“Social Media is not just Facebook. It’s more about company culture and attitudes towards innovation.”

Franz Sebastian Welter, head of business development at the Volksbank in Bühl (in southwest Germany), is an ardent fan of social media. In fact he’s been showing the German world of banking just how much potential social media holds for business. As well as reaping its own successes through the social web, the Volksbank in Bühl has opened up a completely new business area – its very own innovation workshop, or InnovationsWerkstatt. A few days ago, the third stage of the crowdfunding project  viele-schaffen-mehr.de was presented. It’s an excellent example of how local banks can make use of social media. Franz Sebastian Welter explains how it’s about a lot more than Facebook and co. If anything, it’s more about company culture and attitudes towards innovation.

Together with his team, Welter has been flying the flag for online communication in banking for four years now. We’re delighted that he found the time for a brief interview on the Volksbank Bühl success story – thanks once again!

Franz Sebastian Welter, head of business development at the Volksbank in Bühl
Franz Sebastian Welter – Head of Business Development at the German Volksbank Bühl

Janina Benz: Good morning Franz. Tell me, what was behind the Volksbank Bühl decision to get into social networking four years ago?

Franz Sebastian Welter: We reworked our multichannel strategy in 2008 and 2009, and as part of this we took a close look at what was happening on the Internet. We quickly realised that Web 2.0 and social media weren’t going to be a flash in the pan. This was a paradigm shift, and we wanted to gain a better understanding of what was going on and look into the area a lot more closely. At the end of 2008, we then made our first steps into the world of Web 2.0.

JB: The banking sector is considered to be quite conservative. I can imagine it was quite difficult to overcome the financial hurdles, if not the organisational hurdles. How did you manage to set up such a motivated social media team?

FSW: Step by step. We started small instead of trying to do everything from the very beginning. Pretty much as soon as the accounts had been set up in Twitter, Facebook and co, we realised that to be successful, the DNA of social media had to be transferred to the culture of the company. So we tried to inspire more people at the bank with the topic, but to also make them sensitive to the risks. We ran workshops, organised training, set up social media guidelines, introduced our own innovation workshop and then launched a social business platform. The idea was to create more transparency in our in-house communication, to make it easier for people to get involved, but also to introduce e-commerce consultants so customers could become more familiar with e-commerce and social media. And recently we launched our crowdfunding platform viele-schaffen-mehr.de [“many create more”]. We wouldn’t have dreamt of planning such ideas before we embarked on our journey into social media. But it’s like a development process, not just for the whole organisation but also for the individuals involved in what we were doing, or are doing. For social media to work, you need managers who are not just willing to let things happen, but who actively back them.

JB: Under which circumstances do you think it makes sense to become involved in social media, not just for individual branches of banks, but also for the major banks? What general tips would you give people?

FSW: There are so many ways to use social media: crowdsourcing, open innovation, enterprise 2.0, social business, social media marketing, and more. If you ask me, unfortunately it gets ‘condensed’ too much into just being about marketing. When I say that, I’m thinking about internal use. There’s so much potential in it, for things like corporate communication, knowledge management or project management. But also in areas like linking up business partners, or working out how to integrate customers into value chain activities. I see tremendous potential for banks in these areas. If I could give people a tip I’d say, be bold and do NOT plan every last detail or try to control everything.

JB: You even discovered crowdfunding for your customers. What are the benefits to customers when a regional financial services company offers crowdfunding?

FSW: Hmm, well actually I wouldn’t say I discovered it. Actually, Raiffeisen [the founder of credit union cooperatives] and Schulze-Delitzsch [the social reformer] invented crowdfunding 160 years ago. Only in those days they didn’t have social media. And the idea of using a crowdfunding platform for the Volksbank in Bühl wasn’t exactly just my idea. It came out of a workshop at the InnovationsWerkstatt with our business partners T-Systems and VR-Networld over two years ago. Involving startnext.de brought a highly professional partner on board to implement the project. Without all these partners we’d never have got the platform off the ground. Crowdfunding is an excellent fit with the principles of cooperatives “What is impossible for the individual, can be achieved by many”.

JB: What challenges did you face implementing the project?

FSW: There were quite a few. In technology terms, it was a challenge to map out the payment processes, and there were lots of legal issues to take into consideration. But it was a particular challenge, and still is, in terms of the culture, just to explain crowdfunding and get people to understand it and how it fits with our cooperative heritage, and how it benefits the individual or the cooperative as a whole. But the reaction to the website, viele-schaffen-mehr.de, fills us with confidence. We’re going in the right direction.

JB: People often doubt the ROI on social media. Did you notice any differences offline coming from your awareness levels online? For example, did your customer base get younger?

FSW: That one again, ROI and social media! A fraught topic. Sure, some things can be measured, and there are plenty of key indicators and figures. But for me, the most important benefit is the learning process the organisation goes through when using social media – internally and externally. The effects social media has on company culture and a company’s ability to innovate are huge, but these aren’t things you can measure. But you do sense it when you’re part of an organisation. The Volksbank Bühl has been highly successful for years. It’s difficult to measure what share our social media activities have had in this success. The whole picture’s made up of lots of little pieces. One little piece is our social media program, another one is our innovation workshop. But there are lots of other little pieces, for example a progressive HR development strategy with probably more scholarships than any other bank of its size. Then there’s the training and coaching academy, which was set up in-house, with leading instructors. Or the comprehensive certification scheme for consultants, the extremely flat company hierarchy, with quick decision-making processes, lots of good managers, but more than anything, a really good company culture.

JB: What does the future look like for social media at Volksbank Bühl? What else should we keep an eye on, over and above crowdfunding, Facebook and co?

FSW: The good thing is that we can’t actually say at the moment. I think we’ll learn a lot through our crowdfunding platform and the use of our social business platform, Volksbank Bühl Connect, so we’ll take projects on from there. We’re currently running different workshops through the InnovationsWerkstatt and are making presentations to other banks and companies; the demand is pleasantly surprising. But there’s still plenty of room for further innovations, such as ideas in the fields of mobile banking, or open innovation, or crowd-investing. We’re already investing a lot of time and thought into one or two topics.

JB: To finish, could you describe what’s so fascinating about social media, in 140 characters, like a tweet?

FSW: #learning #knowledge #curiosity #networking #speed #fun #sharing #friends #career #innovation

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