There is one universal truth when it comes to social media, and conveniently, it can be expressed in fewer than 140 characters: Everyone thinks everyone else has it figured out.

Credit unions tend to believe other credit unions do a better job leveraging social media than they do, and all fear that banks have deeper resources and dedicated personnel and are leaving them in the techno-dust. Banks fear every other bank (just as a matter of principal and habit, more than anything else), and believe it's credit unions that are the more effective social media strategists, given a closer relationship to their members.

And CEOs and senior managers at both types of institution throw dollars at social media in part because they secretly fear they're the only ones who "don't get it" and, after a few drinks, will come clean and admit they don't see the point at all in "twitting, or tweetering or whatever you call it."

That hasn't kept financial institutions from pushing into all the various social media with a variety of approaches and philosophies. That was evident during the recent Bank Administration Institute Retail Delivery Show in Chicago when four bankers talked about what they are doing.

Bianca Buckridee, AVP-social media engagement with SunTrust, said that at the core of the bank's strategy is being careful not to "oversell."

"Some of the most effective bank social media sites are subtle and try to provide information customers find genuinely interesting, such as SunTrust's 'Live Solid' (campaign)," Buckridee said.

Similarly, Buckridee cautioned financial institutions not to "expect too much ROI right away" when it comes to social media.

"The value of engaging social media may come in generating goodwill, fixing customer problems, reducing calls to the call center, improving products and creating Net Promoters' who act as advocates for your company and its products; but these benefits may not turn into profits immediately," she observed.

Buckridee pointed to ING Direct's strategy of monitoring social media around the time it launches new products so that it can gauge consumer reaction and send that feedback immediately to its product development teams. "Tie social media analytics to product development," Buckridee recommended.

If your credit union considers itself progressive and aggressive in social media, you might not want to hear about TD Bank Group. Wendy Arnott, VP social media and digital communications, said the bank has a 20-person social media team embedded in its contact center, open from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., that responds in real time.

"Our story started inside the organization," explained Arnott. "We had been inviting our employees to comment on everything we were putting up on our Intranet. What we started to find was our employees had great ideas, behaved very civilly, although not always agreeing with us. It started to change the way changes were made in our organization; before putting things out we started to think through the response.

We then moved on to customers, figuring they had a lot to say, and we built a presence on all of the big channels: YouTube, FourSquare, Facebook, etc."

At First Tennessee Bank, Aaron Chestnut, SVP-retail marketing, said only half-jokingly that for his bank the social media light just went on one day. "I remember it as a bright sunny day in Memphis in 2009 where we kind of had the ah-ha, where everything we saw had a social media component," offered Chestnut. "I came to the bank from another consumer brand and had already established a presence on Facebook and Twitter. As a bank there really wasn't a deep knowledge of what to do. Our mentality came to be 'let's try and see what happens.' That takes the pressure off of being perfect, but you do have to be prepared." As a first step in preparedness, Chestnut said First Tennessee hired interns who had specific knowledge of social media within clubs or fraternities and sororities, before finally settling on one person who really impressed the bank. Next up it mapped out where it needed people and around which channels. "Twitter really became a customer service channel more than a sales channel," said Chestnut. "For Facebook, we use it as an information distribution channel. When we felt comfortable with it we got our intern to start building some basic stuff. Then we ID'd people in our call center to work with Twitter and simplistic tools such as TweetNet. We are able to monitor chatter. We're a Top 26 bank, but mostly we service Tennessee. We had to learn what the fears of the organization were; we ran into some pretty good headwinds from legal and compliance who had all the horror stories in the world as to why we shouldn't do this at all. But we said let's give it a try."

SunTrust's Buckridee said the 2008 launch of the bank's Live Solid campaign also morphed into its social media strategy. "It is to be a place for anyone who wants to have a conversation about their finances we were going to provide a place for them in all three major social media," Buckridee said. "I kept getting irritating invitations from my friends to join Twitter. I didn't want to participate. I went on it and punched in SunTrust and was really struck by how many people were talking about the brand. But the brand was not there. I began collecting and categorizing the Tweets: wealth and investment, a technology process, a banking product. That got in front of our CMO who said, 'How can you get this off the ground?' I was asked to lead a team across multiple disciplines that explored, 'Is this a risk we can afford to take?' We concluded it was a risk we couldn't afford NOT to take. Our clients and prospects were having conversations about us and we weren't there."

The bank can be found at @Suntrust on Twitter.

Kevin Lynch, SVP with 1st Mariner Bank, said a blog was the bank's first foray into social media, followed by a Facebook page, "which makes sense as we are primarily a consumer-facing organization. We now have 1,200 or 1,300 people who 'Like' us. We try to use that to communicate with our customers. We don't have a lot of activity and discussion about our bank (in Baltimore). We have recently added some mortgage pages. We share lots of pictures, stories about people in the bank. We think that's the way for us at least to connect a bit with our customers."

Lynch admitted he has had his own learning curve. "We are pretty active on Twitter. My first Tweet was talking about "twitting." I didn't even know what it was. It was embarrassing. We have about 1,600 people following our brand, and we're 66 out of 400 on Twitter according to Financial Brand. We find Twitter connects more, frankly, with industry connections. We don't use it as a sales channel and try to avoid it due to all the compliance issues. We see it as more of a way to build a brand."

For all its plusses, social media is used more often to vent negatives, especially about banks (Bank Transfer Day, anyone?), and all four bankers acknowledged its an issue they have had to deal with.

"I would say when we established the Facebook and Twitter Channel we wanted to hear what our clients were saying to us without someone in the middle," said Buckridee. "What social has done is remove that middleman. I'm not going to lie and say it's all been peaches and cream since announcing the end of free checking. But we know our clients use banking for very personal things. People want to know what is the value in this. We have been able to shift that conversation. Some want to understand what is the decision-making behind your pricing decision. They say, 'Did you not think of people on fixed incomes?' We are able to show them we didn't just wake up one morning and make that decision; there was some rational thinking behind it. Many people don't realize they are not impacted or how they are affected. They come to the page and we are able to speak to them there. Also can take them offline and speak to them there. We are CHARMING on the phone. There are real people behind the anger, so for us it's been a real game-changer in how we view our clients and their profiles."

Lynch reminded that burying one's head in the silicon sands is a mistake. "Just because you don't have a Facebook page or aren't on Twitter doesn't mean that these conversations aren't happening," he said. "The reason to set these up is because they are happening. You do have to have a little bit of a thick skin when you put yourself out there. Some employees are shocked the first time they encounter someone who says they don't like First Tennessee. The fact is not 100% of our customer love us, but if we're listening and engaging in conversations where appropriate, then we have the ability to change things for the better where appropriate. Also, keep in mind if you have 500,000 customers and just a couple of people say something, the sky is not falling.

Pressed by one audience member for how they measure their social media traffic, most said they use Radian6.

"I don't know if everyone knows TD Bank, but we are the sixth largest bank in North America," said Arnott. "One of the most difficult things with Radian6 is it takes a lot of time and effort to work with those tools to make sure you get back what you want and what is helpful. That has been a three to six month process for us. What we are getting now in real-time is any mention of any product we are following, be it us or our competitors. We have workflow built in so we can monitor the workflow of who is asking a question, is it being answered, is it being escalated. We follow some of the basic stuff, positive sentiment, negative sentiment, shared voice, followers, fans, etc. Reports go to the executive level. We have made product decision, changes to website and marketing materials as a result. It's a real early warning system."

Chestnut said it also uses Radian6, but as a regional bank it finds many solutions have price points "out of whack" for an institution of First Tennessee's size. "So that search continues. The ideal is that you have more of a one-stop dashboard with what you want to measure. Without it, using duct tape and spit, we use Tweetdeck. We monitor 'Like' activity with out competitors vs. us using Wildfire, which is free. We use traditional web analytics tools, too."

Frank J. Diekmann can be reached at fdiekmann@cujournal.com.