The Original Social Networker? Your Insurance Agent

Social-Media Initiatives in the Insurance Industry Are Models of Forward Thinking

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Insurance agents are the most natural "social networkers" on the planet. They were educating clients, investing in long-term relationships and growing their businesses through word-of -mouth referrals long before social, mobile and digital technologies existed.

It therefore came as no surprise when the International Data Corp. over the summer named the insurance industry overall as an early adopter of social media. Although insurance, along with financial services and other regulated industries, is cautious by design and at times slow-moving, insurance agents have blazed the trail on social media, and their carriers have kept up. Indeed, the Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter initiatives by Fortune 500 insurance organizations such as State Farm, Allstate, Thrivent Financial and Northwestern Mutual are among the most forward-thinking and most admired across all of social media, and worth examining by any serious CMO.

It's all about relationships. 

During the first wave of social business, every company rushed to get as many "likes" as possible on its Facebook page, but these have failed to convert into lasting value and tangible return on investment. Today, many realize that they need to focus on results achieved through true engagement. Just as it was long before the digital age, developing longstanding relationships is key to building a successful business in the social era.

What does this mean for CMOs?

First, invest in highly unique and relevant content, because this is what builds brand equity, differentiation and loyalty. The specific content will vary by industry and the products or services you are selling. Insurance companies excel at this by sharing materials related to topics like retirement planning and flood protection.

Second, empower your people. As an example, Thrivent Financial, a Hearsay Social client, has hundreds of agents actively managing their own local Facebook pages. 

As financial experts, Thrivent representatives share value with their close-knit communities by consistently posting relevant content, like IRA calculators and market analyses.

But it's not just all business talk. To spice things up and drive even greater engagement, Thrivent reps share personal stories from their lives. Photos from the last church event and Bible verses serve two needs, both breaking up the business content and conveying the Thrivent brand.

Organizations with local social-media presences are many times more effective than when the same messages are shared from a corporate page. While having five million fans wins bragging rights for any brand marketer, from the consumer's perspective, it can be much more powerful to be a part of a smaller local page that is highly targeted and relevant. Your customers want to feel special.

Any savvy CMO knows that social media ROI cannot be computed just by soft metrics like fans, followers or retweets. The effectiveness of your programs comes down to customer acquisition and retention, and the insurance industry has cracked the code.

If you don't have a tangible product, create one. 

It's easy to get consumers to remember and feel loyal to tangible products like Diet Coke or Nike shoes. Insurance, on the other hand, is a bit more complicated and less tangible. To help quickly establish brand connection, association and differentiation, some insurance companies like Allstate and Progressive have created some of the most interesting and memorable personas in the history of marketing -- enter Mayhem the Allstate villain, Flo the Progressive Girl, Snoopy representing MetLife and the GEICO gecko. 

These efforts span not just social and digital but also TV, print, radio and billboard marketing. Consumers know these ads when they see them, and can often quote their "spokespeople."

For an industry completely dependent on selling a product that you can't hear, see, smell, taste or touch, this is nothing short of impressive. And it significantly affects social-media strategies. 

Having a recognizable character or theme allows the company to create a social-media asset for their character (e.g., the Facebook Page for Mayhem) and ability for consumers to "like," providing yet another entry point into the News Feed. These pages do a great deal to increase engagement for the brand and drive sales.

 When your local MetLife agent posts a picture of a sleeping Snoopy with the text "TGIF," how can you not click "Like"?

For publicly traded companies and those in highly regulated industries, setting clear expectations and making sure employees follow them are crucial for success. Insurance companies, which can have hundreds or thousands of their agents actively posting to Facebook, tweeting on Twitter and connecting with customers and prospects on LinkedIn, take responsibility for making sure those business communications comply with standards set by the corporate marketing department and federal regulators.

But it's not just government-regulated businesses that need to think about governance. Consider brand compliance: no organization wants its representatives using an outdated version of the company logo. And in the cases of profanity or personally identifiable information popping up on social-media pages, that 's not good for any company, whether it's a corporate page or a local page representing the overall brand. 

As one example of a company that understands this, online shoe and apparel shop trains each employee on social-media best practices.

Sometimes clear guidelines and best practices training aren't enough, though. Smart organizations use tools that make it easy to make sure content doesn't lead to branding or compliance violations.

 Leading the way, 

IDC calls insurance companies "early adopters," but they're already so much more. By expanding beyond simple social-advertising campaigns to coordinating large-scale, enterprise-wide social media deployments, insurance companies are among the first to transform into true social-business powerhouses.

Clara Shih is CEO of Hearsay Social and author of "The Facebook Era: Tapping Online Social Networks to Market, Sell and Innovate." She sits on the Starbucks Board of Directors and was named one of FORTUNE's Most Powerful Women Entrepreneurs of 2011.
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