“We apply a policy of ruthless integration”

Lisa Walker is head of digital marketing communications at HSBC. She spoke to Ruth Mortimer about the role of digital in the bank’s strategy and plans for social media and mobile activity.


Marketing Week (MW): How do you get buy-in for digital marketing from HSBC executives?

Lisa Walker (LW): What matters most is the commercial value of whatever I am proposing. That is always going to be the overriding factor. There has to be compelling evidence about what audience I can capture through digital marketing and what value the channel can offer for whatever challenge the business needs to address.

After that, it depends if what I am suggesting is already in scope, in budget and whether the bank is comfortable with what I am proposing from a technology and IT security point of view.

It’s important to remember that digital marketing doesn’t operate in isolation. It is part of a wider consumer journey and is only one of several channels that people digest on a daily basis. It’s important to understand how all communications channels work together as none can operate on their own. We apply a policy of ruthless integration to all our campaigns; everything must be synced up.

MW: You mention security, is that an important focus when designing digital marketing?

LW: We have quite stringent IT security measures. It’s essential, as a financial institution has to be completely secure in terms of people’s money and information. We need to make sure what we are doing is not going to put people at risk or make them vulnerable to phishing [online fraud] attacks. That’s very important to us.

We are always very careful with our email marketing communications to be consistent so people can have a high level of trust in them. We try to limit any ad hoc communications. And we always have a very clear warning saying: “We won’t ask for your account information and don’t give it out to anyone.”

We need to ensure what we do does not put people at risk so they know they can have confidence in any communications they do get from us. But people are comfortable getting email messages from financial brands; I would say for our customers, it is actually the preference.

MW: With more people choosing to operate on the go, are you looking at mobile banking too?

LW: Yes, absolutely. We see a lot of demand for mobile expressed on our Facebook page and we are developing a platform to enable that.

When it comes to financial institutions, we always have to be ultra secure in our operations, which sets us back in terms of delivering [the mobile banking] quickly. It’s the security issue rather than a desire to hold it back. We are very clear about mobile playing a key role, but we have to make sure it is secure and user friendly.

MW: As you mentioned, HSBC uses Facebook as a marketing channel. Can you explain why?

LW: With Facebook, our communication is geared to the younger end of the market – students. We have a very active HSBC student page. For the second year running, we have run a competition via Facebook where we award eight young winners a £15,000 bursary. We also used online video for the competition, which we feel is a medium that is well-established within Facebook and the right way to communicate our message.

I had to demonstrate to the bank how ingrained Facebook is in the lifestyles of young people today. It is their social life, their email, their SMS and how they run their lives. So we provided compelling evidence around the use of social media and how important it was to use that platform. Social networks can also amplify your messages by allowing them to spread publicly through people’s networks, which can be another boost.

MW: There have been media reports that HSBC intends to set up its own social network. Is this the case? If so, how will it work?

LW: No, that isn’t true. We have had a brief out to a couple of social media agencies because we are looking to widen the resources we use, and the brief – which didn’t say at any point we wanted to build a social media platform – got misinterpreted. What we are doing is really quite ordinary.

The right story is that we have been reaching out to social media agencies to see what is out there. It’s an area that is moving quickly and there are a lot of specialist agencies; we need to make sure we are benefitting from the best possible knowledge within the industry in terms of our supplier base.

We are a big business, so no single social media agency could handle all the brands within our whole organisation. We need to provide advice to the rest of the company about which agencies they should reach out to, without finding one agency to handle everything.

MW: What digital areas are you investing in most heavily at the moment?

LW: In terms of investment of time, social media will always be the most complicated because of the need to generate content. So in terms of creating content, social media takes a disproportionate amount of investment. It will always be easier to make an ad than to get people to follow your content.

Ironically, it is the other way round in terms of investment of money. It is not social media but the high revenue-generating activities that take our budget. The areas that receive financial investment are search, aggregators and even affiliates.

MW: So what is the most cost-effective digital channel for you?

LW: It will always be search. I recognise that search also benefits from the advertising we are doing in other areas. It almost acts as the beginning and the end of the sales funnel. It always shows incredibly good return of investment (ROI), as do aggregators. There are very few mortgage decisions made these days without a search on Moneysupermarket, so a huge amount of our mortgage business comes that way. Some of the smaller aggregators do well for us too, so we keep an eye on that.

I think online display and real-time bidding will be interesting if that area can demonstrate a real return on investment. I think the crucial thing for display is targeting effectively; you need to do behavioural retargeting so you are hitting the right audience and following them through their online journey.

With online display, I think sponsorship can drive awareness and we have started to see the link between search and display traffic. But you have to be very granular with your online display to ensure you are finding the right audience at the right time.

MW: What lies ahead for HSBC this year?

LW: For us, like many businesses, 2012 will be a very challenging year. We are expected to increase our sales with a very tight budget, so we have to be ruthlessly efficient with everything we do. We have to focus on return on investment and be efficient with advertising too, which means it can be harder to experiment. Our test budget will be limited, so we will have to be picky about what we do.

MW: What other developments do you see coming to HSBC in future?

LW: I’m looking forward to when social media is part of our business, taken as seriously as retail. I want it to be a business channel for us, rather than being seen purely as a marketing and communications one. I think that will take a level of adoption in the company that is not there yet.

For example, we still have customer services geared to phones and we haven’t yet embedded customer service as a digital-response channel. Some places have and we are slightly behind the curve; I think that is because we are so conscious of our customers’ security and don’t want to have private conversations play out in the public space. But we do have people wanting to talk publicly to us and in future, we have to find a way of dealing with that.

Walker’s Journey

MW: You previously worked at Bupa, T-Mobile and Fish4 before moving to HSBC. What experiences there have helped you in your current role?

LW: Working for smaller businesses has helped me. When your budget is tight, you learn to be very shrewd in how you spend your money.
So in terms of spending on search marketing, you have to understand exactly when consumers are most predisposed to convert and how the change of one or two words can change the performance of your search terms. That mindset gives you that shrewdness that only benefits you even more in a bigger organisation if you apply the same rules there.

MW: Which individual role has most benefitted you?

LW: Fish4 was a very useful role, because I had to squeeze as much out of that budget as I could. And when I was at T-Mobile, it was good to understand how a service brand works. It was also a big multinational, which was useful in terms of understanding how to operate within a large organisation.


1 Remember that the online world is not so different from the offline one. It has different channels, but you need many of the same marketing skills.

2 You need to be able to use the ‘right side’ of your brain to promote creativity and vision, along with a desire to do new things. Perhaps this is one area where the digital environment is slightly different to offline advertising; it changes so quickly that it can never come with guarantees.

3 You need to be able to use the ‘left side’ of your brain, with an eye for analytics and data. It’s important to be able to make smart decisions based on real-time evidence. So not only do you have to be creative and brave, you need hard evidence to back it up.

Training note…

“It is hard for someone to show you how to use digital channels. You need to see for yourself and be really excited by that world. It helps if you already consume a lot of online media yourself. You need to be experimenting and trying things. This doesn’t mean that you need to be on the cutting edge at all times – that could be expensive – but you definitely need to take an active interest.”



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