Wells Fargo & social media: "A thick skin is necessary"

Session number three at BlogWell was entitled 'Darwinism and social media' and was presented by senior representatives from the famous US banking institution Wells Fargo (mostly known outside the US for its stagecoach service which ran throughout the 19th century. Wells Fargo was also a bank, and obviously, stagecoaches being rather less fashionable in this day and age, only the banking business remains).

For Internet old-timers like yours truly, Wells Fargo is also remembered for being one of the pioneering online banks of the mid-1990s. So if you are looking for an example of mixing up a well-known respectable and well-established brand and the power of the digital world, I believe that Wells Fargo stands head and shoulders above the rest. Wells Fargo is based in San Francisco California, and allthough that region is hardly associated with history, it must be pointed out that the company was founded in 1852. That in itself is impressive. There are 165,000 employees at Wells Fargo, working for 82 business lines. It is one of the 10 oldest US brands. The speakers were our BlogCouncil colleagues Tim Collins and Ed Terpening (also a very talented artist by the way) from Wells Fargo.

Wells Fargo is also an old respectable banking institution which kept safely away form the sub-prime and hedge funds nonsense of the past few years, which means that its business is very sound and its future is not threatened directly by the current credit crunch. (It is however going through a merger with Wachovia).

The title of the presentation is a bit daunting, but it serves the purpose of reminding readers that in the digital world too, only the fittest will survive. In other words, even well established institutions like Wells Fargo have to play by the rules and adhere to social media guidelines and not the other way round.

According to Tim and Ed "it was easy". "People didn't think that social media was a new medium, but just another medium". Off to a bad start and would say. But Tim and Ed knew better. To prove their point, thet decided to take an analogy and what made most sense to them was to show how TV commercials were made in the 1950s and in the 1970s. Let's have a look at that with Exhibit 1 and 2.

 Certainly, if you wouldn't dare to show these ads to your children for fear they take the mickey off you, it probably means something. Tim and Ed pointed out that you can no longer talk to your clients in this fashion, and therefore, similarly embarking on a social media initiative, also requires that you learn an entirely new language.

I think that this demonstration was worth a thousand words and this is why I wanted to share it with our Orange live blog readers.

Social media at Wells Fargo started three years ago (I'd warned you that this old lady was indeed a trail-blazer so now you believe me). Like Ken Kaplan (see our article about Ken's presentation about Intel's social media strategy here), they asked themselves the question: who owns the brand? And the answer came clearly. And when it comes to defining what the brand is, tim is referring to Jeff Besos, Amazon's famous founder: Jeff says that "the brand is ... what people say about you, when you are out of the room". That is also a very powerful quote.

There were a number of guidelines that Wells Fargo used for their social media initiative: First and foremost, they stuck to Seth Godin's principle according to which marketing has to be opt-in. (For those who haven't read it yet I would recommend one of Seth's first books entitled 'the ideavirus'). They also knew that media is fragmenting. At the end of the day, Wells Fargo wanted to be "what/where [its] customers are".

Social media is a matter of culture: So blogs, and there are four blogs at Wells Fargo, had to be done and maintained by "real people. Still, the buy-in was a real issue and Tim and Ed insist that a "thick skin is necessary" (I can relate to that as well, social media is not for the fainthearted).

Wells Fargo's blogs can be found at http://blog.WellsFargo.com. None of the bloggers that Wells Fargo have recruited are professional bloggers. They are all employees and guest bloggers. They have also embarked on second life. But Tim immediately added that they were "the first brand to be in second life and also the first brand to be out of second life" which proves that Wells Fargo people not only are trail blazers they are also very wise. The fact that none of their people maintaining the blogs are professional communicators, implies that the tone of voice which is being used is very individualistic and also very true.

Headlines are important on the house had to train their people in order to choose their headlines. Tim also warns us that you have sometimes to dare to go out of the beaten track: "don't be afraid to go off topic. And to be personal" was his personal advice. "You have to go outside of your home turf. And you have to remember always that you have to be where your customers are". But Tim and Ed warned us again: this is the start of a long journey (possibly a stagecoach journey?).

A lot of personal stories were added in this presentation which I cannot relate here. Also, one of the important things that were stressed by the presenters were the great partnership with legal and compliance which they were able to establish and which help them greatly in launching their social media initiative.

At the end of the day there is no escaping the rules, Wells Fargo understood that from day one and we can actually use their example to build our own social media strategy and move forward. It's good to have an old lady that you can trust who takes you by the hand and shows you the way. Thank you Tim and Ed for this important lesson we learned from you.

Yann Gourvennec

I specialize in information systems, HighTech marketing and Web marketing. I am author and contributor to numerous books and the CEO of Visionary Marketing. As such, I contribute regularly on this blog for Orange Business account on cloud computing and cloud storage topics.