Brokers can no longer afford to shun social media; it’s too effective at bringing in new business. But you must set a few rules first – and, most important, think about what you’re going to say. You have been warned…

In the brave new world of internet communications, the social media evangelists are easy to spot. Not only have they been blogging since wi-fi broadband became available in coffee shops, but their count of Facebook friends hit triple figures sometime in 2006 – not long before they signed up for a Twitter account.

These fully fledged evangelists tend to crop up most in the worlds of media and PR. Sensing the possible pitfalls, the insurance industry has tended to take a more cautious approach.

However, many brokers now believe that they cannot afford to shun blogs, Facebook, LinkedIn and the increasingly popular micro-blogging service, Twitter. In short, they can be one more way of bringing in new business.

Lockton’s UK head of communications, Chris Don, says that colleagues have mixed views about how useful these tools are. “Some are enthusiastic early adopters and say it has helped them to bring in new business; others are completely sceptical – they don’t see much up-side.”

For Don, the biggest stumbling block is around security. “There are concerns – not just at Lockton I’d have thought, but presumably in other companies. Who should blog in the company? Everyone or just a few people? And what should they blog about?”

There are the horror stories too. Just a few months ago, Vodafone was forced to apologise to its thousands of followers on Twitter after one of its customer service staff broadcast an obscene message.

The message appeared on the company’s official Twitter account, which it usually uses to deal with customer complaints, forcing Vodafone to release a stream of apologies for “a severe breach of rules by staff in our building”.

Don says he’s been advised that ‘you should never post a blog that you wouldn’t want your mother and boss to read’. The Lockton PR chief fails to confirm whether he has always stuck to his own rules, but says that such quibbles have not prevented his firm from experimenting.

These days, Lockton uses social media websites and forums to communicate news and internal expertise to clients. “Social media has definitely helped us to put white papers out there that have been picked up by the press. It will play an increasingly important role alongside traditional PR, advertising and marketing techniques,” he says.

The extra mile

So should brokers be going further to win new business?

Experts insist the industry could be missing a trick by failing to engage fully with new media channels. In particular, blogs and social media sites allow for high levels of engagement with potential customers. Getting involved with the online conversation could thus provide a valuable way in with a prospect.

Pancentric Digital’s head of digital strategy, James Prebble, says that Twitter is an especially good platform for brokers to showcase their business’s expertise.

“It allows them to share important information and expertise with individuals who perhaps have a less detailed understanding of particular types of insurance and its issues. Social media presents brokers with the opportunity to reach a far broader audience. They now have the ability to find individuals and businesses discussing insurance issues.”

Diffusion’s Ivan Ristic agrees that the interactive element of social media can help brokers to make useful new connections. “There is a huge opportunity – especially in the small business space – to provide advice and assistance between peers online,” says the director at the digital PR agency.

But he sounds a note of caution for any broker planning to leap into an online conversation. “The social media community is very self-selecting and will soon root out anyone who is not engaged in the true spirit of their discussion. Brokers should heed the old adage that we have two ears and one mouth – that they should listen intently to the conversations they hope to get involved in, and understand them properly. Any engagement should be thought through carefully to add to the dialogue in a genuine way, and not simply focus on the hard sell.”

Another option for brokers keen to harness the power of social media is LinkedFA, the first social networking site for finance professionals.

The site, launched in March this year, aims to help them to connect and interact with their clients and peers.

It has similar social media tools to other popular sites while complying with financial regulatory supervision and record-keeping. The site also recently announced a new compliance feature, aimed at providing the opportunity for large financial organisations to get involved. This automatically delivers daily reports of financial advisers’ activities to their compliance officer and fully supports company internal email capturing and monitoring software.

LinkedFA president and founder Jason Bishara says: “Social media is like email; it is not going to go away. Social media is the most efficient way for any business to communicate or stream data to an audience of their clients or prospective clients, all at the same time.

“Unfortunately, mainstream sites such as Twitter and Facebook don’t comply with industry regulations on the use of electronic communications, and are therefore prohibited in many finance and insurance companies. LinkedFA has a unique compliance feature that stores all communication, including blogs, videos, emails, wall posts and documents, for six years.

“All communications are fully extractable and reportable at any time. This means insurance professionals can use social media in a safe and secure environment that is fully compliant.”

For Bishara, the power of social media appears to be almost limitless. “Most insurance agents and financial professionals spend years cultivating relationships and referrals. What if you were able to communicate with all of your relationships and cultivate a thousand people at once without having to leave your office? Social media means that you can.”

Multi-pronged approach

Whether Bishara’s social media evangelism proves to be a step too far for most brokers remains to be seen. For most digital PR experts, a social networking offensive should be considered as part of a broader marketing mix. Social media alone is unlikely to win much new business, many experts insist.

Pancentric’s Prebble says: “While social media may not be the gateway to a huge increase in potential customers, just one post in the right place at the right time could open up a broker’s business to a huge new audience. And while it can be the first step to building a relationship with a prospect, that relationship will take more than just social media interaction to develop. Supporting content on a website or blog is a must for consistency of brand interaction.

Especially if the insurance line is specialist. Customers need to know they are in the hands of an expert.”

At Lockton International, Don is already pushing in this direction and is confident that other firms will follow suit – if they haven’t done so already. “My personal view is that, in five or 10 years, nearly every FTSE-250 company will have a blogging page or social media area that either sits on its website or perhaps separately,” he says. “Just like all companies today have their own website, which was not the case 10 to 15 years ago.”

But Don also refuses to get too carried away and echoes Prebble’s insistence that blogs, Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter are only really useful for winning new business when part of a bigger strategic picture. “Social media is just a useful tool to be used to complement the existing marketing mix, and will never replace the telephone or an after-work drink with a client or prospect as the networking method of choice.”

And then there are those dreaded pitfalls to watch out for. Conservative Party leader David Cameron recently said on a radio show that “too many tweets make a twat”. Or as Don puts it: “No one wants to hear that an insurance broker has just washed his hair!” IT