Posted on 18 Aug 10
I recently spoke with Patricia (Pat) Alexander, CIC, CPIW, about her work with independent insurance agencies in implementing a social media plan. Pat is a consultant, coach, and mentor in the industry, bringing 45 years of experience and a wealth of knowledge to her clients. She has worked in nearly every facet of the Property/Casualty business, including as an agency owner and holding several executive level management positions throughout her career. She managed large, national programs both at the insurance carrier level and at the managing general agency level.
About 20 years ago Pat became interested in both the operational and technology side of the business and decided to go out on her own, helping insurance agents maximize technologies used in their offices. Several years ago, with the advent of social media, she became involved in not only what these platforms and Web 2.0 applications can do in terms of marketing but also how an agency can really make them work. Pat helps agencies and other businesses address and define each of the following areas in order to move forward: Web 2.0 Strategies: What are the Possibilities?; Website – Client Useful; Errors & Omissions Concerns; Social Media Policy; Resources and Outlets; and Social Media Plan.
Pat has her own blog at PatAlexander.Com, and also created the Insurance Ecosystem blog to provide the industry with communicators that “don’t normally blog but have great views and information to share.”
Annie George (AG): Pat, when you’re working with an insurance agency, what are some of the issues you’re finding when it comes to social media?
Pat Alexander (PA): “Many think social media is just having a Facebook page or Twitter account. But it’s so much more than that. I spend my time working with agents on establishing a social media plan, setting it up, and then implementing and sustaining it. It’s absolutely something you have to sustain just like any process in your agency.
“Social media is everything from that Facebook page to a blog to your entire website and how you’re going to interact with the public. We’ve always been ‘social’, we just haven’t defined it in the way we do today…whether it’s the Rotary Club or the Lion’s Club meetings we attended, of which many small towns don’t even have anymore. It’s all those interactions we used to do but no longer necessarily make the time to because of our busy schedules. Social media is just another form of this.
“And the insurance industry in particular has always been a very social business, because that’s how we get clients…we come face to face with them, get to know them. We feel our strength as independent agents is that we know our customers best. So social media is really everything you put out to the public. It’s your website, the blog within the website, Twitter, Facebook, RSS Feeds, videos, webinars…”
AG: What is the process you go through when you visit an agency to discuss a social media strategy? An agency has a website, is on Facebook, LinkedIn, but is floundering around, it’s not coordinated.
PA: “When I go to an agency, it’s typically a request from someone who has an interest as to how the firm should move forward with social media. I found that the person who invites me is the CEO, COO, or manager and has been participating on various platforms personally. For example, my most recent agency client is big on Twitter, tweets with his friends non-stop. He is also a big LinkedIn user and has used it in the agency to hire people. One of his producers uses LinkedIn almost 100% as his contact management. But the owner realized that the agency didn’t have a coordinated plan for what they need to do. Also, like many agencies, they often have an outdated website. It’s static, they can’t do anything with it. They are looking to make it interactive with their clients.
“This is where the thought process begins, especially with agency owners who are under-40. They’re looking to see how they can interact with their clients via their website as well as on the social platforms available. It’s at this point we talk about how other agencies are effectively using the different forms of social media. And we work out what will be valuable to them and how they will use these different forms to make them valuable to their clients.”
Pat explains that the “what” is equally important as the “how”. For example, you can post all day long on Facebook but if you’re selling, selling, selling, most likely you’ll end up getting hidden in a person’s news stream. “No one wants to receive a repetitive sales pitch all day long,” says Pat. “But if you’re telling me about great things in your agency, about people’s accomplishments in your community, good information on insurance that I need because perhaps there’s a storm coming, then you’ll be in my stream because you’re giving me valuable information.
“We talk a lot about what social media is and how you can make it valuable to you and your customer. You need to deliver a value…and that value is not saving ‘Joe Customer’ $500.00 on his auto insurance every 30 minutes, because that simply doesn’t happen every 30 minutes in real life. Send your clients and potential clients a stream of information that is need-to-know based.
“Consumers get turned off...they don’t like insurance in the first place, and they’re turned off by it when it’s being pushed on them. They want knowledge. Right now most young people who buy auto insurance do their research on-line before they go to an agent, or they buy it directly on-line. They think, ‘I want to know stuff but I don’t want it in my face all day long. I want to know how you fit into my community and how we can be friends.’ That’s what they want.”
AG: As an example, what agency does a good job in accomplishing this?
PA: “The Founders Group in Connecticut uses social media very well. The people there do a really good job with their blog and tie-ing it into the firm’s Twitter account and Facebook page. They have one of the best blogs around because it’s written from the heart by the owner, Chris Garlasco, and Cindy Donaldson, the marketing director.”
AG: We featured Cindy and Founders in this newsletter last year. They do a great job.
PA: “Yes, because they use real-life instances and yet it has some tie-in to insurance but not it’s not the premise of the entire blog post. Chris, for example, just returned from a cross-country trip from Alaska on motorcycle and wrote about it. It’s been a hoot to read. One of the agency’s producers has been blogging about his experience as a new producer…about his education, getting to know clients, the joys and hardships of becoming a good producer. They also celebrate retirement in the community. It’s great stuff. The blog also works because you have multiple people blogging and get a multiple view. It’s not sterile.
“Another agency that’s located in Michigan has five to six blogs that are geared to different targets. One target is teenagers and they use them to actually do the blog, to talk about driving, to speak to their peers. They also have a specific blog on boating, including safety and fun, good boating places. They invite boaters to guest blog. It’s not always about insurance, which draws in customers around a topic that is relevant and interesting to them.
“One agency individual I’m working with is very involved with the Chamber of Commerce and she plans to blog about her involvement. We got creative with names; for example, her category will be called “The Vine” (tied-into the area which is known as City of Grapevine).
“Blogging is really fun for about 1½ months, then it becomes a job. You have to do it…so it’s best that you share information that you’re passionate about.”
AG: What types of customer interactivity are agents adding to their websites?
PA: “One of my clients has developed a program with some of their commercial clients that provides other agency clients with discounts. If you are a customer of the agency, you receive a member card. You have a login area at the agency’s website where you can find out which merchants provide what discounts. You then present the card to the merchant when you purchase from them and receive the discount. So, for example, you may get 10% off dinner at a participating restaurant. They have also implemented a system allowing customers to pay for their insurance on-line (E-check), CSR24, have RSS Feeds, are on Foursquare, Facebook, LinkedIn, and have two blogs.
“Additionally on-line chat is big now, which is especially true of younger staff members. They chat with their agency management vendors and customers. Some are even texting. There was one client who was receiving endorsement requests via text. This is a problem from an E&O standpoint. So one way to offset this risk is to receive notifications via on-line chat so that you capture the entire request and put in the file.
“You can also put interactive applications where a client enters information and you provide quotes. There are many possibilities…you just need to decide what to do and put the systems in place. The key here with interactive apps and other services is that you are receiving private information that needs to be secured. You must ensure that you’re doing this. Sabrena Sally of ACT wrote a good article on Agency E&O Considerations When Using Social Media that you can access to see what you need to be aware of.”
AG: What is the typical timeframe involved when you work with an agency on a social media plan and implementation?
PA: “It’s typically a 90-day implementation process. The first thing is to decide what the agency wants to do, where they want to go. Once the decision is made as to what the agency wants to accomplish, we need to look at the process, the Best Practices involved, and how you will maintain what you’ve put into place.
“I recently worked with a client on redoing the agency website. It hadn’t been updated in years. The owner and staff wanted to update the brand, the logo, and be able to blog. The staff had no idea of the many details and decisions that were involved in updating a site. Together we worked with a graphic designer, decided on a new look, created a logo. And I helped managed with the content since I have a lot of knowledge in the insurance arena. This is important when using outside resources, such as a WordPress expert. He/she doesn’t know the insurance industry so things can be dropped or missed. As an industry, we have many E&O issues in advertising and we need to stay on top of this.”
Pat recommends that an agency re-evaluate its website every six months. Having old applications, outdated information can present real E&O risks. She also recommends using ACT as a good resource for what disclaimers to add to your website and blog.
Additionally, keeping a site fresh is key in light of our continued thirst as a society for information. “Provide helpful hints, keep your customers abreast of changing laws in their industry, talk about your people, the community,” says Pat.
AG: What is the most important thing an agency has to realize when it comes to social media?
PA: “People have to look at social media as a process, just as they do, let’s say, their agency management system. You need a person to oversee your plan and someone responsible to make sure it’s maintained. This may be a marketing person or more than one individual who is responsible for managing different areas, such as the producer who is managing his contacts on LinkedIn and the marketing person who is overseeing all tweets, Facebook posts, RSS Feeds, e-campaigns etc. It’s best to get a person who loves doing this as he/she will keep on top it.”
Pat works with most agencies face-to-face to implement a social media plan but can also work together on-line. “If you are trying to implement a plan with multiple people, it’s best to meet face to face. I want to understand what is right for you so that it is maintained and so that there is follow-through. You have to ask what is the commitment and will you accomplish it?”
You can reach Pat at 817.605.1663 or via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.