Expanding your neighborhood to an online community
Be selective so you can effectively manage the traffic
By Heather Lockwood
When most people think about social media, they quickly jump to the usual suspects—Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. These sites let people interact about anything and everything with a few keystrokes. People can share as little or as much as they want, find old friends and make new ones. They can share stories, news and pictures. These social media sites keep us more connected than ever before.
But what's best for your business?
Having a Facebook page or a Twitter account is almost a requirement of business these days, but what you do with the social media space that you choose to occupy is just as important as how you use it. One of the benefits of social media is the ability to connect with members of a community who are looking for what your business offers, like the same things you like or have things in common with you. Through these social media outlets, you go through the process of building an online community of like minds. Being part of a social media community can be invaluable in getting your business's name out there and connecting with prospective customers. When you are trying to build your own social media community, there are some things to take into consideration.
If you are focused on social media as part of your marketing strategy, consider using only a couple of the available social media sites to really reach the people you want in the ways you want. If you are most interested in video, you might consider using just YouTube and Facebook. If you want to reach a targeted audience, a community Web page or blog off your agency Web site might be the best way to go. If you are interested in sharing and being actively involved in on-going conversation through quick posts and links, Twitter might be the best option for you.
If you have a team of social media gurus who keep all of your sites updated and develop appropriate content for the audience, you should absolutely ride that wave. However, if you are part of the majority who are supporting their social media strategy with limited staff and time, it is more important that you are maximizing the sites you do use and not spreading yourself too thin. If your audience thinks that their comments, posts or tweets are getting lost in a black hole, the relationship will not last long. It's better to focus on managing a couple of sites really well.
Talk to other producers
Networking with other producers has long been a tradition at trade events, seminars and other on-site activities that bring people together; but today, more than ever, independent producers are looking to each other and sharing as a consolidated group online. If you are interested in being a part of a community of like professionals, LinkedIn can definitely help. Currently there are about 90 million LinkedIn users. LinkedIn is a bit more formal and business-oriented, more about networking than making friends, and sometimes feels more like an ad for a particular person or profession rather than really being "social."
Most people join LinkedIn to network with others in the same business. It can be really helpful when looking for a job in a specific field, looking to fill a specific job, or learning about events related to the field. In addition to those uses, there are great ways that small businesses can use LinkedIn to build their contacts and communication base to help increase sales and get ideas from other businesses that have similar circumstances and business needs.
LinkedIn provides plenty of opportunities to identify yourself as an independent producer and gives you the opportunity to join groups where other producers like you can share ideas, marketing strategies, frustrations and success stories. This is a great way to get new ideas related to finding new customers and retaining the ones you have. You can also follow insurers so you can stay on top of what's happening in the companies you represent. It is key that you use the site regularly to stay connected and gain recognition within your network. LinkedIn is a great tool for making business-to-business connections and building your agency's reputation.
Get engaged in your neighborhood
You're not just an insurance producer—you have other interests outside the agency. You are part of a community. You have neighbors, you have a family, you may have kids who go to schools near your home or office. You or your family may attend religious services or grocery shop or walk the dog in the park or go to the health club, all with others who are part of the same physical community.
Connect with these people online via a community Web page or blog off your agency Web site to get others with the same interests or who frequent the same places involved in supporting your community, and in turn, your business. Reach out to people you know and ask them to reach out to people they know who have an interest in supporting local businesses and events. This will help raise awareness of your business and also promote you as a member of the community.
The conversations here can be very focused. Get to know other business owners who might be interested in participating in an open house or community fair. Get to know your local car, motorcycle and RV dealers and find out about putting banner ads on their Web sites. Support local restaurants by advertising on their placemats or in their menus. Talk about the upcoming community events you'll be attending. There are many ways you can use this platform as a way to connect with others who live and work in the same neck of the woods, all while promoting your agency as part of the community.
There are many ways to be in the social media space. The key is finding the right networking platform that reaches the audience that you want to reach. Whether you are just starting out in social media or are a seasoned veteran, it might be worth your while to evaluate if you are in the right space to get the most out of your investment.
For more information on creating a social media community, read the article "8 Things to Avoid When Building a Community" (Mashable.com, January 5, 2010). There are some great tips to get you started, but also to help you keep the conversation and the essence of community intact as you interact.
Heather Lockwood is advertising manager for Foremost Insurance Group. For more information, visit ForemostAgent.com.