Many independent agency owners are wary of the hype around online social networking, but they should think about them as today’s business-building tools. Younger producers will want to take advantage of them to grow their books. This ACT article outlines some new social networking tools and how they are changing our world.
By Rick Morgan
When there is a discussion about Web 2.0 it typically centers on Web logs (or blogs), Social Networks, Flickr, Wikis, Second Life, YouTube, Twitter and the like. To be sure, there is an entire universe of very cool technology making up the Web 2.0 landscape.
Yet, technology just for technology’s sake makes little sense and if Web 2.0 were just about the technology it would be far less compelling. Technologies are neither good nor bad. Rather, it is how they are used that defines them.
So, you might ask, “What’s the big deal about Web 2.0?” Web 2.0 technologies are the enablers to a set of social and cultural trends that are transforming our world. Peers coming together and tapping into a collective intelligence to create value characterize this new world. It is a culture where by drawing strength from each other, individuals collectively gain control, influence and power.
Back to the Future
Actually, people’s desire to connect is not new. Historically, people have depended on each other for strength and support. The front porch of the general store was a place where the community gathered to share stories and trade goods. However, during the era of mass production and mass communication, institutions subjugated the value of individual. Now, the social and interactive technologies of Web 2.0 are ushering in a new era of relationship and community—there is a power shift from the institutions back to the people.
Why Should I Care?
A great deal of personal and informal business Web 2.0 usage is taking place today. More than likely, you and/or your agency staff are already watching video on You Tube, reading blogs, and joining social networking sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn. Unfortunately, many independent agency owners just haven’t been able to get their heads around the concept—at least not as a business strategy. Yet, making the Web 2.0 culture part of your agency’s business plan may very well be a matter of survival.
As pointed out above, Web 2.0 culture in not a passing fad. It’s a long-term hard trend that has significant implications on how your agency can most effectively interact and communicate with your prospects, customers and employees. Only by understanding Web 2.0 culture (technology and trends) will you be armed with the knowledge necessary to create and implement appropriate strategies to tap into and profit from the Web 2.0 culture.
Web 2.0 Means Business
These tools are many times free and very easy to use. There are now a variety of tools available to agencies for both knowledge sharing and collaboration. Here are a few examples to help get the creative juices flowing:
For the most part, traditional agency Web sites limit visitors to viewing content. The sites are online versions of printed brochures that far too often are static—quickly becoming out of date and stale. Web 2.0 Web sites, on the other hand, expand the user experience by encouraging participation and asking users to add value. Some have defined Web-as-information-source as Web 1.0—contrasting that to the participatory Web known as 2.0.
What could that mean for your agency? Instead of having an overly deep and content-rich Web site you have a “thinner” site with an integrated blog component. It is through the blog that the content remains dynamic, fresh and current. More importantly, agency customers and prospects can add comments to your posts. Thus, they are engaged and become active participants in your agency “community.” Coincidently, they are adding value.
Really simple syndication, or RSS, is a basically a personal news wire service. When you create content you can use RSS to automatically notify the world that you have added information to your blog or Web site. People interested in your Web site or blog subscribe to RSS feeds so that when you site is updated, the RSS reader grabs the latest content and delivers it back to the them
By using RSS feeds content is pushed out to subscribers which is much more effective than expecting customers to “check in” to your site.
The Web 2.0 capability known as del.icio.us can be installed as a plug-in to your Internet browser. It allows you to bookmark and tag Web articles immediately with keywords that resonate specifically with you. As a result, rather than sending a link to an interesting article in e-mail, coworkers or customers can access del.icio.us and can see the stories you have tagged.
Instead of using email you are using a tool where users can start to see the common interests of others. As confirmed by the golf “culture,” common interests in one area—even if they are not work-related—open conversations that often lead to professional relationships.
Many agency owners question the value of social networking and think that those using social networking sites such as LinkedIn are wasting time at the workplace—when they could be “out selling.” Yet, social networking tools are becoming the building blocks of trusted professional relationships.
Think of these environments as today’s online Chamber of Commerce meetings, where interactions lead to business opportunities. But unlike Chamber meetings, these social networks offer even more relevant and targeted interactions with the sorts of businesses or people a producer may want to target. Technologies such as LinkedIn show the relationship and instill at least a small degree of trust between someone who sends an invitation to join the network and others within the network.
Social networks, too, are fostering more collaboration within our industry. As an example, I have my profile on LinkedIn and I’ve found a several groups focused on the insurance industry that share common interests. The groups I have joined include ACORD, Insurance Technology Executives Network, Insurance Marketing Professionals, Insurance Network, and Global Insurance Professionals.
Groupsites are a new class of Web sites that basically allow any group the ability to create their own unique social network and collaboration site. Groupsites combine the features of traditional Web sites, blogs, collaboration software and social networks. Groupsites can be either public or private and provide a meeting place that typically provides members with a shared calendar, discussion forums, group blog member profiles, photo gallery, and file storage. ACORD, for instance, has built a private groupsite community using CollectiveX. For many, social networks and groupsites are replacing company intranets.
For all the benefits that Web 2.0 offers your agency and our industry, the capabilities also pose challenges to traditional agency structure. Because people are accustomed to using the Web 2.0 tools at home, the line between personal and professional usage blurs. While your agency can benefit from providing your employees with an open environment that fosters participation and collaboration, you will want to ensure that the technology is being used appropriately and professionally. These issues are particularly salient when managing young professionals who have grown up in a world where Facebook and MySpace are their primary way to share information.
The technologies of Web 2.0 continue to evolve and change at an ever-increasing pace but the social and cultural changes they enable have permanently transformed the way our world works. Ignoring the Web 2.0 Culture is not an option. Social media and other Web 2.0 capabilities are creating new opportunities by facilitating communication inside your agency and extending collaboration beyond agency walls. Having a strategy and setting goals are keys to insuring success with any new endeavor—this is especially true with something as transformational as Web 2.0. The rewards are great: When chosen and applied judiciously, nearly every Web 2.0 weapon can play meaningful and profitable role within your agency.
Let us hear from you if you have started to take advantage of Web 2.0 Social Media to build your brand or further the reach of your business.
In addition to his own consulting, Rick Morgan (rick@Aartrijk.com) is a senior associate with branding consultancy Aartrijk. He has four decades of experience in innovative technology, marketing, and publishing in the independent insurance agency system. He chairs the Web 2.0 Social Media Subgroup established by the ACT Strategic Future Issues Work Group and produced this article for ACT (www.independentagent.com/act). This article reflects the views of the author and should not be construed as an official statement by ACT.