Is Zelle finding a groove with bank customers over Venmo?
I couldn't believe what I was hearing from this group.
You never know what you're going to get from consumers invited to a conference to share their views about banking, payments and shopping habits. The best part about these panels is that the participants are brutally honest about their experiences, bad and good.
The reason this particular panel caused me to be shake my head in disbelief was because some of them had heard of and actually used something I've criticized over the last 12 months: Zelle.
To be clear, my criticism of Zelle isn't about the product itself.
The banks involved with Zelle needed a way to fight back against what's become the standard in mobile person-to-person payments in Venmo.
My issue with Zelle has always been about marketing, from the silly name to the staggered rollout with major banks to a standalone app that debuted almost a year after Early Warning officially introduced the service at last year's Money 20/20 conference.
But none of that mattered to the consumers on the panel at last week's Bank Customer Experience Summit in Chicago.
When the moderator asked the panel about mobile/online features they use from their bank, five of the seven participants talked about Zelle for P2P transfers.
I was stunned.
Here I was thinking that the banks weren't doing a good job marketing the service, but I was wrong. And I'll get to that a little bit later.
Meantime, the panelists who had used Zelle were excited about it — even thankful.
One of the differentiating features Zelle has over Venmo is that the former is bank account-to-bank account transfers.
Venmo users who receive fund transfers must first hold them in the service's wallet, then transfer the money to their checking account. It's a two-step process.
The panelists were thankful Zelle eliminates the extra step. Funds are transferred from one bank account directly into another.
Another response from a panelist that caught me a bit off guard was how easily a 29-year-old male dismissed Venmo.
"I don't mess with Venmo because I don't trust it," he said.
That view echoed what someone said on this panel last year when it was comprised of young college students. Trust can be an important factor when choosing which products consumers use day to day.
In a feature I wrote over the summer about the current state of mobile banking, one analyst told me that if all else was reasonably equal with a service, consumers would trust a bank or credit union over a third party.
It's easy to see how Zelle can become the preferred P2P service for consumers that bank with a major financial institution.
As I mentioned before, Zelle's marketing has been hit or miss. But then I had my own experience with it.
I pay my rent with Venmo because my landlord accepts it. It's easy and simple. That's not going to change.
But when I opened my Bank of America mobile banking app last week (right after last week's summit), I was asked if I wanted to link my phone to the Zelle service.
And there you have it. It's in-your-face-marketing in some ways. As soon as I opened the app, a pop-up box appeared about Zelle. Even if I didn't know about the service and declined to add my phone number at that time, the seed had been planted.
I could go back into the app later to learn about service, especially if I'm not a bank customer that often uses P2P services.
So, was I wrong about Zelle? To an extent, yes.
I questioned Early Warning's marketing tactics right from the beginning. It was almost as though Venmo didn't exist in their eyes. Of course, that wasn't the case. But you can only really focus on making your own product usable and indispensable.
Now, would I put Venmo and Zelle on equal footing as far as consumer awareness? Not yet, though Zelle's association with large banks will help in the long run.
But I wouldn't expect Zelle to become a verb like Venmo and that'll be ok with the banks if their customers continue to use the service. That's all that will matter at the end of the day.
Will Hernandez has 14 years of experience ranging from newspapers to wire services and trade publications. Before becoming Editor of MobilePaymentsToday.com, he spent two years as the content manager for PaymentsJournal.com, a leading payments industry news aggregator and information hub published by Mercator Advisory Group. Will spent four years covering the payments industry as an associate editor for multiple publications in SourceMedia's Payments Group based in Chicago.