nearly 100 communicators using Twitter on behalf of the company. As spokespeople for the Wells Fargo brand, these individuals express ideas, share solutions, have conversations and reflect our corporate vision and values that align with our overall social media strategy."

She added that Wells Fargo had some of the most positive sentiment expressed via social media of any financial service, which she attributed to the company’s strongly held belief in high quality content and its ability to offer valuable information.

Peru’s Interbank seems to have had similar success using just this philosophy. It launched a huge Twitter campaign that included a new micro-site in April called Reencuentrate, which invited customers to slow down, relax and spend more time on their passions, friends and family.

As one of the thirteen slow adaptors to Twitter which have soared up into the top 60 along with Robobank and Sberbank, Interbank now stands in sixteenth place.

The campaign includes a series of YouTube videos, including ‘Atención en Facebook y Twitter – Reencuéntrate’ (‘Attention on Facebook and Twitter – Reacquaint’) which features a suited professional turned garage-band lead guitarist and closes with the phrase ‘more time for you’.

Although by no means the rule, there is a broad correlation between activity, as measured by number of tweets, and followers. This might suggest that whilst quality content is appealing, being present and active can be as important in Twitter success.

Capital One has far and away the greatest increase in tweets at 2365% and is also the bank with the one of the most active support accounts.

@AskCapitalOne is only aimed at being a help based account and accounts for around 60% of Capital One Group’s tweets, though it only attracts around 13,000 followers.

Lack of followers, however, doesn’t mean that customers aren’t engaging with the brand. Customers don’t have to ‘follow’ to be able to get a reply to their question so in this case the extremely high level of tweets alone is an impressive indicator of customer engagement.

While the absence of Chinese banks on Twitter is straightforward, due to its banned domestic use, the absence of the largest banks East Asian neighbour Japan is slightly more difficult to explain.

Mitsubishi Financial Group, Sumitomo Mutsui Financial Group and Mizuho Financial Group, all world top twenty banks according to the Banker, are included in this conspicuous absence.

It is even more surprising considering the run away success of Twitter in Japan, all top five Twitter accounts are Japanese.

Twitter remains a dividing issue. Recently the Financial Brand found in a small survey of US retail banks that one in five Twitter pages is dormant or abandoned.

The survey only looked at around 300 banks (4.2% of banks in the US) but shows that many banks who have started on Twitter have often soon given up after finding their investment yielded few results.

Whilst many more banks will undoubtedly continue to jump on the Twitter bandwagon in 2014, it remains the case that return on investment is hard to gauge. The technology to deliver satisfactory social media metrics simply doesn’t yet exist.

This value uncertainty generates the important questions that banks will need to carefully consider in 2014: Does Twitter really impact on customer experience, company profits or branding and if so is the expense and risk truly worth the added value?