One community banker’s DIY approach to building a digital presence

When Lincoln Parks joined Heritage Bank in Jonesboro, Georgia, in August 2015 to remake its marketing strategy, the bank’s online presence needed a lot of work.

The website was almost entirely informational. It listed contact numbers, described the bank’s accounts and services, and provided a link to log in to online banking, but there was no way to register for an account online and there were no social media accounts to build buzz about the community bank.

Parks had to reimagine how the bank existed online and built that new presence, almost single-handedly. Over the past six years, he has raised Heritage’s profile on social media, created account-opening platforms and developed a Paycheck Protection Program portal in-house by piecing together software rather than handing the tasks off to a vendor. And he accomplished all this while simultaneously keeping a hand in his digital marketing company.

Lincoln Parks, strategy and innovation officer at Heritage Southeast Bancorporation

Lincoln Parks has been monitoring how Heritage Bank appears on third-party search and review sites. “One of the major things a lot of banks don’t pay attention to is reputation,” says Parks, who is the strategy and innovation officer at Heritage Southeast.

Heritage Bank merged with The Heritage Bank and Providence Bank in 2019 to form the $1.7 billion-asset Heritage Southeast Bancorp., though the three entities have largely maintained their separate brands. But Parks’ hard work was noticed, and in August 2020 Heritage Southeast CEO Leonard Moreland invited Parks to become the strategy and innovation officer at the entire Heritage Southeast organization.

In his new role, Parks set to work investigating new projects and assessing which fintech companies Heritage Southeast could partner with to accomplish its various goals — speeding up the online account-opening process, equipping small businesses with invoicing and cash-flow tools, improving the bank’s small-business lending platform, and integrating financial literacy programs, to name a few. Many of these projects have since been put on hold as the company awaits the completion of its sale to VyStar Credit Union.

Because of his creative, homegrown efforts to amplify the digital capabilities of Heritage Bank, Parks is one of American Banker’s Digital Bankers of the Year for 2021.

Parks first met Moreland through their local chamber of commerce. Parks was running his digital marketing company, WebMobileFusion, and Moreland hired him to a part-time marketing role that would evolve into a full-time position several years later. The agreement was that Parks could keep one foot in his company, which in turn pivoted into a digital marketing firm for community banks and credit unions.

“He was one of those guys who, when he spoke, people listened,” Moreland said. “He was very knowledgeable of subject matter in the digital world and commanded respect quickly.”

Parks joined the bank with a degree in technical management from DeVry University and no experience as a banker. But that was a plus for Moreland, who notes that bankers tend to be traditional, reverting to marketing methods such as direct mail and local ads.

“When we started talking he said, ‘I don’t want someone that thinks like a banker. I want someone who thinks like an entrepreneur,’ ” Parks recalled.

One of his first tasks as marketing director was to make the Heritage Bank name more visible in the south metro Atlanta community it served. Parks created online contact forms and started collecting customer email addresses so he could customize marketing messages. A social media and digital ad campaign, centered on the slogan “Heritage is my bank,” showcased small-business owners with ties to Heritage. He set up social media accounts from scratch, something that was important to Moreland.

“We can’t go out and name a baseball stadium. We can’t be on every street corner or every sign,” he said. “Social media is somewhat of an equalizer.”

Parks’s posts to Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter had an impact. He calculates that the social media audience for Heritage grew 53.4% in 2018 over the year before, another 22.6% in 2019 and another 22.5% across all channels in 2020.

Parks also monitored how Heritage Bank appeared on third-party search and review sites.

“One of the major things a lot of banks don’t pay attention to is reputation,” Parks said.

He and one assistant oversaw online listings on Google and other search sites or mapping tools, ensuring that hours were accurate, and monitored reviews on Google, Facebook and more, responding to both positive and negative feedback. To keep Heritage top of mind among local customers (or potential customers), Parks brainstormed ways to increase its visibility in Google search rankings, such as creating content that capitalized on popular search terms and buying Google ads that shot Heritage to the top of the search results if someone entered the names of any of its divisions within one to three miles of a branch.

In 2019, Parks turned to making the website more sophisticated. “I realized customers were spending at least 45 minutes to an hour in the bank opening an account,” he said. He constructed an online account-opening mechanism himself using tools such as PHP, an open-source scripting language; Smartsheet, a project management software provider, to capture data; Mailchimp to automate emails; and the automation tool Zapier to move files.

The number of both consumer and business accounts opened per month across Heritage Southeast Bank doubled, from 100 to 200, after Heritage introduced the online application. In 2020, the number of accounts opened online grew by 166% from the previous year.

Parks exercised similar homespun methods when Moreland tasked him with creating a loan application platform for the Paycheck Protection Program in 2020.

“I had a 48-hour window to create something that would allow our customers to submit information, upload that to our lenders and get that over to the Small Business Administration,” Parks said.

He programmed web forms using PHP that sent information to a Smartsheet database. Customers then received a link by email to upload documentation into Citrix ShareFile. After a customer chose a loan officer from a list, the documents were routed to that loan officer using a Zapier integration.

Parks’s quick work meant that Heritage Southeast could process loans from the start of PPP, ultimately fueling 960 small businesses with $104 million in funding.

Most banks of Heritage’s size have to rely on vendors to provide their back-end systems, and the fact that Parks was able to spearhead an effort for the bank to build its own is unique.

“Online account opening and digital onboarding are table stakes,” said Stephen Greer, senior analyst at Celent. “But it’s not common for a bank of that size to build their own.”

But that effort isn’t just different; it also gives Heritage a certain advantage. Banks that are beholden to vendors for their services are powerless to fine-tune those services. Heritage’s agility in processing PPP loans by itself is a testament to how much of an advantage having one’s own back-end processing was to the bottom line.

“One of the common things we hear from community institutions is that they are held captive by some of their tech providers,” Greer said. “A lot are trying to get to places where they can be in charge of their own fate and achieve some autonomy. It sounds like that is where Heritage is at now.”


https://www.americanbanker.com/news/one-community-bankers-diy-approach-to-building-a-digital-presence

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