Social Media Forum
Commercial lines takes center stage for some agents
Distinctive online strategies depend on empathy with clients and prospects
By Tom Wetzel
As we noted at the beginning of the year, commercial lines carriers are ramping up their social media activity and agents are following suit. And it's not just the specialists posting and tweeting—Main Street producers are also keeping in touch with their business policyholders online and reaching more prospects and closing sales. But how are they doing it? Many agents and insurers still tell me they appreciate how social media can be used in personal lines but remain skeptical about doing so for commercial lines. It turns out, however, that the way to engage businesses in the social media space is not much different from reaching everyday consumers, except perhaps in the social networking sites one chooses to use.
Kishan Alexander is a case study in using social media effectively—not to hard-sell but to build relationships that lead to sales. Alexander is a commercial real estate broker for Hub International in New York. Starting out, he wanted a niche and ended up choosing elevator coverages. Hub encourages and guides its producers to use LinkedIn, so Alexander jumped on the site and created his profile to get his name in front of contractors, engineers and mechanics—anyone connected with elevator design, construction and maintenance. He was persistent, but it still took six months before he realized any sales; however, the foundation he established and the contacts he made early on paid off.
"I never lead with a sales pitch," says Alexander. "I'm not a used car salesman. I only participate in discussion groups and I become just one of many participants in each group who can bring to the table a passion and knowledge for elevators and the issues that industry faces." He participates in more than a dozen LinkedIn discussion groups, sharing his perspective and knowledge on a wide variety of topics, including several well-publicized elevator accidents in recent years.
Dale Steinke, manager, Digital Marketing at Safeco Insurance, confirms an increase in agent activity in commercial lines, most notably on LinkedIn and, to a lesser extent, Twitter.
"Facebook is great for personal lines," he says. "'LinkedIn is ideal in commercial lines in being able to connect with prospects in specific industries, conduct research, and join discussion groups. I also see a growing value in advertising on LinkedIn because you can target it so precisely."
Heidi Dearinger of EHL Insurance of Poulsbo, Washington (www.ehlinsurance.com), takes a broader approach that also has resulted in sales success. Heidi is the agency's business development coordinator and is responsible for graphic and Web site design, marketing, relationship management, and sales and service team support. She also manages special events and is a social media/marketing coach. The agency can be found on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google+, Picasa (photos), and LinkedIn.
"It has been an evolving strategy," she says, "starting with Facebook and progressing as we become more adept at handling multiple sites. I have other responsibilities and I can devote only so much time to social media. It is really a matter of our wanting to be where our policyholders and prospects are so they can find us.
"I'm always inviting people to be Facebook friends," she says. "However, once they decide to join, it's up to me to keep them interested day in and day out. If I am selling or talking insurance too much, I'll lose them. We use what we call a social drip, (a strategy of a continual flow of messages and stories) to share with customers or prospects over time, We keep the material utterly fresh and the question we all ask before posting anything is: 'Should I share this, and what would I want to read if I were not working in the insurance industry?' "
EHL also posts a lively, eye-catching and entertaining blog, written by a team of four employees (including Dearinger), each representing a different insurance area. Examples of recent blogs include: "Coffee, Dogs, and Heat Stroke," Supreme Court and Healthcare," and "Getting Hitched? Are You Ready for the Risk?"
To add even more value, EHL offers social media consulting to its business clients. "If the insured is large, we may offer consulting at no charge as a way to thank them for their business and to deliver a value-added service," says Dearinger. "For a smaller client, we will usually charge a fee that covers costs."
Brandon Clarke of the John Bailey Company of Knoxville, Tennessee (www.johnbaileyco.com), takes a similar approach. The agency is on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn; however, the social media star is its blog, a colorful, insightful, empathetic mix of insurance and human interest material. Entries have included a personal introduction from an employee, an anniversary observance of a major hailstorm ("A Year We Will Never Forget"), and a movie review (Dr. Seuss's "The Lorax") with accompanying message. ("I am writing this post as a reminder to us to plant seeds.") The blog ends with a famous line from the book: "Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not."
"We don't do social media to promote ourselves so much as to help the market," Clarke says. "Our goal is not to sell, but to service our clients. No one wants to read about insurance. It's to solve problems and create opportunities."
Insure My Food Truck (www.insuremyfoodtruck.com) is a wholly owned affiliate of BayRisk Insurance Brokers, Inc., in San Francisco and is a prime example of an agent adapting services to the customer. All of the firm's promotional activities are conducted through social media with a blog, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Pinterest (which allows members to "pin" images, videos and other objects to their pinboard).
Owner Denny Christner is passionate about food and food-related businesses including mobile food vendors, caterers, restaurants and artisan food manufacturers.
"I eat at a food truck at least twice a week," he says.
Christner's social media activity features food festivals, food truck photos, contests, legislative developments and links to insureds. The result: heavy engagement (its Facebook has more than 650 "likes" with 250 "talking about this") and a growing book of business. He hopes to go national this year.
What these agents have proven is that social media is not just for auto and homeowners coverages—that the principles of sound social media engagement work just as well for businesses.
Tom Wetzel is president of a full-service, insurance-exclusive marketing communications/public affairs firm with a special practice devoted to social media in the insurance industry. He writes a blog and is also on Facebook and Twitter. Wetzel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The company's Web site is www.wetzelandassociates.com.