Senior Marketing Communications Specialist
About this article: Katie Herbst provides five easy steps to help agencies get started with social networking. She takes the mystery out of it and shows how independent agencies can easily take their existing networking skills and use them online to attract new prospects and enhance their client communications.
Five Steps to Find Your Inner Social Networker
By Katie Herbst, Westfield Insurance
Social networking is not new. This may surprise you, but let’s take a closer look at the terms. “Social” means forming cooperative relationships and interacting with other people. “Networking” is the cultivation of productive relationships in business. As an insurance agent, you’ve been doing these things your entire career!
The only change is that social networking has expanded to the Internet. Hearing about all the new technology can be daunting. My advice is to push that to the back of your mind, and focus instead on how our society is changing – and how it is staying the same.
You may be thinking, “I’d like to push all of this to the back of my mind, and ignore it completely.” Consider this: with 14 billion web searches a month, 300 million people on Facebook, 42 million on LinkedIn and 10 million on Twitter, there is no doubt that your customers are seeking information online. You may not personally like Facebook or want to deal with having an agency website, but in this case, it’s not about you. If your customers are there, you’d better be there, too.
Step One: Take a deep breath, and recognize that you already know how to do this.
Let’s take the mystery out of what your customers are doing online. People are connecting, collaborating and sharing in new ways on blogs, Facebook and Twitter, to name a few - but this is the same stuff you’re used to doing on the golf course, at a cocktail reception or during a local chamber meeting. An experienced insurance agent is constantly meeting new people and cultivating relationships.
Social networking sites are simply an open invitation to expand and enrich your network. They are not designed to replace face-to-face interaction but to enhance it. No one is suggesting you throw out your old relationships playbook. The social web gives you some new ways to build relationships by staying connected with people in between meetings and events. It also helps you strengthen those connections by easily sharing valuable information where and when your customers and business partners are looking for it.
Step Two: Do what you’ve been doing – now do it online.
The best way to get a feel for social networking sites is to try one. I recommend starting with LinkedIn. It’s mostly for business contacts, while Facebook is a mix of personal and professional that you may not be ready for yet. Spend a half hour one evening setting up your free LinkedIn profile. Once you enter your industry, title, experience and other details, the site will start making recommendations for people to add to your network.
Groups are a great way to actively participate on LinkedIn, leading to new people and new relationships. For example, if you’re trying to get more business in a certain market, search for a group by industry (for example, a restaurant owners association). Join the group, listen to what people are saying and be ready to contribute your expertise when the opportunity arises.
If you don’t feel comfortable jumping into the conversation, go back to the skills you’ve honed at in-person networking events. Just as you would introduce yourself and engage in conversation with a person standing in front of you, start discussions online by getting to know people and sharing information back and forth first. You wouldn’t barge into a cocktail reception shouting that you sell insurance and throwing business cards at people.
The same principles of networking apply online – don’t start self-promoting until you’ve established a connection with some people and have shown the value you bring to the table. You might start by offering your expertise in a discussion on the restaurant owners’ group about risk management. If you are willing to help people first, your return on the social web will be greater.
Step Three: Listen. Really listen.
Part of your relationships with customers is talking with them and listening to what they need. Through social networking sites, you can listen to customers and prospects to learn about their needs and how your services fit in. When you’re “connected” with them through sites like LinkedIn or Facebook, you can read their status updates and find out what’s new with their business, or follow their discussions to shed light on problems to which you might have a solution. If your customers are blogging, or an account you’re trying to win has a blog on the company website, you should be reading it.
Another way to listen is by subscribing to Google Alerts for your agency (www.google.com/alerts). This will send you an email any time your agency name is mentioned online. Whether the comments are good or bad, if you aren’t aware of what is being said, you can’t respond.
It is critical for your reputation that you know what people are saying about your business. If it’s good, celebrate and thank them. If it’s bad, figure out what the problem is (by asking and then listening) and see how you can solve it. Think about the last time you had a complaint from a customer that you were able to resolve, resulting in a satisfied customer. If that had taken place online, the silver lining is that not only do readers see the complaint, they also see your timely and helpful resolution.
Step Four: Go back to your business goals.
As you get more comfortable with what your customers and prospects are doing online, look for opportunities to leverage social networks to accomplish your business objectives. Let’s go back to the example of attracting more business in a certain market. Find out what these people are doing online: What are they saying? How do they use the web? Is there a group on LinkedIn or a following on Twitter? Are they researching insurance online? Then ask yourself: How can I connect with these people? Do I have expertise in this area that I could share through a weekly blog or Facebook post?
When it comes to attracting new business overall, your presence on the social web should be directed at bringing new people to your website, where they can be turned into leads. An effective website brings leads into your agency through a strong call-to-action such as, “Request a quote.” If your website is not set up to do this, you need to take another look at your web strategy. If you need assistance, there are lots of service providers with expertise in working with independent agents.
Social networks can also provide new ways for you to improve retention by staying connected with customers between renewals. You have a lot of value to offer your customers all year long, and one way to share it easily and effectively is through your Facebook page or a blog on your agency’s website.
Step Five. Address risks up front – and make a plan.
The three most common concerns about social networking are employee behavior, customer complaints and E&O exposure. Each of these deserves its own article, but the bottom line is that you must talk openly about these concerns and plan how to handle them.
At Westfield, we have a Social Media Advisory Committee that includes marketing, legal, HR, IT and information security. Getting all the right players involved up front can help you seize opportunities while managing risks. Note that I said “managing” and not “avoiding” risks. You can’t control employee behavior, but you need to have a social media policy to educate employees and set expectations.
ACT provides a great resource, “Creating a Social Web Policy for Your Independent Agency,” that will help you through this process. It also offers two example policies from real agencies, as well as an article on E&O considerations when using social media (www.iiaba.net/act at the “Websites & Social Media” quick link). These materials can help you start the conversations that need to happen in your agency – and don’t forget to include your HR, legal and IT partners.
If you’re avoiding social networking for fear of what your customers will say about you – let me suggest, they’re already saying it. As I mentioned in Step Three, if you aren’t listening, you aren’t prepared to respond. And, if you aren’t participating in the social web, you have no place to respond. To plan your responses, list the scenarios you are most concerned about and determine how you would handle them.
For example, if an employee says something offensive when representing the company online, what would you do? What can you do to make it less likely that this will happen? If a customer blasts your service on Twitter, how will you respond? Walking through these scenarios will help you work out important decisions in advance so you are more confident you can handle them appropriately and quickly if they arise.
Once you have taken these five steps, you’ve entered the world of social networking, where you will discover exciting opportunities to reach new people and businesses and communicate with your existing clients on a more regular basis.
Katie Herbst is Senior Marketing Communications Specialist at Westfield Insurance. Katie can be reached at: www.linkedin.com/in/katieherbst, www.twitter.com/katieherbst, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Katie prepared this article for ACT. For more information about ACT, contact Jeff Yates, ACT Executive Director at email@example.com. This article reflects the views of the author and should not be construed as an official statement by ACT.