<p>COLUMBIA, S.C. – From brochureware to community portals to account aggregation, what a long, strange trip it's been for Web sites in credit union land, and who knows where it's going next? Bill Wagner's willing to hazard a guess. "In the not-so-distant future, the most functional CU Web site will offer members the ability to make that site even more individualized," says the marketing manager at Liberty Internet Services, part of Liberty Enterprises in Mounds View, Minn. "Specific member information will be channeled to the site, based on the member's financial and consumer profile," says Wagner, whose company (www.libertysite.com) provides a broad range of Internet and Web services to more than 500 credit unions across the country. "The member will then be able to influence the content and design of the Web site. The Web site then truly becomes the member's – as well as the credit union's," he says. Personalization – a catchword that we may well hear even more as MRM solutions create a synergy among all CU delivery channels – is also something Brendan McMahon sees with his work at Level 9 (www.level9.com), a Vermont-based Internet consultancy. "The state-of-the art CU Web site will be a focused and individualized online resource for its members," the Level 9 president says, and driving that will be technology that enables those choices. But, "it isn't really so much about technology. . It's all about giving members what they need and helping to solve their financial problems," McMahon says. "Having focused disproportionately on technology, outside of context and without regard to integration, is one of the problems that credit unions face today in developing the next generation Web channel," he observes. "Each credit union needs to work out for itself how much of a technology infrastructure and what kinds of customer information they will need to be accessible in order to provide effective CRM to the Web site and other delivery channels," McMahon adds. ONLY CHANGE IS CONSTANT Web sites vary in character and function as much as the credit unions themselves, and for all, perhaps the only constant is change. And a growing focus on integrating a wide range of financial functions into one easy-to-use site that builds business and loyalty. "Our philosophy is to try to keep current. You can't be stale, but you also can't be too fancy and crazy and cluttered," says Wendell Blakely, senior vice president of technology at IBM Southeast Employees' FCU (www.ibmsecu.org) in Boca Raton, Fla. He labels his credit union's efforts "as just a common-sense approach" that focuses on giving the $492 million CU's 52,000 members what they want and need. Of course, that means growing functionality in a variety of ways. With 19,000 active online banking users, IBM Southeast has found itself continually adding functionality, including the ability for members to do more and more on their own. Next up: e-mail alerts and account aggregation through its affiliation with the California-based CU Tech consortium. Perhaps one of the strangest detours for credit unions was the short-lived move into e-commerce, selling non-financial products and services, usually in partnership with local or national vendors. That, of course, was a big part of the venture into the community portal role. Lauralee Brown Markus has this take on that: "We've done an excellent job keeping up with the evolution of the Internet. However, not everything we attempt sticks," says the Web relationship manager at Patelco Credit Union (www.patelco.org) in San Francisco. "Remember when credit unions thought it was the norm to create their sites as an online community? It was a terrific concept that rarely worked," Markus says. "One example was Patelco's Market Place, where members had the ability to take out free classified ads on our site. We also offered free e-mail address called PCU Mail, which is still used by many members," she says. However, some innovations have really taken off and provide a look at what credit unions will be providing more of in the future in terms of ease of use for members and staff alike, through integration of Internet and core-processing functions. For instance, Patelco's online loan application solution, Loan Hunter. "The key to Loan Hunter is to eliminate the redundant steps in processing member loan requests," says Patelco's senior vice president of loans, Chris Oldag. "The majority of the applicant information comes off our core Summit system and auto-populates the fields for member update or review. This is a dramatic improvement for our members and our staff," Oldag says. "Our newest hired staff go live within hours of seeing the system for the first time compared to a week of loan training needed in the past," he says. "Build it and they will come," Markus adds. In 1998, when e-mailed loan requests were first accepted, 1,537 applications were processed that way. In 2001, there were 20,778 loans processed on Patelco's Web site. Asked what's next for the $2.4 billion, 195,000-member CU, Markus puts it like this: "I look at that question in terms of fluidity and not concrete changes. So the question is, what will members continue to ask for and how will technology continue to evolve? That's how we determine changes to our site." She sees MRM as part of that philosophy and an initiative under way at Patelco. "Members are individuals and we want to treat them as such," the Web relationship manager says. CHANNELING THE SWEET SPOT Change also seems to be a constant at Kinecta FCU in Manhattan Beach, Calif., where a complete Web site redesign was accompanied by expanding reach across a number of channels. "In 2000, we were one of the first credit unions to offer members wireless access to their accounts through Palm Pilots and cellular phones," says Teresa Freeborn, senior vice president of marketing and communications at the $2.4 billion, 230,000-member institution (www.kinectacreditunion.org). She adds: "Our Web site is moving into a new phase right now. With our name launch (from Hughes Aircraft Employees FCU), we of course added our new logo, along with more color to the site. "We believe our present site functions well as an information source for our members and as a place where they can conduct online banking, find our locations and access various forms and applications," Freeborn says, adding that more changes, including an enhanced member feedback section, are on the way. She also sees: "More automation and convenience for our members. E-statements are just around the corner. And now that e-signatures have become a reality, so will the ability to open accounts and apply for products online." One thing she doesn't see is a move into the portal concept of the Web site as a conduit of non-financial information and services. "Down the road, we are looking at more automation in that direction, but we aren't really looking at information outside the financial arena," Freeborn says. That effort to determine and meet members' needs has resulted in credit union Web sites as a whole arriving at what Peter Bushman calls a "sweet spot." "It's that point where credit unions seems to be fairly satisfied with what they're presenting and members seem to pretty satisfied," says the vice president of sales for CUNA Network Services (www.cunaecommerce.com) in Madison, Wis., which has a client list of about 250 credit unions. Bushman says he's seen a middle ground evolve from what had been "a real polarization in the credit union movement" over portals and other functionality issues. He says he's seen credit unions evolve from information sites to complex operations that can serve as the sole source of financial knowledge and functions, and he calls the question of extending beyond the financial arena "an interesting debate" over how to establish channels to win members' time online. DON'T PITY PORTALS And don't write portals off yet, says Greg Constantine, executive vice president at FundsXpress (www.fundsxpress.com) in Austin, Texas. The company's Portana Dynamic Web Site falls under that general description, and Constantine has numbers he says show its users spend on average three to 10 times as much time as do visitors to the average, randomly selected financial institution Web site. He attributes that success to a better understanding of what members are looking for when they do visit, and improvements in look, feel and functionality. The Portana product combines non-financial information and services with a growing list of services such as bill-pay and account aggregation. "You look at studies from a couple years ago and you see that people didn't understand where they were and had trouble getting around, but now companies and credit unions are doing a better job of setting up proper paths," says Constantine, whose company has a client list of about 600 institutions, including about 70 credit unions. "Whenever the term `portal' is used, it has an almost negative connotation among credit unions, but we've been successful because we do not position it as such," he says. "We take your existing Web site, add the functionality of weather, stock quotes and all those other products, and you have attractive, interactive non-financial content working with your financial products, and it becomes your Web site," he says. A new user of the Portana Dynamic Web Site is SC Telco Federal Credit Union in Greenville, S.C. "We wanted to get beyond the static Web site and give our members something that would bring more traffic," says Steve Harkins, president and CEO of the 26,000-member, $90 million CU. In addition to the financial basics, SC Telco's site at www.sctelcofcu.org offers your horoscope. "We laughed about that at first, but FundsXPress showed us research that shows that's one of the top five things that people look for on Internet," Harkins says. "We think by combining things of personal interest like that with community information and financial products that align with our brick and mortar, we'll have good results on the Internet," he says. "So far we only have verbal feedback, but it's been very positive," he says. It's all part of integrating function and form, and doing it in a way that makes sense. "CU site functionality has dramatically improved due to the efforts of third-party, vendor-developed products like online banking, e-statements, bill payment, check imaging, account aggregation and e-alerts," says McMahon at Level 9. "Conveying a sense of a cohesive whole is a challenge that still remains. One of the next important steps . is integration of all the separate elements to create a seamless, powerful and rewarding CU service experience for the member," he says. "Have there been important advances? Yes. Is the end in sight? Not yet." -</p> <p>[email protected]</p>

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