Community forum conversations

Dhanum Nursigadoo
5min read

News of Starling Bank closing its community forum was a surprise to the industry and forum members, but it raises the questions of what exactly is a bank’s community? And what’s the upper limit to its value?

Challenger banks, new market entrants, neobanks, however you want to describe them they have built a reputation of doing things differently and in a way that undercuts centuries of traditional banking. Interactive online community forums are just one way these banks are changing the relationship customers have with their banks. And they’re used to great effect. Fidor leveraged its community to get an insight into what customers want, Monzo frequently uses feedback from its community to implement features. Forum communities are great for nascent neobanks looking to grow, and actively engage with, their customer base.From our interviews with Fidor and Monzo on the podcast it was revealed how vital forums are for developing customer loyalty and increasing customer communication. However, it appears as though there may be a limit to the perceived benefits if Starling’s actions and justifications are anything to go by. Monzo recently hit 1 million users, Fidor has over 700K users and Starling has about 210K users, although as we’ve outlined previously, it is tricky to define what those user numbers actually mean. All three had forum communities until recently and the numbers vary enough that you can’t draw a strong conclusion on just how useful the forums are. Customer driven banking products are at the heart of jobs to be done (JTBD) in fintech and the community is clearly an effective method of achieving that, after all what could be more effective research than hearing directly from customers?

Echo chambers

One issue is the possibility of an echo chamber. As Starling mentioned in its blog post, most of its customers aren’t even on the forum. So are community forums creating a superlative product through quick and easy JTBD research or are vocal minorities hijacking a feedback tool to push their own desires through? You need to be a part of the conversation to change the conversation. But the vast majority of customers simply aren’t that interested in having a conversation about or with their bank. It’s not the most exciting topic in their lives. As Leda Glyptis referenced, banking is often seen as a ‘so what’. So the onus is on banks to make sure that they’re properly representing and delivering products for customers by engaging all customers, not just the most vocal ones. The impact of community forums is difficult to gauge objectively. But before Starling’s closed it had significant daily activity, the same is still true for Monzo and Fidor. So, if forums could be a useful customer engagement and feedback tool, why aren’t the incumbent banks following suit? Even with more customers showing a desire to interact with their banks and more incumbent banks aping neobank features such as in-app card freezing, online community forums still don’t exist for the CMA 9. There are a few reasons why incumbent banks have drawn a line at community forums for customers. Some are referenced in Starling’s post: it’s a heavily regulated industry, tipping off rules and trolling are just a few. Perhaps the biggest reason why is that incumbent banks lack the brand identity to pull off having an open and accessible online forum in the same way as neobanks, who have placed a high level of transparency at the heart of their approach to building a bank.

Forum for feedback

Neobanks have positioned themselves as a fun alternative approach to finances compared to incumbent banks, who try as they might cannot pull off the same identity. Neobanks are the counterculture of the financial world. Just by existing they make it impossible for incumbent banks to copy all of what they offer, no matter how effectively incumbents imitate neobank features. Free-flowing dialogue is so far removed from what customers expect with an incumbent bank that it would likely backfire. The reputation and brand that incumbent banks have developed for themselves means they don’t have the brand permission to have a relaxed ongoing conversation with customers, unlike their digital-only counterparts. But equally this could be a double-edged sword for neobanks, and the full extent of any backlash from closing the online forum is yet to be seen for Starling. To build transparency as a basis of your business and then shutter one of the primary engagement channels could harm the brand. But given the exodus of forum-users to Monzo forums is it possible that Starling’s alienated its most loyal user base? The existence of the community forums raises the questions of who wants to have that relationship with their bank? Why would they even want it? It could just be an issue of tech enthusiasts and early adopters getting on the scene asap. But perhaps it goes beyond that. Can you even create a community around a bank without setting up unrealistic expectations about the relationship? Some of these questions are likely to be answered as forums mature and users either flock to them to feel part of a community curated by their bank, or reject them as a mechanism. In the meantime, expect more debate about the nature of online forums and their role in supporting transparency in retail banking. We don’t have the answers to these questions and it’s possible that no-one has a definitive answer, but we’d love to know what you think. Get in touch with us on Twitter @11FSTeam.