About a year and a half ago, Bianca Buckridee, then an internal communications specialist at SunTrust Banks Inc., went on Twitter to see what all the fuss was about.

She searched the site using the keyword "SunTrust" and was blown away by the number of times the Atlanta bank was mentioned — in both positive and negative contexts.

Right away, she presented her findings to management and stressed the need for the bank to get involved.

"When we discovered that the conversation was occurring, we saw an opportunity for the brand to step in," said Buckridee, who now manages social media engagement for the bank. "Why shouldn't SunTrust enter the conversation?"

More and more bank managers are slowly coming around to the fact that thousands of conversations are occurring online every day about their brands, and not surprisingly, many of them aren't very nice.

A simple Google search for the phrase "I hate banks," for example, yields more than 43 million results.

SunTrust, Bank of America Corp., Citigroup Inc., Wells Fargo & Co. and Discover Financial Services are among those companies that have established teams devoted to monitoring and responding to comments online.

As consumers' use of social media grows — there are now more than 500 million users on Facebook and 175 million on Twitter — it is becoming increasingly important for banks to monitor and respond to what is being said about them online, in an effort to protect their corporate identity.

"Businesses are realizing the impact that that kind of information can have because it spreads so quickly, and those that are able to respond appropriately … [can] steer, reshape and manage the conversation," said Brady Walen, director of marketing at Market Insights, a financial services consulting firm in Chicago.

For banks, social media presents a fairly new challenge, he said, "because bankers and bank marketers have historically controlled the conversation. Now they're realizing the message is beyond their control. A lot of financial institutions are really reluctant to enter that conversation, and mistakenly they are letting it go without their participation."

Listening to what's out there is the first step, experts said. A number of technology companies now offer social media tracking services and other sophisticated analytical tools. But monitoring social media sites does not have to be an expensive and labor-intensive endeavor, Walen said. Free services like Google alerts are useful, he said, "so when you are talked about you can do something about it."

According to a recent study by Serendio Inc., a Santa Clara, Calif., analytics and market research company, American Express Co., Bank of America and Citigroup are the financial institutions most talked about online, followed by Wells Fargo & Co. and HSBC.

To complete the study, Serendio analyzed more than 300,000 fourth-quarter Internet conversations about bank-related topics in the U.S. that occurred on social media sites, blogs, review sites and other online forums.

After filtering the data for relevancy and removing spam, fewer than 30% of those conversations were considered relevant for the study.

Bank of America had more negative than positive mentions, the study showed. American Express was the leader in positive perception.

Of social media examined, banks get the most mentions on Twitter, and other forums can just as popular as Facebook, if not more so, for discussing bank-related issues, the study concluded.

For its part, Bank of America has focused its resources on Twitter. The Charlotte banking company began using the social media site two years ago, assigning just one employee to engage with customers.

Today, the bank has six service managers who tweet under the @BofA_Help handle, which has nearly 14,000 followers. B of A also has four other Twitter accounts for news, community efforts and human resources managed by employees within those departments.

The growth of social media "prompts us to ask ourselves some very basic questions," said Chris Smith, enterprise social media executive at Bank of America. "Do we listen? Do we help our customers? Do we do good?

"Social media has enabled us to better listen and understand our customers, anticipate their needs and behavioral shifts, and continue to innovate," he said.

The following is a sample tweet from a B of A customer, before and after being assisted by one of the bank's customer service managers:

"I am closing every account I have with you. I think that's 6? GOODBYE."

Then, later: "I stand corrected. BofA has completely rectified my problem. I am delighted w/their reaction to my Tweet. Gr8 example of effective use of SM."

B of A said this is typical of the conversations that occur on Twitter, but for privacy reasons would not share any details about what the problem was and how the bank addressed it.

Privacy concerns have been a big factor in keeping a lot of banks out of the social media realm, experts said.

Those banks that are online say they take the utmost precaution when assisting customers on issues related to specific accounts.

Usually, banks will encourage customers to send an email or call a certain number so that the issue can be handled offline.

"A lot of the rules we base things on came out even before social media existed," said Frank Eliason, Citigroup's senior vice president of social media. "We partner with our legal team here, we partner with our compliance team and, when possible, we partner with regulators to talk about it. The fact is, social media is already changing the landscape. You have to find ways to evolve this and have those conversations."

Citigroup also has a number of Twitter accounts devoted to assisting customers with problems and promoting its brand. Additionally, the bank launched a corporate Facebook page in the last year and has started to engage with blogs and other Internet forums.

Eliason, who used Twitter to help improve the customer service track record at Comcast Corp. before joining Citigroup in August, sees social media as a way to make the bank stand out.

"We can show innovation, and we can show the ways we can connect to customers similar to historically what you would have received at branches," he said.

Plus, "there's a lot we can learn from customers," he said. "You can turn your biggest detractors into your biggest fans. That's a very powerful thing. And by doing that, it does help the brand."

SunTrust's Buckridee, who now oversees three full-time staff members who converse with and assist customers on social media sites, agreed, saying, "Our responses tell a stronger story than a 30-second advertisement can. It shows that we're listening. The brand reacting-and-responding online shows we're definitely taking a proactive stance to address the issue and that we're not just letting it stand there."

And the response isn't always about calming down a disgruntled customer. Positive brand promotion can be reinforced with a gesture as simple as telling a customer where he or she can find the nearest ATM.

A Wells Fargo customer once tweeted that he could not find an ATM at the Las Vegas airport, for example, said Ed Terpening, vice president of social media at the San Francisco bank. A bank representative responded to the tweet with a link to a map of all the ATMs in the airport.

Banks can also be on the receiving end of assistance. For example, Terpening said a customer once alerted Wells that an ATM was not working properly at a particular branch. Being alerted instantly to those kinds of problems can help a bank fend off future complaints.

Certainly, there are nuances in how a bank responds to particular situations.

Mike Boush, vice president of e-business at Discover, said it is important not to try to control the conversation too much.

The Riverwoods, Ill., company does not remove comments that are posted on its customer-centric blog, cashbackconnection.wordpress.com, or Facebook site.

"We edit profanity out, and we do all of the obvious decorum checks," Boush said. "We watched other brands go in and try to shape the conversation, and we watched what happened to the sentiment when it became clear when the brand was manipulated in conversation, and we made a conscious decision not to."

At the same time, companies must be careful not to let consumers manipulate them, said Citigroup's Eliason.

Trying to placate an angry customer by giving away services or products or gratifying exorbitant requests "encourages others to go into the space and do things — hold your brand hostage," he said.

Bankers said it is just as important to track and respond to positive comments as well, since they can help guide strategies. Banks also can use social media as a benchmark for their brand against that of their competitors.

"We do a brand analysis occasionally of where does Wells Fargo fit compared with other brands in social media," Terpening said.

"We're not listening to Chase or Citi's tweets to understand them from a competitor standpoint. It's more a brand-measurement standpoint. What we look at is sentiment. When they talk about Wells Fargo, is it a positive voice, negative voice, mix, as compared to our competitors."