Bank of America saw the growth of online communities as one avenue to act as a trusted resource for small business owners. So the bank created the aptly named Small Business Online Community (SBOC). The customer-centric site goes beyond simple feedback forums to encourage interaction among existing and prospective small business entrepreneur customers, via an easy-to-navigate system that combines anecdotes, expert insights, and other regular features.
"Our research showed that more and more small business owners wanted something like this to help grow their businesses," says Ashley Ross, senior vice president of small business banking e-commerce at Bank of America. "We want to be able to anticipate these customers' and potential customers' needs, and thought that an open and participant-driven forum was the best way to accomplish that."
The site launched in October and features four tabs across the top of the homepage-Forums, Stories, Experts, and Members-each designed for specific customer input. Forums, for example, provides quick answers to posted questions. While Ross won't say what average response time is, she says, "We're certainly meeting our goals compared to our competitors."
The Experts section offers articles and advice from established business owners, and was "developed to meet the business owner's need for relevant guidance on pain points and potential pitfalls," Ross says. The Stories area features success stories, while Members allows for networking opportunities and includes member profiles.
While Ross declines to give membership figures (though the content is free, users are required to register for access to the Members section), she says it's growing steadily and meeting BofA's goals.
Marketing for SBOC is done via the usual methods, including email, online advertising, promotions on the bank's website, literature in BofA branches, and ads in its Business 24/7 magazine.
The bank is particularly proud that the community site is free and open to any existing or prospective small business owner, without necessarily being affiliated with Bank of America. "We built the community to help small businesses succeed, and to establish greater relevance to them," Ross says.
So with the no-cost aspect of the site, and the fact that members don't have to have an established BofA relationship, what's in it for the bank?
"When our customers succeed, so do we; when small business owners succeed, so do we," Ross says. "The website is designed to demonstrate to all small business owners that Bank of America is a trusted resource."