Citibank Targets Ads for Merchants in Online Credit Card Statements

Citibank customers are noticing a new addition to their credit card statements viewed online: ads. For the past few months, the company has displayed text ads from a variety of merchants directly within line items of secure online credit card statements.

An ad for a 15 percent discount on “luxury bath products” from Best Bath Store shown within a recent online Citibank statement appeared alongside a purchase made at a New York spa in February.

“This is the first time I am seeing this ad format,” noted Justin Gomolka, CEO of Best Bath Store.

“Free Ground Shipping on Sony TVs from Sonystyle.com,” read another text ad in a recent Citibank Mastercard statement. The ad expanded to include a small Sony logo and an offer of “Great Sony products delivered free from Sony on orders over $100.” The ad was displayed beneath a payment made to Sirius Satellite Radio, which is categorized as a “cable, satellite, pay TV/radio service” by Citibank.

Sony, like other merchants whose ads have appeared in Citibank online statements, has an affiliate marketing program which pays affiliates a commission based on how many people they refer to their online retail offers. Some of the ads appearing in the online Citibank statements may have been placed through an affiliate marketing program.

“Citi Cards has integrated dynamic offers into our online statement environment as a means to provide our cardmembers with relevant and timely offers in a convenient and accessible delivery channel,” Citi Cards EVP Liza Landsman told ClickZ News. “These offers are primarily merchant discounts and promotions and supplemental financial services offerings.”

Best Bath Store, a Massachusetts-based maker of natural and organic soaps and lotions, has thousands of affiliates in its marketing network, which is operated through Google’s Affiliate Network.

Gomolka said he isn’t sure how his firm’s ad ended up on the financial statement. “As we didn’t place the ad directly I feel it must be one of our affiliates as nobody else would have any financial gain,” he told ClickZ News. “While we understand the relevance of targeting consumers who are very likely purchasers, we feel that in this current economy it’s poor taste to encourage impulse spending while someone is checking their credit card statement or paying down their account.”

Indeed, amid the economic recession and ongoing banking crisis, Citibank is one of the more prominent financial services firms that may be on the lookout for new revenue streams. In addition to including ads directly adjacent to line items in online credit card statements, the company recently began featuring similar ads in printed statements, according to a source familiar with the situation who asked to remain anonymous. The ad format in its printed form is sometimes referred to as an “onsert,” a play on “insert.” The format could be considered an extension of the promotional inserts that have been included in transactional statements or bills from credit card or utility companies for years.

InfoPrint Solutions Company, a joint venture of IBM and Ricoh, calls their transactional promotion service TransPromo. The firm analyzes and segments customer data from its clients to enable advertiser, promotional or upsell offers in print, phone, in-store, and digital formats, including online credit card statements. Best Western used the service recently to target offers to its Best Western credit card holders based on previous customer behavior.

InfoPrint handles the data, ad targeting, and related marketing services, while its clients sell the ad placements, according to Lee Gallagher, InfoPrint manager of direct marketing solutions. “It would be up to [our clients] to…sell that Web space,” said Gallagher, who said the system bases ad messaging and targeting on business rules and customer data. Launched in early 2008, the TransPromo system works across platforms, but Gallagher said most marketers have yet to explore the online targeting capabilities of the product.

The Citibank statement ads appear to be targeted based on merchant or product category, and also may have been targeted based on previous customer purchase history. Drugstore.com is another advertiser whose offer was featured within an online Citibank credit card statement recently. Discount offers of $5 or $10 off Drugstore.com purchases appeared within a line item for a payment made to drug store chain Duane Reade.

“Drugstore.com works with thousands of affiliates, and this is through our relationship with one such affiliate,” said a Drugstore.com spokesperson. “We provide a promotion and then the affiliate works with others to offer it.”

Though the ads appear to be provided through affiliate programs, it is unclear how they have been sold or served. The placements may also have been sold by Citibank directly rather than through relationships with affiliate marketing firms.

“In this economic climate I’m not surprised to see true innovation emerging. The pressure is on for publishers to create maximum value and that means going beyond relevance — extending into context. Not what but where — true meaning for the end user,” said Jeff Molander, CEO of marketing consultancy Molander & Associates, when asked about the Citibank statement ads. “The question is, are consumers in the mood to browse, let alone act on offers when reviewing their credit card statements or invoices?”

Ad efficacy aside, the practice of targeting advertising within secure financial statements could raise the ire of some consumers and privacy advocates. “I think that in time there probably will be litigation on what you can show and how much of [a consumer’s] background you can review to post complementary [ads],” said InfoPrint’s Gallagher.

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