Social Media Forum
Beyond Facebook: Create your own community
Finding and attracting the like-minded online
By Tom Wetzel
With so much attention being focused on Facebook and LinkedIn, it's easy to forget one simple fact about all social networking sites: They are not ends in themselves but conduits to specific markets. Consider the producer or agency that sets up a Facebook page—they are not trying to reach 600 million users, just those who represent current and potential customers for their particular products and services.
Social media is all about creating and engaging communities—individuals and groups with similar interests, such as farmers or boat enthusiasts or small business owners or just the residents of the same town or neighborhood. Members of these communities will overlap, too. The local florist might also be an avid motorcyclist. The high school science teacher is also a veteran. Whatever the occupation or interest, there's either an existing online group or a market for one.
There are two ways to engage in online communities. The easier path is to find communities that already exist and begin participating as an individual. There are many such groups on LinkedIn and Facebook. Or you may choose to create your own community in order to position your agency as an authority and drive traffic to your Web site.
Growing numbers of insurers are building communities around specific interest groups, and producers can follow their lead. USAA serves military families and veterans, so its social media activity is designed around their unique concerns, such as overseas deployments and battle-related medical issues as well as financial and insurance issues. Online forums give USAA members the opportunity to post stories, experiences and opinions and to ask each other questions and get advice.
Westfield Insurance developed a blog for its agricultural policyholders and encourages feedback. PEMCO Insurance builds its social media conversations around the unique characteristics of its Washington state policyholders.
Over time, you can establish a reputation as an authority either as a participant or as the administrator of a successful online community. It takes time, however, to build a reputation within these communities, and it starts with demonstrating respect for the members, establishing trust and providing value on a consistent basis.
Respect people's time. It takes time to compose and post a review, a complaint, or a story. Regardless of content (except for any form of hate speech, slander, or profanity), encourage such feedback and express thanks to those who participate. Respond on the same day when a member poses a question or comment that deserves an answer. The key here is that followers need to believe that you truly want, value and appreciate their participation. Over time, meaningful dialogue will increase, as will retweets.
Be honest. All social media advocates emphasize the need to be transparent. Don't pretend to be something you're not—and be honest about your purpose in creating or participating in a community. Sure, you want to generate sales, but unless you're willing to listen and respond respectfully and truly engage your fellow community members, you won't be able to build trust and solid relationships.
Be consistent. If you decide to create your own community—for example, a Facebook page aimed at your town—make sure that everyone in your agency who may participate understands the purpose and direction of the agency's messaging. You don't want to be sending mixed messages.
Respect the community's rules—both written and unwritten. If you are participating in an existing online community, you'll find that certain rules will be posted while others may be assumed. Take time to read the posted rules and to understand what might annoy or offend other members of the community. Get to know the community first and understand those unwritten rules of engagement that could get you into trouble. If you elect to start a new community, establish and post rules that are consistent with those of other online forums in that interest group.
Don't "sell." Social media are not for overt selling. Resist the temptation to push your products or services. To build trusting relationships with other community members, you have to be willing to listen to them share their experiences as well as share your own. Members join a community to learn and network and do not want to be subjected to a hard sell. Imagine yourself at a cocktail party, talking with three friends. Suddenly an uninvited guest walks up and injects himself into the group and tries to sell you something. Anything that intruder says will be dismissed quickly.
Starting your own online community involves an investment of time and resources, and it can establish your agency as an authority and drive traffic to your Web site. To get started, follow these two key rules:
1. Know your community. Start with an interest group you understand well and find out whether there are other online communities with which you may be competing. Ask yourself: Does this interest group need another community, and can my agency make a unique contribution?
2. Address your members' concerns. Narrow your focus to topics that you can handle and respond to the needs of your members. Respond quickly to questions, comments and suggestions. Your community needs to know that someone is in charge and that you take their concerns seriously.
Just putting up a Facebook page and hoping that people will flock to it is not a path to social media success. Facebook has become a destination site because it allows users to create their own unique communities. Producers and insurers already serve hundreds of built-in communities through the products and services they provide. Social media now offer a new and powerful way to bond with those communities that can produce significant benefits.
Tom Wetzel is president of a full-service, insurance-exclusive marketing communications/public affairs firm with a special practice devoted to helping agents and insurers use social media in a productive, safe way. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org The company's Web site is www.wetzelandassociates.com He is also on Facebook at "Social Media Management for Insurance Industry," LinkedIn and Twitter, and his blog is at www.thegoodrisk.com.