Building an Effective E-Branch

In today’s age of visually oriented customers, an e-branch can change, or even define, the way credit unions do business. Is your website working for you?


There are many aspects to consider when defining an effective website for your credit union.  A website development project relies on strict planning and study to really work for its users and its owners.  Combining that with the distinct needs of credit union members adds another layer of complexity.  Fortunately, many technology circles within the credit union industry have studied and created successful websites from which we can learn a number of valuable lessons. 

The term e-Branch refers to a financial institution’s website.  This is not a typical website.  It is an online experience that replicates or supersedes the in-branch.  It supports the institution’s brand and marketing efforts while also allowing for complete administrative control by its internal employees.  It provides valuable fresh content to its users and therefore holds a reputation as a financial resource for the credit union’s members.  For some members, the website may be the credit union’s only representation.

When planning and developing an e-branch website, proper consideration should be given to each element.   The most important thing an e-branch can do is to allow its members to find exactly what they came to find.  Member satisfaction increases when members can rely on their credit union’s website to be a consistent resource for daily financial information. 

When that website is aesthetically pleasing and easy to use, it improves their satisfaction even further.  This is accomplished through appropriate interaction design, graphic design, and marketing research.  It is also essential to provide good content that is presented in a way that does not confuse or frustrate your members, and is in context to other related content.

A successful e-branch interface should enforce the branding set forth by the institution.  The member must recognize every page accessed through the website as a trusted resource.  Generic interfaces are more susceptible to phishing and pharming attacks by hackers because they are easier to replicate and because the user ultimately becomes comfortable with unbranded pages being presented by their credit union.  Credit unions who work closely with their vendors to ensure that interfaces reflect their brand integrity offer a more secure environment for their members.

This interface begins by integrating branding elements that have been established to support the credit union with existing physical collateral like imagery, print work and signage or branch design.  The colors, fonts, logos, photographs, color schemes, design styles and taglines or other marketing messages should be consistent between all of these channels.

Appropriate graphic design can also ensure that your member is going to be directed to what they want to see on your e-branch website.  Because a web page has only a few seconds to attract the attention of its visitor, a user’s willingness to engage can easily be suppressed by placing the wrong things in front of them.  Examples of this include inconsistently presented navigation menus, out of context promotions or too much text content.

Web users have become increasingly visual and less cognitive.  The reality is that users do not want to have to read paragraphs of text in order to find the information they came for.  Therefore, graphical promotions and calls to action can assist your credit union in getting the message across quickly and effectively.  Shortening your text descriptions to get straight to the point is essential. 

A balance between optimized graphical imagery (with alternate text attributes) and the sophisticated use of cascading style sheets applied to browser based elements can keep users and internet search engines interested while ensuring quick page loads and accessibility compliance.     

Once the overall design style is set forth for the e-branch, the placement of the content is crucial.  The types of content that should be included in any e-branch website fall within several categories.  They range from product information to specifics about the organization, how to contact the credit union, to financial education resources, to rates, to information about online banking or billpay.  Although all of these elements are important in making an e-branch successful, some of them are more likely than others to encourage your member to transact.

It is typical for a user to visit a website regularly to engage in a few different behaviors.  Accessing online banking is a very common reason for a member to visit an e-branch site.  This is a daily practice for many members.  Enticing the member by placing appropriate content and promotions on the pages that must be visited to access online banking can be very beneficial. 

Many financial institutions place the online banking login fields on their homepage or on every page within their site for this very reason.  Most leading online banking vendors offer the flexibility to modify the banking login page in a way that allows a credit union to place specific marketing promotions in clear view on the secure page that is visited daily by most of its members.

In addition, members will frequently visit an e-branch website to learn more about financial services.  Offering concise product descriptions is helpful, but using financial literacy information to educate the credit union member is probably the single most important purpose that an e-branch website can fulfill. 

Educational content is unique because it takes the “sales pitch” away from the presentation.  It does not specifically address the products of the credit union, but rather the type of product and what it’s all about.  Information about how loans or mortgages work, what investment paths are best, how to save for college, or improving credit scores are all valuable to the member. However, when presented as a product being sold, they often get overlooked.  An educated credit union member is more likely to transact with their credit union – offering specific educational material is crucial.

Certain materials that may be specific to the phase of a member’s life are often referred to as “life cycle education.”  Events like college, marriage, divorce, buying a home, childbirth, or investing for retirement all require financial knowledge.  When a member can be directed to the educational materials that relate to their current life phase, they can quickly educate themselves and prepare for the necessary transaction with the credit union.

Directing the member to the appropriate content can often be challenging.  The placement of navigation items, homepage content and promotions is crucial in order to simplify the user’s first e-Branch experience.   But how does a credit union marketing team know where to place promotions when every new visitor to the website is looking for something different than the last? 

Currently, this problem is being solved with something called “Behavior Based Marketing”.  This method involves tracking the path that a user takes through a site and presenting them with promotions that relate to the content they previously viewed.  For instance, if a visitor clicks on “rates” to see loan rates, then clicks on “auto loans”, it is probably likely that they are researching purchasing a vehicle through an auto loan with the credit union.  Therefore, presenting them with a few (otherwise hidden) options relating to that topic can make the sale.  In this case, content about how to use a home equity loan to finance a vehicle may be presented.  Based on the user’s behavior, specific content or marketing opportunities can be presented. 

Once a credit union has planned all of these aspects for an e-branch website, management of the content must be controlled internally through a comprehensive content management system.  The alternative is a completely “static” website.  This means that the content can only be managed by an experienced website developer. 
Because most credit unions do not have these skill sets available internally, content managed e-branches have become essential tools for credit union marketing departments and remote delivery managers. 

An effective content management system is a secure website that is only accessible to internal staff which allows for complete control over text, images, rates, marketing promotions, page creation and organization, navigation, and more.  The more control a content management system allows the less involved a website development vendor needs to be.  The system not only allows a credit union to keep content fresh and pertinent to current offerings, but allows for significantly reduced annual development expenses. 

A credit union e-branch is a unique type of website.  It is an essential piece of the puzzle that makes up a financial institution.  It is a system that allows its users to access exactly what they wish to see when they wish to see it.  It is the “virtual” version of the physical branch that emulates the feeling and satisfaction set forth by a credit union’s brand, and it has the ability to establish that feeling for a visitor to compel them to transact.

An e-branch can also define how a member perceives the quality of service offered by their credit union.  It is a tool for a credit union’s marketing department that allows them to be in complete control of the content presentation on their website.  The e-branch is the way that a credit union legitimizes itself on the web. 

In today’s age of point and click reference and visually oriented customers, an e-branch can change, or even define, the way credit unions do business.




Jan. 23, 2006


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