About this article: Cut through the hype about social media to get some easy to follow, practical tips on building an effective digital brand that is integrated into your agency’s overall marketing plan. Relationships increasingly have a digital component and learning to effectively use these tools can enhance your offline relationships and build your agency brand.
By Maureen Wall Bentley
Sometimes the problem with “the next big thing” is that all the buzz around it can drown out the legitimate value hidden beneath.
Take social media. Many independent agents have become so overwhelmed by the constant clucking about this “must do” marketing tool that they simply have dismissed it as non-essential and faddish—and then promptly gone back to business as usual. And, in a sense, these agents are half-right: Some of the social networking communities will be lost in a blink, overtaken by the next “next big thing.”
But many will be with us for a long while. And underneath all the tweeting, friending and geolocating is a valid core that independent agents should heed: Relationships increasingly have a digital component and learning to effectively use these tools can enhance your offline relationships and build your agency brand.
So, how can you sift through all the noise to leverage the true benefit of social media? In short, think strategically and use some common sense. Herein, a few thoughts to get you started.
- Have a plan. If you don’t have a holistic marketing-communications plan for your agency, you’re almost certainly wasting money and you probably have no idea what’s working or why. Draft a plan that outlines the following elements, and include any social media efforts; don’t separate social networking from your overall activities.
- Goals. Be as specific as possible. For example, “Increase new middle market accounts by x%” is better than “Grow commercial lines revenues.
- Budget. The best agencies budget between 3% and 5% of revenues for marketing (1% to 3% for very large firms), with more funds allocated in years with big projects, such as a major rebrand. Keep in mind that Web development is far less expensive than it used to be and that social media can be virtually free.
- Audiences. Building a profile of your targeted buyer will enable you to better identify good vehicles (publications, web sites, etc.) and develop messaging.
- Messaging. List all the points you want to convey in your plan, realizing that not every message is appropriate for every audience, campaign or outlet.
- Vehicles. Identify the various publications, radio stations, Web sites, etc. that you want to use for advertising, and which you might target for PR efforts (they may not be the same). Include any direct marketing efforts as well as social media and blogging.
- Responsible parties. It is best to have one person internally supervising all the efforts, but identify all contributors, including those posting to social media, blogging, drafting bylined articles or being interviewed for local press.
- Metrics. Include short-term measurements such as Google analytics, incoming calls and readership numbers, but consider long-term goals, as well, such as new business from current clients, increased commercial revenues and retention.
- Assign a community monitor. Keeping track of your agency’s online posts and followers’ responses can take time—but you don’t have to do it yourself. Assign the task to someone who enjoys social networking and “gets” the immediacy of it. While this may be a young producer or college intern, don’t rule out older employees, as social media use is growing leaps and bounds among Boomers.
- Follow offline rules. You wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) go to a Chamber of Commerce dinner and talk non-stop about yourself or your agency. Rather, you’d engage other people in a more personal way—ask about their business or kids or new car, or commiserate over last week’s loss for the home team. And, most important, you’d listen. These same standards of conduct should be followed online as well. If you don’t—just like in the offline world—people will avoid you.
- Be brand consistent. Your social media presence should share the look, feel and messaging of your agency’s other touch points. So, if your Web site promotes your agency as commercial-lines oriented, then your Tweets should be in sync. And if your agency’s color palette is typically gray and green, don’t dress up your Facebook page in blue and gold. Think both strategically (Are we telling the same story in our online and offline touch points?) and tactically (Does our avatar (online representation) reflect our logo?). Conducting an image assessment every few years is a great way to align all the pieces that communicate your brand.
- Think service—and listen. Some of the most successful social media adopters use their online presence more for service and customer communications than for marketing. One agent, for example, posts weather warnings and other local news on his Facebook and Twitter accounts. Because he’s not spamming with promotional material, he has developed a healthy following—and the appreciation of those who avoided the downed tree or the flooded byway because of his Tweet. Such low-key posts reinforce his position as a good guy in the community, which helps his agency brand. Esurance, the online auto provider, pays careful attention to any online conversations about its brand so that it can respond in real time to unhappy customers or other malcontents. Think of your social networking sites as a rolling customer survey. (And don’t think that these negative comments won’t happen if you’re not listening online; they will, but you’ll be none the wiser.)
- Don’t expect miracles. Anyone who tells you they are quadrupling sales through social media is likely blowing smoke. That may sound like an excuse to toss aside a social media effort altogether, but it’s not. Social media, like many branding vehicles, can be powerful in keeping your agency front of mind, and it is wonderful for humanizing your firm. But you wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) expect one ad in the local paper to transform your business, and you should be equally realistic about social media.
Editor’s note: For more information about strengthening your online presence and using websites and social media effectively, click the “Websites & Social Media” link in the gray shaded portion on the left side of the ACT home page (www.iiaba.net/act).
Maureen Wall Bentley is executive vice president of brand strategy for Aartrijk, an insurance industry branding firm. Maureen prepared this article for ACT and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.