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Using Social Media: Proper Planning and Execution Is the Key to Making It Work

You've probably heard the numbers: the overwhelming majority of Americans use some form of social technology. Some suggest that if you are not, well,...
July 1, 2010

Curtis M. Pearsallby Curtis M. Pearsall, CPCU, AIAF, CPIA
Pearsall Associates Inc.
Agents E&O Consultant

You've probably heard the numbers: the overwhelming majority of Americans use some form of social technology. Some suggest that if you are not, well, what are you waiting for? As Nike says, "Just do it!" Unfortunately, some folks do just that, and then turn around in a year and wonder why the results have not been what they had hoped for - or find themselves in legal messes.

Author David Meerman Scott, in his book The New Rules of Marketing and PR, points out, "Social media provides the way people share ideas, contents, thoughts and relationships online. Social media differ from so-called 'mainstream media' in that anyone can create, comment on and add to social media content. Social media can take the form of text, audio, video, images and communities." In many respects, it is redefining how businesses can market themselves.

What Are Your Social Media Goals?

If you are like me as I start my new business, there is no doubt you want to use social media as a significant part of your marketing strategy (your competitors probably are already doing it). For me, the power of this approach - with its ability to reach out to agencies around the country - sounded ideal. However, I won't deny I was a little intimidated…knowing enough to be dangerous about Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Which do I sign up with? Should I join two? What the heck is a blog?

I realized there was much I needed to learn and that is why I bought the book referenced above. (If you are looking for information on using social media for marketing, you can't go wrong with this book - very well done!) Therefore, my first piece of advice is to do your homework and research. In fact, write down on paper what you hope to gain from using social media and what you are trying to accomplish.

Sure, you want to write more business, but how? After all, when you decided to go into the agency business, did you just open the doors and shout "We're Open"? No, you did some planning and research to determine what you wanted to be and to whom you wanted to appeal. I have also reached out to a marketing firm specializing in helping businesses use social media. Their expertise should keep me from making costly mistakes. Remember: don't hesitate to ask for help if you need it.

Most likely not everyone would agree with me, but I suggest taking a cautious, conservative approach. Jumping into the "deep end" might sound exciting, but may not be as effective as you hope. Without the proper thought and planning, you could encounter some legal issues that could cause a headache or two.

Give It Away

Many of the thoughts on the business use of social media heavily focus on the marketing possibilities. In fact, many cite these 7 objectives:

  • Public Relations
  • Customer Service
  • Loyalty Branding
  • Collaboration
  • Networking
  • Thought Leadership
  • Customer Acquisition

Personally, I see some potential issues with at least one of these. More about that shortly.

As you strategize, include thoughts/plans on your use of the Web. Your Web site should not be static, looking today like it did 6 months ago. While your site should demonstrate your agency's personality, as David Scott states "to be effective, you need to anticipate the needs of the masses and provide content to meet them even before they ask." Since you obviously have different constituencies to which you must appeal, this content should be tailored for each. Sounds like education is key here, doesn't it? In fact, I strongly suggest that education be one of your goals. This media provides a great means to educate readers and engage them in conversation. If you can entertain them as well, you are onto something.

The old approach is to "sell your knowledge." The new "rules" strongly advocate giving it away. By delivering compelling content, and providing ideas and advice on a wide variety of subjects and topics, you will brand your organization as a thought leader and trusted resource in that industry. This will drive clients and prospects to some type of action buying, subscribing, applying, etc.

Let a Guide Be Your Guide

This educational information needs to be carefully constructed and proofed for content, accuracy, professionalism and legality. Do you want your staff writing articles without a proper sign off? No! This is an area that without some "rules of engagement" could get you into trouble. Content should focus heavily on issues your customers want to hear about. Inappropriate or defamatory comments involving specific people or specific organizations could be extremely damaging to your agency's reputation. In addition, incorrect advice or incorrect statements on how coverage applies should be avoided at all costs. After all, you are what you publish.

Sometimes this "education" is in the form of correspondence from your employees to their friends or business associates. This has the potential to reflect significantly on your agency. To ensure you have the proper procedures/controls in place, develop a social media guide if you don't already have one. This guide should include any media your staff may use (e-mail, face-to-face, online forums, chat rooms, blogs, etc.) and should be developed with input from Human Resources, Marketing and other departments.

Employees should be advised of what they can and cannot do - whether it is on your agency's site or the employee's personal site. Certainly ensure that they can't and don't reveal secrets or speak ill of the competition. Plus, make sure they realize they cannot post private consumer information on the social web. Strongly communicate this to all employees and monitor it to the greatest degree possible.

What Your Customers Must Know

A guide advising your customers on the role of social media in the agency should also be developed. Communicate this information frequently to your customers and post it on your Web site. In addition, with regard to prospects and potential customers, notify them upfront in your dialogue with them of the DOs and DON'Ts of using social media to communicate with the agency. While you want to deal with customers the way they want to be dealt with, there are some landmines lurking that must be avoided. Among the items to address:

Customers should not make any policy change requests or provide key information via social media. Oftentimes, this information is very sensitive and extremely private. Allowing them to divulge Social Security numbers, driver's license numbers, information on home valuables, etc., will create more headaches than you can imagine. Data breach and privacy laws need to be adhered to.

Customers should also be advised that they cannot bind, modify or delete coverage via social media and must speak with an authorized agency representative to do so. If a customer does use this media, despite your advice not to, make sure this activity is documented in the agency management system. Using social media for customer service may have a place in some businesses. In the insurance industry, at this time, I am not convinced. Extreme caution should be exercised.

As with e-mail, correspondence via social media exists forever.

It's a Good Thing

You now have a manual and a strategy - and are looking to use social media for marketing and being a thought leader. As mentioned above, the content should be accurate, truthful, professional and positive. You obviously want to brand your agency in the proper light. Whether you send material to the public in paper form or using social media, be aware of and comply with your state Insurance Department's position on advertising. Plus, I strongly suggest avoiding stating you are an expert on a particular subject. While I understand this is designed to position you in the manner you desire, stating you are an expert can raise the standard to which you will be held.

There is no doubt you have information others would find beneficial. While you may be tempted to talk about your agency, many suggest the content first describes the issues and problems your customers and potential customers face, and then provides details on how to solve those problems. This is a more effective strategy. Use the content to show off your expertise; with your primary focus on your buyers and their problems you can solve. You want them to buy from you, so what is the content that will compel them to do so? This information can be a news release on a specific subject, a blog, a video, audio, etc. Be authentic and transparent, and try to avoid having your material sound like propaganda. I can't emphasize enough that this information should be proofed carefully for accuracy.

If you are going to post articles on the Web, you must ensure the material is from reputable sources. Whether you are viewed as an information provider or a content provider could determine any potential liability.

Blogging. A blog is a Web site, but is unique in that it is developed and maintained by a person or organization passionate about a subject. Their goal is to tell the world about it. I have noticed a significant number of companies have created a blog as opposed to a standard Web site. It appears to be easier to create and is certainly an easy way to be heard.

Should you consider blogging? Yes. It is a great way to reach your target audience … but proceed cautiously to start. If you have something to say and are good at saying it, strongly consider it. Monitor others' blogs and participate from time to time before you launch your own. While some may just want a presence on a social site, many feel the key is to encourage more interaction with customers. While participating in interactive forums has the ability to reap rewards, caution should be exercised.

Blogs are becoming an important part of business. Advise your employees not to blog about something disclosed to them. Also, while you may think that lying makes good content, it is a no-no. Is there the possibility that someone may make a negative comment about your agency on the blog? Yes. When this happens, respond quickly. Other folks on the blog will be impressed with that. If you are going to blog, a finite number of people should handle the role. Once again, comments made on the blog need to be accurate and proofread. For example, if you accidentally type in "now" instead of "not" in this sentence - "Homeowners policies do now cover Flood claims." - you probably will have a BIG headache.

There is no doubt you will have some potential customers that want to do business with you because of your education and expertise. Ensure you have a procedure in your agency that identifies the point where the interaction between the prospect and the agency should be moved in-house and become part of the normal agency process.

Facebook/Twitter/LinkedIn. Which one(s) works for you? Understand who the audience is and how they use it. Also, does it meet with your organizational goals? With most of them, the key is to make valuable information available.

As some celebrities have found out, some of their "mistakes" have quickly found their way onto various social media sites. This media has the ability to send news, videos, etc. in the blink of an eye. While you want to be in the spotlight, this is probably an area to avoid. When you participate in social media, people find out who you are. With the proper precautions, this will be a good thing.

Curtis Pearsall is President of Pearsall Associates Inc., a Risk Management Consulting firm specializing in helping agents protect themselves. He is the former SVP of Utica National's Agents E&O program where he oversaw their Underwriting, Marketing Services and Claims divisions from 1987 to 2009. Mr. Pearsall holds the following designations: CPCU, AIAF, ARM, AU and CPIA.

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the 2010 PIA National Agency Marketing Guide.


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