The virtues of impersonal digital banking

Too personal?

Too personal?

This week I’m doing a 180 from last week, when I discussed the importance of infusing a personal feel into digital banking and how to do it. Important as the (seemingly oxymoronic) personal digital touch is, this week I want to examine …

The pros of impersonal digital banking. 

There are certain products that, no matter how common or needful, people can be reluctant to be seen purchasing. For them, online shopping is a godsend. Abashed about what the Walgreen’s clerk may surmise? Just order that lice shampoo online, from the privacy of your home. It’ll come in a plain wrapper so not even the UPS driver will know. 

Shyness about purchasing certain items in plain view is not new. In 1950, a new line of rat poison was launched by a fellow whose last name was—what else?—Ratner. He branded it d-Con, ran aggressive radio ads targeting areas known to have rats, and sat back waiting for sales to roll in. To his surprise and disappointment, none did. Then Ratner added this line to his commercials: “So that no one will know you have a rodent problem, d-Con is always mailed in a plane wrapper.” Then, sales take off.*

People haven’t changed. There are many products that today’s consumer prefers not to be espied plopping down on the check stand. This is true even for products that everyone needs and uses. Pmnts.com recently put it this way:

No, we aren’t talking about drugs or stolen goods or other illegal products or purchases that anyone with enough determination can procure online. We’re talking about more mundane items that range from certain types of personal hygiene products, over-the-counter medicine and weird things like cat brushes—even toilet paper that some people once had to horse trade asking another person to buy for them in a physical store—that they can now by online, embarrassment-free.

Chances are each of us knows—or has even been—the person experiencing angst when buying products of a personal nature. In fact, purchase shyness is so prevalent that a number of news and entertainment sites have lists of items that people are grateful at last to be able to purchase discreetly, thanks to the privacy—and impersonal aspect—of the Internet. 

Buzzfeed, for instance, lists “21 Slightly Embarrassing Products You’ll Be Glad You Can Buy Online.” Some of the items surprised me. Call me a social lummox, but it wouldn’t bother me to walk up to a checkout counter and pay for products the likes of toilet bowl cleaner, a selfie stick, shoe deodorizer, or bathroom scales. 

Well, maybe the selfie stick.

I can, however, better understand some of the items, such as hemorrhoid ointment, a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey, an STD test, morning after meds, ringworm balm, or, for that matter, handcuffs.

One product showing up on a few lists was new to me: a glow-in-the-dark cat brush that fits over your tongue. I totally get why someone might be shy about being seen buying one of those. What I fail to totally get is wanting to buy one. Much less use it.

Embarrassment that hinders face-to-face sales creates an online marketing opportunity. In “How to Make Money Selling Embarrassing Products on eBay,” The Balance Small Business advises that people “appreciate the anonymity of the Internet”; that online shopping lets them “transact business privately without questions, remarks, or strange looks from employees or shoppers in stores”; and, most important for its readers, that online shoppers “… will pay a premium for embarrassing products”:

Some consumers are not price sensitive. They are more concerned with finding the product they want, fast shipping, and privacy. It is not unusual for consumers to pay three times retail for a particular product online because of the privacy factor. This concept may seem backward—isn’t eBay for buying items at a cheaper price? Not always. Some buyers seek very specific products and purchase on eBay strictly for the privacy factor.

Granted, most banks don’t sell rat poison, anti-fungal ointment, or pregnancy tests. But banks nonetheless deal with sensitive and personal matters, such as balances, overdrafts, loans, budgets, insurance, earnings, and investments. 

Dealing face-to-face with a live banker means disclosing personal financial matters to a human. Given turnover, oft times the banker may be a perfect stranger. By contrast, digital apps are gloriously non-human, never gossip, make no judgments or assumptions about balances, provide no opportunity for others to see or overhear what a client would rather they didn’t, and never inadvertently say a little too loudly “you’re overdrawn,” “you’re late on your loan payment and there’s nothing we can do about the penalty,” or “holy smokes that’s a lot of money.”

So there’s the marketing challenge: To ensure that digital banking has a personal feel, while promoting the advantages of detached, impersonal banking for the times customers want it.

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* Eicoff, Alvin Or Your Money Back. New York: Crown 1983

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