Before they look for answers in social media, brokers need to be sure they’re asking the right questions.
“The real issue is that most brokers and agencies do social media instead of being social media,” says Rick Morgan of Rick Morgan Consulting in Broomfield, Colorado, and chairman of the social web work group for the Agents Council for Technology. “Many of them have a Facebook page, post a few blogs here and there, and often assign a younger employee or part-time person to do it.”
Communications paradigms have changed, he says, and brokers must keep pace to remain relevant. “We all live in a digital society,” Morgan explains, “and we as an industry need to be fully immersed in it.”
Deborah Sternberg, executive vice president of Always Care Benefits in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, concurs.
“As a benefits broker, you aren't just a commodity pusher; you’re a relationship builder,” she says. “And because you care about building a relationship with your clients, social networking needs to become a part of your routine. There is a tremendous opportunity for you to make lasting connections online.”
Perhaps the biggest mistake many brokers make is viewing social media as an “add-on” to their traditional tactics.
“Many social media plans have grown organically, without a strategy up front,” Morgan says. “This means much of what we do is half-hearted and not integrated with the rest of our messaging. It's incumbent on the management team to know who they really are and who they are trying to reach.”
Start with a plan
The first step in a comprehensive social media program is to identify the target audience. Next, decide on the message. Morgan suggests several topics that can be helpful for brokers:
Provide a forum for discussion of social and family issues. “Agents should use their blogs, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to start and facilitate discussion to enable customers to engage in dialogues around important and relevant social and family issues,” he says.
Help customers with disaster preparedness and disaster recovery.
Educate customers on insurance and allow them to share feedback.
Develop communities for targeting customer segments.
Enhance your brand and marketing message.
Create a virtual presence.
Sternberg has distinct objectives for social media.
“Social media gives benefits brokers and insurance agents an opportunity to break the ice with potential clients,” she says. “While it's true that a prospect will not likely seek you out on Facebook without any knowledge of who you are, especially as you start out, that is not the goal.
“The goal when building a social media page on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter or Google+ is to give potential clients insight into who you are as a broker or agent and why they should work with you. More and more people are turning to the Internet to find connections and answers long before they contact potential partners directly.”
When it comes to tactics, there's not much new under the sun. Most brokers rely on some combination of blogs, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram.
“The meteoric rise of tools like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter are all telling us that customers want to do business with people whom they feel like they know and trust,” Morgan says.
“This should be reason enough for agents and brokers to get in the game and implement a social networking strategy.”
Focus on the message
However, the message is far more important than the medium.
“Social networking is quickly evolving, and the issues which seem most pressing today will most likely be replaced by new ones in the future,” Morgan says. “It's important to remember that it's the sociology, not the technology, that's key. While the technology will change, it's the societal transformations that represent the lasting trends and the challenges for our profession.”
Messaging must be clear and consistent across all social media and traditional marketing platforms, he says.
“Not only how you communicate but what you communicate is different,” he says. “The messaging is shorter, more focused and to the point; more human and more transparent.”
Social networking is fostering fundamental changes in the way people communicate, gather information, form opinions and build relationships.
“It's all about listening, building community, engaging in a conversation, sharing an experience, being transparent, being engaging and interesting and adding value,” Morgan says. “In short, social networking is all about building and strengthening relationships.”
Insurance brokering has long been conducted with a handshake over a cup of coffee. Perhaps the best way to think of social media is simply an extension of these one-on-one relationships.
“They complement each other really well,” Morgan says. “Do the same things in social media that you would do in person — don't interrupt, don't hog the conversation, use good etiquette. When you get to know each other better online, the in-person meeting is enriched.
“Think of it as a virtual community where people with common interests can gather and connect to share stories, ideas, thoughts and opinions. Social networking is similar to a cocktail reception without constraints of time or space.”