Recognizing the cash crunch many small businesses are facing, a Colorado banking company has come up with a plan to help them increase their visibility - and, it's hoped, their sales - without increasing their marketing budgets.
FirstBank Holding Co., a multibank holding company with 120 branches in Colorado, kicked off the program this month, offering its business clients free Web site hosting, free advertising space and a free listing in its business directory. The Lakewood company aims to set itself apart from its competitors and, in turn, grab the attention of business owners who might be banking elsewhere. "We want to attract more small businesses, but part of that is how you demonstrate how you support your current small-business customers," said Dave Baker, the chief operating officer at the $9.7 billion-asset FirstBank.
Jacob Jegher, a senior analyst at the Boston consulting firm Celent, said that, free or not, it is unusual for a bank to offer marketing services to its clients. He said he suspects that the package of free services, dubbed DotFree, will entice some small-business owners to move accounts to FirstBank.
"We are in difficult economic times," Jegher said. "Everyone is going to shop around and do the math and see if they are better off elsewhere."
Christine Barry, a research director at Aite Group LLC of Boston, said competition for small-business customers is fierce, so it's a good idea for institutions like FirstBank to offer services that help them stand out. "Anything you can do to differentiate yourself from the competition is worth the effort," Barry said.
For businesses that do not already have a presence online, FirstBank will provide a URL, Web site development via SquareSpace.com and hosting - all free. To qualify, customers simply have to open a business checking account with a minimum opening deposit of $100.
FirstBank will also let customers piggyback off its own advertising online, in print and on billboards.
Internet banner ads will first show the bank's logo with the tag line, "We care about your small business." The ads will then rotate through a series of customer ads, which will show on sites such as Forbes.com and Yahoo.com.
FirstBank's magazine ads will leave enough white space for its small-business clients to market themselves as well. Businesses can also be included in FirstBank's OrangePages, a small-business directory, where clients offer special discounts to FirstBank customers, such as a 15% discount on an oil change.
Many banks are in no position to give away marketing services to customers. But FirstBank has weathered the financial crisis better than many banking companies. Last year, when the industry as a whole lost money, FirstBank turned a profit of $127 million, up 28%.
Baker said FirstBank needs to continue to court entrepreneurs. "Colorado is very much a small-business state - there's not a lot of Fortune 500 companies here," he said. "Small business is right in our wheelhouse."