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4 Reasons Why Insurance Must Embrace Social Business in 2014

The past several years provide ample perspective on what it means to grow a business via social media, teaching us what works and, perhaps more importantly, what doesn’t. Early adopters are getting their social strategies down to a science; insurance companies commonly generate significant business value by enhancing existing customer relationships and expanding business  through social channels.

Research shows that the initial rush to get customers to simply “like” corporate pages on Facebook was misguided––“likes” for a brand have little value when compared with interactions between agents or reps and customers on an individual level through social media. Personal interactions can lead directly to sales, whereas a “like” rarely translates to dollars. Our own data at Hearsay Social supports this. One major insurance client shared that its agents who used social media to personally connect with customers and prospects had an average of greater than 20% more sales than those who don’t. Customer retention also improves drastically.

Based on our experiences working with numerous large, multi-line companies, I want to share four simple reasons why insurers need to become “social” businesses.

You will notice that these four principles have always applied to successful agencies and businesses; the communication channels are simply evolving.

1. To get found

Being “findable” used to require significant up-front marketing effort and spending. Agencies often invested heavily in ads, sponsorships, and prime real estate to be discovered and considered by prospects. But the way people research has fundamentally changed. Today’s buyers go online to research products or services before purchasing. Whether people are buying a book or a complex financial product, it’s safe to assume that digital research factors into the purchase process. Today, social media is one of the most powerful ways to help an agent or business get found. If a customer searches on Google, social media pages and profiles are typically at the top of their results.

Google Search Results
In this example, 3 of the top 4 results in a Google search for the name of a Thrivent Financial Advisor are for his social media pages, demonstrating how a social media presence greatly improves “findability.”

Additionally, with complex products like insurance or financial services, where the decision-maker relies on expert advice, they look for people whom their friends or colleagues recommend. Where one might have previously called friends and colleagues about where to take their business, people increasingly turn to social networks as the easiest way to find the right expert.

2. To grow networks

An extensive network has always been a key indicator of a good businessperson. Historically, new agents were trained to continually build and maintain strong personal networks. The same is true today, and the rise of social networks has made this entire process more efficient and powerful. Social networks online act just like shared connections in the physical world– online social networks provide the context, familiarity, and trust that allow good sales people to effectively establish a credible rapport to represent themselves and their brand.

Building and maintaining long-term personal relationships is also essential to gaining referrals and repeat sales. On social media, this means connecting with all your friends, colleagues, and business contacts from the offline world. Successful social sales representatives then use social media to connect with customers and continually engage before, during, and after a sales cycle.

3. To “hear” customers and start meetings warm

Listening to and understanding clients is a key characteristic that separates successful relationship managers from the pack. People share valuable information and buying signals on social networks, and gathering insights from posts makes it easy to identify and understand customer needs so that sales reps can truly go into meetings “warm.”

Hearsay Social Signals
Agents and reps can “hear” what is going on in their networks with Social Signals alerts that highlight key life events, such as weddings or new babies, that could be opportunities to reach out.

Companies that embrace social business provide their teams with powerful ways to pay attention to what’s going on with customers, which increases productivity. Information shared by consumers via social networks also helps relationship managers understand the appropriate time to reach out, with exactly the right information.

4. To build credibility

In the insurance industry, customers must rely on their agent, advisor, or wholesaler as an expert. Buyers don’t have the time to do their own research and stay up-to-date. Social media makes an enormously powerful and effective tool for sales reps to demonstrate expertise and consequently build trust. Industry-leading relationship managers share content via social channels to build credibility and educate customers. In addition, sharing content on social networks helps relationship managers stay top of mind with prospects with whom they haven’t yet engaged. When the prospect is ready to move forward, they know exactly who to contact to initiate sales conversations.

Insurers Win Big With Social Media

Insurance agents have long understood the need to be social as a part of their sales process: the best agents have always been those who build strong relationships with and educate customers, keep in touch and ask for referrals. But new ways of communicating have resulted in new expectations buyers have, such as being able to Google an agent and check out his or her LinkedIn profile before deciding to proceed. This means that insurers need to rethink the sales process and the tools that they provide to their agents, so agents can take full advantage of the power of social media.

The profile information and status updates that more than one billion people share each day on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn offer agents incredible insights into what is happening in the lives of current and potential policyholders. These insights signal to agents what types of insurance are needed by the customer and generally allow the agent to build trust through personal connection and personalized service. As a result, agents can now be smarter about when they contact customers and prospects and more directed in their communications, saving agents time and improving business results. Researching prospects on social media and understanding what's happening in their lives ensures that every call will be warm. In the era of social media, the cold call is dead.

The insurance industry has been an early adopter of social technology. While regulated industries, including financial services and insurance, tend to be cautious because of compliance concerns, a study by International Data Corp. found that the insurance industry has actually blazed the trail with social media. Farmers, Nationwide, Thrivent Financial, Northwestern Mutual and other Fortune 500 insurance organizations have instituted forward-thinking initiatives on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter that have demonstrated social success that other industries are attempting to replicate.

But it's time for all insurers to move to the second wave with social. In the first wave, many companies rushed to get as many “likes” as possible on their Facebook pages. But research shows that these “likes” have failed to convert into lasting value and tangible return on investment. In the second wave of social, insurers are realizing that they need to focus on results achieved through true engagement and authentic relationships. Just as it has always been, since long before the digital age, developing long-standing relationships is key to building a successful business in the social era.

For insurers, moving on to the second wave means two main things:

First, insurers need to provide unique and relevant content that agents can use on their Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn feeds. For an agent, sharing relevant content via social channels builds credibility and helps establish them as a trusted expert that their connections will turn to when they need insurance. Marketing departments already know the type of content that resonates with customers and are typically producing professional content used in other online and offline channels. For example, success stories about the value of insurance or financial planning tools are valuable pieces of content for agents to share socially.

Second, insurers must empower the field. As an example, Thrivent Financial, a Hearsay Social client, has hundreds of agents actively managing their own local Facebook pages. As financial experts, Thrivent Financial representatives share value with their close-knit communities by consistently posting relevant content, like IRA calculators and market analyses. In addition, Thrivent reps share personal updates and plan community events, building an authentic social presence while still appropriately representing brand.

Organizations that empower agents to create their own local social-media presences are many times more effective than when the same messages are shared from a corporate page. While having five million fans wins bragging rights for any brand marketer, from the consumer's perspective, it can be much more powerful to hear the story from a local representative that you know and trust.

A local insurance agent's Facebook page

Savvy chief marketing officers at insurers have done a great job of making a relatively abstract product tangible by creating some of the most interesting and memorable personas in the history of marketing — Mayhem the Allstate villain, Flo the Progressive Girl, Snoopy representing MetLife and the GEICO gecko. For an industry that sells a product you can't hear, see, smell, taste or touch, this is impressive. And the characters can drive social-media strategies, allowing a company to create a social-media asset for a character (e.g., the Facebook page for Mayhem). Getting consumers to “like” the page can provide yet another entry point into the News Feed, increasing engagement for the brand and driving sales. When your local MetLife agent posts a picture of a sleeping Snoopy with the text “TGIF,” how can you not click “like”?

While insurers are off to a great start with social marketing, there is so much more that they can do to leverage the power of social media into sales. By coordinating enterprise-wide social selling programs, insurance companies can empower agents to attract more prospects and build stronger relationships, leading the way by selling socially.

Can Employers Ever Monitor Employees' Personal Social Media?

Yes, but be careful! There is no denying that the use of social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn has exploded. The explosion includes both personal and business use of social media. It also includes use that is beneficial to employers and use that can be very damaging. Unfortunately, the influx of employment lawsuits that have followed the explosion have had limited practical value in guiding employees and employers on the permissible use and oversight of social media in the workplace. While many questions remain, the California State Legislature's recent enactment regulating employer use of social media does provide some guidance.

California Labor Code section 980 was enacted to prevent employers from (1) requesting an employee disclose usernames or passwords for personal social media accounts; (2) requiring an employee to access his or her personal social media in the presence of the employer; or (3) requiring an employee to divulge any personal social media to the employer. Applicants are protected in the same way as employees. The new statute, coupled with existing privacy laws, limits what employers may monitor when it comes to the personal social media of employees and applicants.

Definition Of Social Media
In what appears to be an effort to account for the ever increasing development of new social media, the new statute broadly defines social media as an “electronic service or account, or electronic content, including, but not limited to, videos, still photographs, blogs, video blogs, podcasts, instant and text messages, e-mail, online services or accounts, or internet web site profiles or locations.”

Prohibitions On Employers Monitoring Social Media
Employers may not require, or even request, that an employee or applicant:

  • Disclose a username or password for the purpose of gaining access to the employee or applicant's personal social media;
  • Access their personal social media in the employer's presence; or
  • Divulge any personal social media.

Employers are also prohibited from retaliating or threatening to retaliate against an employee or applicant who refuses to comply with a request or demand that violates the statute.

Despite the statute's broad definition of social media and its restrictive prohibitions on employers, it does provide some exceptions under which employers may request and gain access to employees' personal social media. For each exception, however, pitfalls exist. Employers need to know them in order to avoid costly mistakes.

Accessing Social Media As Part Of An Investigation
The statute does not affect an employer's existing rights to obtain personal social media “reasonably believed to be relevant” to an investigation of employee misconduct. Under this exception, the employer may only access the employee's personal social media under the condition that it is used strictly for purposes of the investigation or a related proceeding. While the statute does not define what “reasonably believed to be relevant” means, California Courts evaluate employee privacy concerns utilizing a balancing test, weighing the employee's reasonable expectation of privacy against the employer's legitimate business needs for accessing the information. It is wise for employers to evaluate each instance carefully before requesting an employee to divulge his or her personal social media under this exception.

Employer-Issued Electronic Devices
The statute does not preclude an employer from requiring an employee to disclose a username and password for the purpose of accessing an employer-issued electronic device such as a computer, smartphone or e-mail account. Employers should exercise caution, however, before digging through an employee's use of personal social media on the employer-issued device.

It is a violation of the federal Stored Communications Act to access a restricted or password protected site without the owner's consent. So, while it is permissible for an employer to require an employee to provide his or her password for access to the employer-issued device, an employer may be violating the law by accessing social media information on the device. For instance, having the IT department look up the employee's Facebook password stored on the employer-issued device in order to gain access the employee's personal Facebook page.

Adverse Action Against Employees
The statute does not prohibit an employer from terminating or taking adverse action against an employee or applicant if otherwise permitted by law. For instance, an employer may discipline an employee for violating company policy and using personal social media during work time. Nor does the statute specifically prohibit employers from accessing publicly available social media. This means that employers may view the personal social media of its employees that is available to the general public on the internet, such as blogs and other websites that do not restrict user access.

But, before taking any adverse action against an employee based upon the content of his or her personal social media, employers must keep in mind that California law prohibits employers from discriminating against an employee based upon the employee's lawful conduct occurring away from the employer's premises during non-work hours. Moreover, the National Labor Relations Board has held that employees may use social media to voice concerns over working conditions. While an employee complaining about working conditions or an issue with a manager on his or her Facebook page may reflect negatively upon the organization, the employee's use of social media to criticize working conditions may qualify as protected speech for which an employee cannot be lawfully disciplined.

What Is An Employer To Do?
First, be patient. The law develops at a snail's pace compared to the development of new technology and cultural trends. More guidance will come. In the meantime, employers should approach social media issues with careful consideration and planning. This should start with the development of a written social media policy, and not a sample or template policy. The policy needs to be specifically tailored to the employer and should discusses the importance of social media, the impact that social media has on the workplace, and how employee's use of social media reflects upon the organization. The policy should also define the permitted use of technology owned by the organization and employee's expectations of privacy or lack thereof.

If an employer elects to have a policy restricting personal social media use during work hours, it should ensure that the policy is applied even-handedly to avoid claims of discrimination. Employers should also consider the pros, cons and legal issues that relate to restrictions on supervisors' social media interaction with subordinates. For most organizations, it would be advisable to inform employees that they are not required to interact with supervisors on personal social media and will not be retaliated against for refusing to interact with supervisors.

A carefully planned and well written social media policy that outlines the organization's goals and expectations of employees' use of personal social media can help ensure compliance with the new rules and prevent costly disputes with employees.