More community banks are not only getting on social media but are also getting creative by recruiting celebrities, launching charity drives and promoting local attractions.

As branch traffic declines, interactions with customers have become more removed. So it's increasingly important for banks to develop personal ties to customers through other means, such as social media.

"How do you build engagement in a land of remoteness?" says Stewart Rose, president and chief executive at Truebridge Financial Marketing. "We're seeing opportunities to connect with customers beyond just the branch. Banks can start to have a personality online and develop that relationship beyond just a transaction."

Creating connections and highlighting a bank's personality can be done in many ways, such as offering financial literacy tips or showcasing employees' fun side with amusing videos.

More than 1,700 community banks are directly involved in social media outreach, up significantly from three years ago, says Chris Lorence, chief marketing officer at the Independent Community Bankers of America. Some still struggle with developing a purpose for their efforts, he adds.

It's important for bankers to listen to what matters to their communities and customers, so they can cater a message with broad appeal, Lorence says.

"You aren't selling on social media," Lorence says. "You're communicating. Social media should be used as a uniting tool."

Despite challenges, many community banks get it right. For the second year, the ICBA honored 50 community bank leaders in social media. Here are profiles highlighting three of those banks.

THINK LOCAL

First Security Bank in Searcy, Ark., has a simple strategy for reaching customers through social media: Tell 'em what they want to hear.

"We don't talk about products very much," says Kristi Thurmon, the $4.4 billion-asset bank's marketing director. "We're trying to put out the content that our fans want to see."

First Security, which has more than 70 branches in Arkansas, began using social media in 2012, when it began posting about bank events on Facebook. "We weren't getting the traction we wanted," Thurmon says.

So the bank got creative, launching a marketing campaign that involved "posting things that were only in Arkansas," she says.

As part of the campaign, the bank launched OnlyinArk.com, a community-focused blog celebrating its Arkansas roots.

The blog includes travel and dining recommendations and could easily be mistaken for a tourism web site. Its travel section, for instance, has recommendations for visiting the Arkansas delta. The dining section includes the story: "Burl's, Home of Arkansas's Largest Cinnamon Rolls."

The bank pushes content from its "Only in Arkansas" blog, which is largely written by freelance writers, to its various social media accounts, including Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram and Google Plus.

While First Security's larger message revolves around its home-state campaign, Thurmon says the bank has individual messaging strategies for each social media platform.

Pinterest, a site where users upload images of everything from craft projects to sinful looking desserts, is where the bank posts pictures and recipes, including one for a "yummy blackberry spread" made in Rogers, Ark. Twitter is where it posts general information, including community events and bank sponsorships.

First Security still uses Facebook as its main social media outlet because of an ability to channel posts, Thurmon says. The bank's account has more than 17,000 followers, and it can target posts according to a user's location or the "likes" on its profile.

The campaign has been successful, especially reaching younger customers who avoid branches. Those customers "are more interested in what they want to see than what we have to tell them," she says.

MANAGEMENT SUPPORT

Eastern Bank in Boston had previously run a successful campaign to collect toys during the holidays for the Toys for Tots Foundation that included customers tweeting donation pictures to Vince Wilfork, a popular New England Patriots football player.

The $8.7 billion-asset mutual's management has a mandate for employees to be innovative. As part of the effort, management recruited Wilfork's help for the toy drive's second year.

Eastern placed a life-sized cutout of the hulking 325-pound defensive lineman holding a teddy bear. Visitors donating toys were encouraged to take a picture next to the cutout, then tweet it to Wilfork using the hash tag #EasternBankToys. Wilfork retweeted the pictures.

Eastern saw a spike in Twitter activity because of the visually appealing nature of the cutouts, says Andrew Ravens, the mutual's director of public relations and social media. The hash tag was mentioned nearly 1,000 times on Twitter, and the campaign generated almost 400,000 impressions on Facebook. More than 20,000 toys were donated, up 43% from a year earlier.

"We've always been encouraged and inspired to be innovative and that includes communications," Ravens says.

"We're also very fortunate to have a happy and engaged customer base," he adds. "That's a credit to our tellers who are working on the front lines and the people in our call center. They poured that foundation long before social media came along."

Richard Holbrook, Eastern's chief executive, and Bob Rivers, its president, encourage employees to take "smart risks," causing the mutual to dive into social media when others were still wary, Ravens says. When employees join Eastern, they receive a card with Holbrook's personal values for success, including creativity.

Early on, Eastern offered financial tips and advice on social media. Such content fell flat, so Eastern decided to show more of its human side, implementing campaigns such as "Throwback Thursdays" where it posts a tidbit about its past, such as a picture of an 1885 deposit ledger, Ravens says.

The involvement of top management is important, Ravens says. From there, employees should be willing to try out new things, knowing that not every effort will be successful.

"Social media campaigns fail sometimes, but that won't sink the bank," Ravens says. "We're fortunate we can try some different things, but you definitely need to have buy-in from the top."

MAKING BANKING VISUAL

Busey Bank in Champaign, Ill., has tackled more traditional social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. But it has also taken its efforts a step further by launching a page on Pinterest. It has proven trickier for banks to get involved on Pinterest since it relies heavily on pictures.

The $3.5 billion-asset unit of First Busey is engaging users on Pinterest by posting materials, such as data on the cost of a college education, in the form of infographics. It is less formal and more visually attractive for consumers, says Abby Hendren, the bank's vice president of brand strategies.(Of course, Busey's page also has pictures of mouth-watering desserts.)

Infographics support a broader social media strategy that includes educating consumers on everything from security issues to financial literacy for area youth.

"People want information, whether from banking or other industries, in a way they can engage with very quickly," Hendren says. "We've found ourselves doing more of these types of infographics that seamlessly lend themselves to a channel like Pinterest."

Besides educating consumers, the bank uses social media to showcase its support of the community through fund raising and volunteerism and to provide customer support.

Such efforts, especially Busey's "Promise a Plate" campaign, reinforce the bank's goal of community engagement.

Through "Promise a Plate," the bank encourages social media engagement by offering to donate meals to local food banks in return for likes, tweets and comments. For every like or new follower, Busey will donate 27 meals; a share or retweet means a donation of 18 meals.

In its first year, the campaign tripled Busey's daily social media footprint, generating more than 700 new followers. Since the effort was launched in 2012, the company has provided nearly 44,000 meals.

It is important for smaller banks to use social media to show their communities how they are making a difference. "One of the things that differentiate community banks is that community aspect," Hendren says.

"We want people to be proud they have a Busey in their communities," she says. "We're working to fill any needs in our communities. That's a strong part of our culture and foundation."

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