Royal Bank uses student blogs to give down-to-earth financial advice

If you’re looking to pinch those pennies as tightly as possible in these days of recession, try brewing your own cup of Joe instead of making that daily trip to Starbucks for the indulgence of a caramel macchiato.

It’s the kind of simple, pocket change-saving advice that can only come from a person who needs those quarters to get the laundry done – a student.

Zachary Pedersen gives tips on leading a thrifty lifestyle through his blog on the Royal Bank of Canada’s peer to peer site – that’s RBC and p2p to keep it short, but this site isn’t about sharing files.

It’s about sharing a young person’s perspective on personal finance.

“It doesn’t just have to be coffee,” Pedersen writes. “It may be your breakfast sandwich on the way to work, your daily trip to the cafeteria, your weekly trip to the music store or the bookstore.”

The six student bloggers recruited by RBC.

The p2p site is the first project born out of RBC’s Next Great Innovator Challenge. The annual competition puts a question to college and university student teams across the country and awards the top ideas with cash prizes. After three years the competition has generated several ideas adopted by various departments at RBC and served as a recruitment vehicle to boot.

In its first year running the competition, RBC was told by a student team that young people don’t want financial advice from people resembling their parents, but from people more like themselves. The solution was to recruit six student bloggers to take up the mantle of financial adviser for millennials, says Avi Pollack, head of applied innovation at RBC.

“This is just first stake…we’re taking a stab at it by doing something,” he says. “Where we’ve started out is not where we’re going to end up.”

The blog’s main page offers links to the six student writers by name. The latest video posted is also available for viewing (apparently plugging a competition that took place around September). There’s also a link to RBC’s Facebook group.

Digging a little deeper into the site reveals that blog posts are also broken down into categories such as money, school, life and housing. Each student has a video biography introduction.

The blog has been live since January 2008.

It’s an initiative worthy of praise, says Michael O’Connor Clarke, vice president with Thornley Fallis Communications in Ottawa.

“Any bank that’s willing to experiment in this way is to be given credit,” he says. “This is a bank-hosted site, with the brand all over it and they’re actively encouraging real participation.”

It has all the right ingredients of a successful blog – RSS feeds, comments, and track backs. It’s an unusual thing for a bank to be doing.

“I haven’t seen any big banks try to communicate in this sort of tone,” Pollock agrees.

But the site’s not perfect. If it’s meant as a grassroots marketing vehicle for students, then it’s not reaching many of them. A search on Compete.com shows traffic for the site at less than 2,000 unique visitors per month on average (with the exception of one outlier last October, when the site received 11,000 visitors a month).

“I don’t imagine that many people at RBC are jumping up and down about the success of this thing,” Clarke says.

Perhaps part of the problem is the boxed-in nature of the site, the social media expert adds. There is little integration with the social networks already used by the targeted demographic – such as a way to share the blogs on Digg, or Facebook. There are also few links to other Web sites.

“What is limiting the impact is they’ve approached this as a kind of silo,” Clarke says. “You can’t set up your own tent and say the party is happening right here and expect everyone to show up.”

The p2p site was an idea submitted by students from the York University Schulich School of Business. Its current model won’t necessarily be maintained, according to Pollock. A third-party site such as Facebook might be a better venue to engage youth in areas they are already having discussions.

But that’s part of the reason for the innovator competition to exist – it offers a way to test new models without much risk.

“We use the innovation competition as a way to test new ways to communicate,” Pollock says. “This year we’re using Twitter.”

The micro-blogging site is being used to pass on tips to students preparing submissions to the competitions. It also alerts them when there are updates to the blog detailing the competition. This year’s challenge is to “suggest an innovative concept, product or process from another part of the world or different industry that Canadian financial services providers should adopt.”

Students will compete to win a total of $45,000 in prizes for the best entries. The deadline for submissions has passed and now the top ideas will be voted upon.

Past ideas from the innovation competition have included a videoconferencing capability at branches that would add either financial services or languages not normally available at a local branch.

The 2007 winner was the VIBE personal banking machine – a kind of ABM on steroids that offers online banking and real-time interaction with live bank personnel.

“The competition isn’t just a public relations exercise for us, it’s about reaching out to our clients and getting their views on the market,” Pollock says. “It’s also a great recruiting tool for identifying the top talent out there.”

For now, Web surfers can still benefit from the helpful advice of RBC’s six blogging students. Kate Longmoore’s post offers some pretty nifty tips on how to avoid pushy mall vendors during a busy shopping season.

“I dodged the girl with the flat iron, the vendor with the nail file and dude holding out a bottle of hand cream to me,” she writes. “I made it back to my car safely, but never actually got what I came to the mall for in the first place.”

At least she saved her laundry money.

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