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Social Media Forum

Social media on Main Street

What grocers can teach insurance agents

By Tom Wetzel

Agents struggle—even those who use social media aggressively—with creating sound, interesting, and "sticky" content day in and day out. How much insurance advice is too much? How much soft, human interest material is appropriate? How do I achieve the right tone—to be authoritative and not preachy? How can you use humor without going too far?

That's why I was so struck with what agents can learn from grocers who, like agents, can be found in every community, have many local competitors, and sell products and services that everyone cannot do without. And in creating this column, I also found agents who have already adopted tactics used by grocers—with some important social media twists.

My journey on this topic starts with food industry consultant and former Progressive Grocer Editor-in-Chief Michael Sansolo, who travels the country giving presentations to grocers about the value of social media.

"Everybody talks about social media, everyone knows the buzzwords, but the most important thing I tell grocers is to stop thinking the way things used to be," he says. "Everybody is talking about everything and you cannot control your brand anymore. Social media changes all the rules. But that's not bad because social media is a multiplier for your business."

Sansolo referred me to an extensive five-part study ("Untangling the Social Web") conducted by the Coca-Cola Retailing Research Council ( The study shines a bright light on social media and the habits of consumers in a direct, conversational manner that I found refreshing and full of insights.

Among the highlights in the study, along with my comments in parentheses, are:

"The social Web is very much like high school because":

• "The people involved self-select into cliques and subgroups." (Agents should think of their unique target communities of insurance consumers such as motorcyclists, parents with small children, and small business owners.)

• "What people say can shape a reputation—for good and bad." (The conversations about you, your carriers and the insurance industry are taking place with or without your participation, so you have a business obligation to join in the conversation.)

• "Boring people are often overlooked. Fun and exciting people attract a crowd." (If your social media activity consists of nothing more than a Facebook page, your contact information and other overtly promotional material, your social media success will be disappointing.

• "Users seek both individuals and the groups those individuals are a part of." (Everyone wants to be a part of lively, interesting groups with whom they share interests.)

• "Sometimes it's inclusive. Sometimes it's exclusive." (Your agency's social media activity should extend far beyond your own agency's Facebook page. Join the discussion groups of your target markets, become a participant—don't sell—and above all, listen.)

Many of us believe that we can afford to put off either starting a social media program from scratch or significantly improving the one we already have because social media is primarily the playground for the young. The Coca-Cola report trashes that notion, noting that older generations are actually the fastest growing user segment and by next year, over half of all social media users will be over 35. The report also notes that 40% of connected consumers have "friended" retailers or brands on Facebook, while 25% report following a retailer or brand on Twitter. Why? The primary motivators of these consumers are to access exclusive deals and offers (44%) followed by interesting or entertaining content (23%) provided by retailers and brands.

So how are agents issuing coupons and making "deals" to attract attention, strengthen relationships with policyholders and set themselves apart from their competitors?

Paradiso Insurance of Stafford, Connecticut, makes no bones about it. "We give to keep," says Chris Paradiso. The agency offers coupons for discounts and special offers right on their Web site ( from many types of commercial policyholders, including auto and various business services, even martial arts lessons. The agency also provides social media services to policyholders, such as adding QR codes to attract business and track results.

Founders Insurance Group ( of Torrington and Lakeville, Connecticut, offers a $10 gift card for referrals right on its Web site.

Harbor/Brenn Insurance Agencies ( of Petoskey, Michigan, brought people in the door with a unique "Hometown Heroes" campaign. The program was open to anyone who would give blood, become a Big Brother or Big Sister, or volunteer in one of many other ways and then register at the agency's office for a drawing for $1,000-$500 to the winner and $500 to the charity of his or her choice. Hometown Heroes are also promoted through social media.

Before adopting programs that offer "deals" like those noted here, agents should check their state's regulations to determine what is allowed. That said, these social media-savvy agents use them to get people to friend them and to follow their social media activity on a regular basis. They stand out also because they practice consistent, honest, give-and-take communications with consumers as an ingrained habit and not just as a conscious tactic. In his new book, The Power of Habit—Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business, Charles Duhigg, reporter for the New York Times, 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 an agent is always focused on the policyholder, always listening instead of just selling, and always making customer-focused decisions, its social media participation will be natural, spontaneous and compelling. Conversely, if social media is treated as a "paint by numbers" exercise, the conversations will be stiff and scripted and the results will be disappointing.

When considering how best to communicate, the Coca-Cola study also emphasizes several critical points that apply equally to agents and companies, including:

• "Give users a reason to 'like' your brand. In other words, they expect something in return, such as a gesture of appreciation or reciprocation. When a user 'likes' or 'follows,' it is like getting an invitation to the party. Once there, it is up to you to become as users expected or hoped, because with one rude move, you're out of there."

• "Be subtle and personal with messaging."

• "Stick with it."

Finally, in returning to the high-school theme, the report says that "if the social Web is a high school, then brands have to learn how to fit in. Marketers need to figure out who they are, who they want to be and who they want to be friends with. The first step for any company is to determine its current role: Is it the nerd, lying low not making a ruckus but keeping a close ear to keep from being beaten up? OR does it have enough cred to step out into the landscape and throw a big party that people will come to?"

More likely your agency is somewhere in between, but the point here is to identify your agency persona, know what your target groups talk and care about, and make that part of your first social media program or a new improved version of the one you have.

The author

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 company's Web site is He also writes a blog ( and is on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.


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