Since its inception just a few years ago, social networking has provided both hype and hope for businesspeople.
Social networking practitioners in the insurance industry have demonstrated over the past year how to deliver on the hope while moderating the hype. They’ve blazed a trail, showing how to combine the business aspects of social networking with the right amount of personal touch.
Let’s take a look at what the independent agency channel has learned and experienced over the past year in the world of the social Web.
1. Start with Strategy.
Critical to success in social networking is having a clear strategy that is consistent with your business strategy. If you — as a professional or as an organization — want to use social networking for business purposes, you need to know where you are aiming so you’ll know when you have hit the target.
Some vital considerations in a social networking strategy include:
- Goals. What you want to accomplish — these can be as simple as increasing Web traffic by x% or growing Facebook fans to a certain number.
- Tactics. What tools and activities you will use to accomplish goals.
It’s important that your success isn’t necessarily measured by increased sales. Key goals can be centered on starting, building or strengthening relationships. In fact, expecting social networking to lead to a sudden boost in sales will create disillusionment with the social Web.
When creating a strategy in social networking, an independent agency should look at its current successful marketing practices, agency culture and management style.
In support of its strategy, an independent agency or other insurance organization also should create a social media policy or guidelines. This is a prudent risk-management step that defines how an organization and its employees will act and interact with others through the social Web. Much of an agency’s work in developing guidelines already have been done; see www.IIABA.net/ACT for sample agency guidelines.
2. Sociology > Technology.
In social networking, people are more important than technology. The technology is a conduit for connecting on a person-to-person, organization-to-person and person-to-organization basis.
The technology is undergoing constant change and will continue to do so. Except for its founders, no one could have imagined a world with Facebook. Now it’s hard to imagine a world without Facebook. Yet, that massive social networking site (with more than 500 million users worldwide) is now under pressure for profit and privacy concerns, and venture capitalists and visionaries are looking beyond its flaws to speculate on what technology might challenge it. Currently, Foursquare (a geolocation service) and Tumblr (a visual blog) are hot, but rest assured that some new technology will come along.
Even though software and Web sites are changing before our eyes, there are some long-lasting, core transformations that have taken place in our society and in our industry. Four examples include:
- The way people communicate with each other.
- The way people sell and shop.
- The way consumers get information.
- The way people build and maintain relationships.
Technology has enabled a vital change in the business and consumer culture in the United States: People now trust online relationships almost as much as they do in-person relationships.
3. Permission and Privacy Are Paramount.
Inbound, inquiry-based and permission-based marketing approaches are replacing mass marketing and interruption marketing. This trend began years ago when the abuse of mass mailing led to the government forcing marketers to use “do not mail” lists and “do not call” lists. Yet consumers and businesses still need each other, and are finding ways to work together. Businesses are positioning themselves to be “found” by consumers (through, for instance, search-engine inquiry results) when and where these consumers need products and services.
Happy is the marketer who is answering questions and product/service requests from consumers who are able and willing to buy. Contrast that with days gone by: Marketers were limited to delivering messages via mass media in the hopes that consumers would remember them if and when they were ready to buy.
4. Social Networking is Not New. Only the Tools Are.
We have done it all our lives, and so too did our parents and grandparents. The ageless concept of networking is cleverly captured in a new commercial for Coleman outdoor gear, which calls camping “the original social network.” Social networking sites are enabling the person-to-person interaction that have long been the foundation of commerce.
5. It’s Still Early.
Facebook is only six years old, LinkedIn just celebrated its 7th anniversary and Twitter is a mere toddler. For the insurance industry, many agents/brokers, carriers and trade associations still are in the early phases of adopting social networking and integrating it into their brands. Yet, there are now “real world” examples of agents and brokers who are using these tools to build and strengthen relationships and grow their businesses.
Morgan is vice president, new media at Aartrijk (Aartrijk.com), a branding firm specializing in the insurance industry. He owned a Colorado independent agency; was co-founder of The Automated Agency Report; originated transactional filing and co-developed Silverplume; and currently chairs the Agents Council for Technology (ACT) Social Web workgroup.