Digital aliens run banking. And that’s a big problem.

Today’s banks must be able to market to so-called digital natives — twenty-somethings who grew up with computers in the house, phones in their pockets, and a Facebook page to chronicle their exploits. For them, checking balances and paying bills online is not a convenience — it is banking. They may make the rare branch visit to address a problem, but they’d much prefer handling those issues via FaceTime, if only their banks could get their act together and make that service available.

Members of Generation Y aren’t far behind. PacMan may have been their original introduction to computers, but they’ve caught up quickly. Educator Marc Prensky calls this group digital immigrants: they have adapted to a foreign land. Unlike natives, they typically see digital as a separate channel that can be added to the marketing mix. (American Banker, February 6, 2015)

Bringing up the rear are the digital aliens. These are the late adopters who only interface with the digital world because they must. They know the basics — emails, searching, texting — but they think the word bandwidth refers to the size of an orchestra. Many would prefer to sidestep the entire digital ecosphere if they could.

That last category is where most chief executives fall.

Oh, there are lots of exceptions to this rule: bank chiefs who tweet, know SnapChat from Red Hat and can rattle off the perfect download speed. But these types represent a sliver of community bankers.

The problem isn’t that bank leaders lack intelligence or strategic vision; they’re simply latecomers to the digital world. Busy executives often don’t want to devote the time to catching up, nor do they have any real interest in doing so. Many dismiss Facebook as chatter, a passing fad with a marginal impact on their business. And though they are loath to admit it, some are fearful or overwhelmed by the many digital challenges.

These bank leaders fail to see the world through a digital prism. That can affect a banks’ decision-making and strategic planning, not to mention its survival. If the person at the helm of your bank lacks the ability to see the critical role that social media and digital technology will play in the future of banking, you’re in trouble.

Social media and digital technology help banks stave off competition, meet consumer needs and stake out viable marketplace niches. Bank CEOs must be able to objectively assess their options and avoid responses that spring from an antiquated set of values.

It is not enough for bank CEOs to delegate digital responsibilities to younger staffers. Only by understanding the mentality of tech-savvy customers can bank leaders make their interests an integral part of strategic planning.

A digital alien can’t be transformed into a native, as there is no substitute for being born in a digital world. A digital alien can, however, turn himself or herself into a digital immigrant. By immersing themselves in technology, bank leaders can gather invaluable insight into consumer behavior, product usage and long-term planning.

Here are a few steps bank CEOs can take toward becoming digital immigrants.

First, start a Facebook page — one that’s not managed by the bank’s public relations department. Instead, build your own page from scratch. Invite friends, posts, share and learn the art of defriending. Follow what your kids, nephews and nieces are talking about.

Second, peruse app stores — particularly the productivity section — and download mobile apps that look inviting. Try them out. Keep tabs on the lists of the most popular apps of the month or year.

Third, use your smartphone more regularly. Use it to manage your checking account, make transfers and pay bills. Use Apple Pay, log onto coffee shops’ wireless connections and stay attuned to potential security concerns.

Fourth, change the way you consume media. Subscribe to Netflix and stream movies and TV shows on your tablet. Set up your own Apple TV or Roku device.

Lastly, take advantage of high-tech travel options. Book your next business trip via smartphone and download your boarding pass and a movie onto the device. Before you choose a hotel room, check out Airbnb for accommodations.

These steps will get you out of the starting gate. The rest is up to you.

Digital aliens may run banking, but natives have redefined it. The challenge is to open our eyes, suspend our personal judgment and let information guide our actions. Remember, digital isn’t a department: it’s a way of thinking.

Kevin Tynan is senior vice president of marketing at Liberty Bank in Chicago. He can be reached at tynanmarketing.com and on Twitter at @kevintyn.

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