To understand why Wells Fargo has set up a command center to better monitor social media sites, consider this: last year, the bank was mentioned more than one million times on social media sites — and not all those comments were flattering.

The nation's fourth-largest bank recently set up a war room in San Francisco — and a backup location in Charlotte — where employees sit side by side to watch eight large screens that display Tweets, Facebook posts and other social media content published about the brand, engage with consumers on topics that are trending and quickly respond to specific customer queries.

The constant monitoring — its two command centers are staffed five days a week, 12 hours a day while the bank also deploys tools that moderate mentions of its name around the clock — helps the bank keep tabs on how its customers are responding to various products and services, or initiatives like the recent roll-out of its smaller, more tech-heavy branches.

"It's a fundamental change to consumer behavior," says Renee Brown, the head of the enterprise social media team at Wells Fargo. "[Social media] is the new water cooler and street corner where people are gathering to talk."

The monitoring is also a way to stay on top of complaints and negative comments. Banks — especially large ones — routinely take heat for everything from poor branch service to questionable fees to their handling of foreclosures — it's crucial for banks to quickly acknowledge the complaints and make an effort to resolve them, observers say. As part of its social media outreach, Wells Fargo has a "social care" unit to which it refers many of its customer complaints.

Social media, of course, has evolved into a forum where people seek out the news, make shopping decisions, share their dreams, ask for service, and talk about their banks — all factors that drove the San Francisco bank to increase its focus on social media efforts in 2012.

The command center is an extension of that effort, and it acknowledges how important it is for banks to better engage in social media at a time when recent studies claim consumers are less apt to like or follow their banks.

Most banks now do some form of social media monitoring, but only a handful have set up command centers. JPMorgan Chase's center, created in May 2013, is staffed by 11 team members who address customer service across key lines of business six days a week, while National Australia Bank set up a similar facility in 2012.

Outside the industry, companies like Gatorade and American Red Cross have created social media command units. Some are showpieces for social media events, while others, like Wells' and JPMorgan Chase's, are designed to be used daily. Broadly, such units are pitched by businesses as ways to improve the customer experience by gleaning what customers want and/or need from a brand by monitoring their conversations on Twitter, Facebook and other sites in real time.

Jim Marous, senior vice president of corporate development at New Control and author of the Bank Marketing Strategy, says engagement is also crucial because active social media users could also, potentially, be among a bank's best customers.

"The importance of understanding the 'socially engaged' customer is that these customers are younger and more affluent than the customer base as a whole," Marous says.

Wells Fargo officially launched its command center in February and a backup in Charlotte in the fall, and they are part of a broad investment the bank started making in social media 18 months ago. It recently launched a new website that showcases heartfelt stories about the banks' employees and it plans to join Pinterest on Monday.

The command center objectives are myriad but its top ambition is to foster dialogue. "You don't want to be the only one talking," says Brown, the social media chief. "We're working to improve content to do more engagement."

That isn't easy — for a bank.

A recent study by Carlisle & Gallagher Consulting Group showed that most consumers want to resolve their banking issues in private and lack interest in following bank brands at all. "We are still in the early days of social media," says Dr. Patricia Sahm, customer experience and channels practice lead at Carlisle & Gallagher consulting group and author of a report on the subject matter. "It's a little bit like the Internet back in 1999."

Still, more and more consumers are taking their complaints to the web — and they don't want to be ignored. Marous says it is in banks' best interest to quickly acknowledge service issues and make a concerted effort to address them. 

"Digital consumers expect quick response to issues raised in social media where communication is usually initiated through a mobile device and happens in real time," he says. "This vast monitoring network will be able to alleviate issues quicker, enabling Wells to short-circuit customer service issues at the origin, before they can become extended social discussions."

Wells' San Francisco command center has 12 seats, eight of which are occupied on a day-to-day basis, while the Charlotte location is typically monitored by four individuals. The rooms are wide open — no cubicles — to encourage constant communication between the staffers.  No walls "makes a striking difference," says Brown. "In a cube or in an office, you may not see something trending."

The command center is also presenting engagement opportunities the bank may not have considered when it first set them up. For example, the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia — home to the NHL's Flyers, NBA's 76ers and host of the upcoming college hockey championship — is often  mentioned in tweets, and the bank's social media team is now brainstorming ways it can participate in those conversations.

Another impetus for the bank to focus more attention on social strategy is the fact that such networks are where people share their dreams and aspirations — information banks have always wanted to know about their customers as many, such as a new house, connect to money matters.

To that end, Wells Fargo will launch its brand on Pinterest, an image-sharing site, Monday. "We have a lot of opportunity to engage around hopes and dreams. Pinterest is such a positive place," Brown says. "It's a different style of conversation."

Already, users who have come across Wells Fargo's famed stagecoach have posted photos of it on Pinterest, and that tells Brown that people are interested in the bank's history.

That ties into another thread: Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and other social networks require a specific communication craft. In Pinterest's case, the site is a place where people find inspiration and frequent most often toward day's end, she says.

"A lot of people start their days with Twitter and Facebook and end up with YouTube and Pinterest," says Brown.

And Wells Fargo will be watching.

Mary Wisniewski is a reporter for American Banker and Contributing Editor for Bank
Technology News.