Getting customers to use their debit cards is increasingly important to community banks. Some are offering rewards points that can be spent at local businesses. Others are paying cash-say, 5 or 10 cents-every time a customer uses the card for a purchase.

Then there's Bank Iowa Corp. in West Des Moines, which is taking a more sentimental tack.

Using technology developed by T8 Webware in Cedar Falls, Iowa, the $1 billion-asset company recently added a link to its website that lets customers design their own debit cards with personal photos. In just a few minutes, a customer can select an image of a recent vacation or a pet parakeet to put on the card, cropping it, rotating it and coloring it any way he likes.

Debbie DeCamp, Bank Iowa's marketing director, says this makes the cards feel more personal than the standard bank-issued debit card.

"This is a card they use every day, whether paying for groceries or taking cash out," says DeCamp. "Why not have a personalized card that shows their own unique style and isn't like everyone else's?"

And if the customer has more of an emotional connection to the card-and even gets a reaction from the clerk at the grocery store-then it just might be the one that gets pulled out of the wallet first every time, says Wade Arnold, T8's chief executive.

"You wouldn't believe how much conversation comes out of a picture as opposed to a plain gray credit card," Arnold says. "It's the kind of thing that can drive it to be top of wallet."

Arnold speaks from experience. He has a customized Capital One credit card featuring a picture of him and his son on BMX bikes. "It blows me away how many waitresses tell me how cute my son is," he says.

Though Capital One has offered customized credit cards for a while, few banks offer customized debit cards. (In 2007, Visa introduced customizable debit cards, but those were preloadable VisaBuxx products aimed at teenagers. That service was through a London-based software firm, Serverside Group, that launched personalized credit cards in the U.S. six years ago with First National Bank of Omaha.)

With T8's product-called Cr8 My Card-bank customers can upload photos from their desktops, or from cloud-based galleries, like Facebook, Flickr or Picasa.

There are some restrictions on what photos can be used. A bank is not going to let a customer use anything racy or inappropriate, and it would run into copyright issues if a customer downloaded a patented image, like the mascot or logo of an alma mater, says Bank Iowa's DeCamp.

Patricia Hewitt, the director of debit advisory services at Mercator Advisory Group, says that while she's not familiar with many banks offering customized debit cards, she can see the product giving a bank an edge over its competitors, particularly if it's first in a given market.

"It creates a more interactive experience, which gives consumers a more positive impression of that institution," she says.

Customers themselves might wind also up being the product's most effective marketers. After all, Hewitt says, "They are going to want to show their cards to other people."

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