Social Media Forum
Agent-insurer collaboration proves effective
It isn't only the giant insurers making strong use of social media
By Tom Wetzel
I have long advocated the idea that insurance companies and their agents collaborate as much as possible on their respective social media activities. Because the social media landscape is evolving so quickly and transforming how insurance is researched, reviewed and purchased, it only makes sense to learn from one another, double down on what works and discard what doesn't.
In a poll conducted last year by Channel Harvest Research, only 30% of agents not currently using social media reported that they planned to use it this year and another 37% planned never to use it. In talking to agents across the country, I've learned one reason why many agents still don't use social media at all or use it infrequently. It is not that they resist it—it is that they have so little time and don't know how to do it well. Insurers are hearing that same message, too, and have initiated efforts to help agents in a variety of ways.
There are a number of well-known, high-profile insurers with active programs with agents, but I want to focus on four companies, all of which have different social media models and limited budgets, but which are all equally committed to supporting agents in the use of social media.
Illinois-based Pekin Insurance launched its social media program in 2011 and has reached out to its agents from the beginning, first with face-to-face meetings, active promotion of agents on its own Facebook page (now with more than 3,200 likes), a blog, and finally with a series of online training courses.
"We can't make the posts for our agents; we see our role as educating and encouraging them to take the initiative, create their own unique posts, and share them widely," says Joel Jackson, vice president of marketing. "Some agents start with a lack of understanding about how social media works, but it becomes easier with time."
Jackson adds that his agents have appreciated the company's approach. "We created a content library, but what our agents find even more useful is taking material from our Facebook page, adding something to make it their own, and then reposting it. They have to find something that works for them."
Ohio-based Westfield Insurance has been developing and refining its social media activity for more than four years and features four blogs, a Facebook page (more than 1,700 likes) and Twitter (more than 1,900 followers).
"We see our role as partners in the truest sense," says Michele Watkins-Malek, Westfield's social media director. "We created an e-book which spells out step by step all the best practices, then added a matching funds program which allows agents to make whatever Web site and social media changes they deem important and useful for their business. We're very pleased with the response—we've seen engagement levels go up as agents discover for themselves what works. Agents are embracing social media as never before."
When asked what agents and companies need to work on when it comes to social media, State Auto Social Media Director Katie Peet said she'd "like to see more and better planning, more specific goals on what they want to accomplish with social media, and more thorough measurement of their activity."
An early and passionate advocate of agents' use of social media, Peet also says that just as important as the resources a company can provide, agents should create their own content that reflects their own unique brands and personalities.
State Auto has taken on social media more aggressively in the past year and now has more than 700 likes on its Facebook page and nearly the same on Twitter. Just as important, its ratio of likes to those "talking about this" (sharing material) is an enviable 6:1.
Pennsylvania-based USLI is another newcomer to the social media scene, having launched its activity last year but also making up for lost time. The company established a social media help desk this year to help agents review strategies and to provide a forum to discuss concerns on a one-to-one basis. The company also offers an online course on understanding social media. These efforts help the company get to know agents on a personal level, a critical element in the success of any social media program. For USLI's own social media efforts, it has jumped in with both feet, so to speak, with more than 2,100 likes on its Facebook page, a just-started Twitter page, and Flickr and YouTube pages, the latter of which has had more than 5,400 views to date.
All insurers and producers, of course, have one thing in common: They want to attract and retain more business. For insurers and independent agents, the challenge is to initiate social media programs that both can embrace and use effectively before their competitors do. So agents should take advantage of the programs insurers offer and let their companies know what services they most value and which ones they do not.
Insurers and agents who benefit the most from their use of social media do so because for them, consistent, honest, give-and-take communication with consumers is not just a tactic but also a habit. In his new book, The Power of Habit—Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg talks about "keystone habits," i.e., those habits that "have the power to start a chain reaction, changing other habits as they move through an organization." If agents are always focused on the client, always listening instead of just selling, always making customer-focused decisions, their social media participation will be natural, spontaneous and compelling. Conversely, if social media is treated as a "paint by the numbers" exercise, the conversations will be stiff and scripted and the results will be disappointing.
Social media is a vital element in the marketing strategies of both agents and insurers. With consumers' easy access to information via computer and smartphone and their growing reliance on technology to conduct basic research, the ability to be "found" wherever consumers choose to look is critical.
Insurers and agents need to work together, to share their expertise and forge win-win relationships to help one another build their books of business. They need to "lift one another up" to highlight their people and their successes, to make insurance less cold and corporate and morepeople centric.
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 can be reached at email@example.com. The company's Web site is www.wetzelandassociates.com. He is also on Facebook and Twitter.