In March, Gibson Insurance CEO Tim Leman’s 13-year-old son accidentally left behind a birthday gift of $100 from his grandmother at a local restaurant where the family had gathered to celebrate. The $100 was never recovered, but the generous wait staff took up a collection and several days later handed his son a birthday card with $220 in it and a note: “Pay it forward.”

He did, donating most of it to the local youth football league — enough to cover the annual registration fee of $90 for two kids who otherwise wouldn’t have the means to pay it. With the remainder of his money, he returned to the restaurant to buy lunch, leaving an extra-large tip for the charitable wait staff that had shown him such generosity.

So what’s this got to do with employee benefits? According to Leman, nothing. But also, everything.

Leman posted the story of his family’s pay-it-forward experience on the company’s blog, which he contributes to every Friday. The response to that blog post illustrates perfectly, he says, why he and Gibson Insurance have invested a great deal of time, thought and resources into pioneering a massive social media presence for their agency.

“I had no less than five or six clients e-mail me that Friday and say, ‘Thanks a lot, you made me start my Friday with tears.’ It’s not really normal in our business to have that sort of relationship with your clients,” he says.

But it’s exactly that kind of “deeper” relationship with the client that Leman says Gibson strives for. And, he says, it’s that sort of relationship that makes the difference between simply selling benefits and being a trusted adviser.

“We try to develop our people as thought leaders. Our role as the trusted adviser is more than just selling an insurance policy. So if we can put out quality content for consumers, it helps solidify our relationship and show our expertise,” says Katie Tryniecki, a marketing specialist and oft-dubbed ‘social media queen’ at Gibson.

#TheBlog

The firm’s social media presence includes a Twitter account, LinkedIn and Facebook pages, Google+, a YouTube channel and, first and foremost, the Gibson Blog.

The strategy behind all of it, according to Tania Bengtsson, director of marketing and innovation for Gibson, is inbound marketing. “The concept of inbound marketing is really a strategy to bring people in to you, versus what used to be the traditional marketing and advertising strategy where everything was more outbound,” she says. “It was noisy and interrupting their day. People consume media so much more differently now than they did just five or 10 years ago. And there are so many ways for consumers to control who can reach them and how. You have the mute button on your remote, you have your DVR, and you have your satellite radio. Not many people read the newspaper anymore. So where you find your news and content is so different.”

With that in mind, she says, Gibson “took the approach that people are doing a lot of research about products and services and who they’re doing business with and they’re doing it online. So when you have that inbound strategy, you’re creating content for people to learn about your thought leadership and what you’re all about.”

“We certainly have a lot of insurance-related blogs, but [many] of our blogs don’t have anything to do with insurance,” says Leman. “What we’re trying to do is to bring folks in and develop their thoughts about us by what they read.”

“People are obviously not going to buy our services online, but they’re going to research, and we want to come up in those searches,” Tryniecki adds.

Gibson posts a new blog entry three times a week, she says, and those posts shape their social media presence. “We’re going to be sharing that blog on various formats and in different ways. That means we’re going to be sharing it on Twitter multiple times in a day and on Facebook and LinkedIn once,” she says.

Gibson’s social media presence doesn’t just begin and end with the marketing department, either, Tryniecki says. Employees are encouraged to share online as well. “When we talk about the Gibson brand, its brand is only as good or as strong as our people will make it,” says Bengtsson. “We have a focus on our people participating in social media. We don’t force it, but we support it.”

“We get our employees to be our advocates as well,” adds Tryniecki.

#GESOP

Gibson employees have good reason to advocate for the firm, because they own it, too. The company, founded in Plymouth, Ind., in 1933 by Dan Gibson, has always been employee owned through select employee stockholders. In 2010, Gibson implemented an employee stock ownership plan for all.

Dubbed GESOP (Gibson ESOP), it’s the largest stockholder in the company and every employee is eligible to participate. Through the GESOP, employees have the opportunity to earn additional funds for their retirement based on the financial performance of the company. “When you treat somebody like an owner, they act like an owner,” says Leman. “They understand why we’re doing what we need to do. They understand the role they need to play. We’re all in this thing together and we all have a role to play in our organization.”

The implementation of the GESOP was part of an organization-wide transformation, says Leman, when in 2010 Gibson’s leadership realized the industry was changing and they needed to change along with it.

Leman, who joined the company in 2005 as head of its employee benefits practice, says the 2008 recession hit the company hard. One of the main counties the firm does business with, Elkhart County in Northern Indiana, he says, was “literally the worst hit from an unemployment standpoint in the entire nation at one time.”

“We were in trouble. We had to do a serious gut check with ourselves and that’s not an easy thing to do being a 75-year-old organization during a rough spell. We retooled on the fly. We rebuilt our employee benefits practice. We added a national actuarial partner. [Bengtsson] got involved with doing some cutting-edge things from a communications standpoint for our clients and their employees. We added a health risk management expert and that really took off,” he says.

“The other thing that was really helpful at the same time was we developed a long-term vision for the organization and we really got back to our core. That means emphasizing our values and culture,” he says.

It also included improving the way he and the other Gibson leadership communicated with its workforce. Leman was named president and chairman of Gibson in 2009.

“We realized we needed to communicate to our workforce in ways that were meaningful to them. That’s where social media really helped us out,” he says. “I began writing a weekly leadership blog on Fridays about things I could have done better and how we could have been different.”

“It’s really interesting the transformation that’s taken place since that time,” he says, adding that the company has grown by 90% since 2010. It’s also been selected as one of the best places to work in Indiana for the last three years in a row and in 2014 was named one of the top 10 best places to work in the country by Principal Financial.

#RemainingRelevant

The 2010 transformation and the company’s early embrace of social media communications follow a pattern of innovative ways Gibson has tried to remain relevant in an ever-changing industry.

In the 1970s and 1980s, under the leadership of founder Dan Gibson’s son Dave, the firm began to focus on specialization as a business strategy, Leman says. Brokers and agents would sell business insurance, such as property and casualty coverages, or sell employee benefits like health insurance, but not both.

The company opened a second office in South Bend, Ind., in 1986 and continued to grow in the 1990s, when the firm further innovated with a new focus on preventive risk management consulting. “This focus on preventive risk management consulting changed our approach with clients as we shifted from just securing a good price on coverage to adding value to their organizations,” Leman says.

The agency also moved away from a commissions-based structure and instead began offering fee-based services to clients, including placing insurance coverages. “This was a big departure from the industry standard practice,” Leman says, adding that the company’s new fee-based consulting work for clients also began to shift how their clients thought of them and their role.

“No longer were we just a ‘middle man,’” he says. “Instead, for many, their perception of Gibson shifted to that of a key trusted adviser.”

It’s Gibson’s ability to innovate that Joe Markland, president of HR Technology Advisors, says makes the firm and its social media strategy standout in the industry. “Gibson is a company willing to change and look in the mirror and say, ‘It’s not business as usual. We have to continue to bring our ‘A’ game,’” he says.

Having dealt with many brokers, Markland says, “I can feel the difference when working with [Gibson]. They’re very sure in their vision and direction and a lot of people haven’t established a very good foundation of where they are going. Without a clear foundation of what you are in business for, it’s hard to do any marketing at all. The impact of Gibson’s social marketing is based on a clear foundation of their vision.”

Social networking or blogging is really an opportunity to express yourself and what you’re all about, he says. “You have to understand what your purpose is. Whether it’s LinkedIn or Twitter or Facebook — you have to contribute something that is interesting. Because you could hurt yourself as much as you help yourself,” he says. “Or you could do a lot of work and get no results.”

Most brokers don’t have the right message, Markland believes. “I find very few brokers who are focused on what their objective is or have a plan. They just do tactics. They make social networking a random activity instead of a plan. They don’t have a clear objective and many don’t have a clear message. Many want to sell themselves instead of providing value. You have to provide value, but also the value you’re bringing has to be relevant,” he says.

Gibson Insurance not only has a strategy for how to provide value through its social media use, but, “they also promote it within their company,” Markland says. “It’s not just one guy at the top saying, ‘Here’s a rule.’ You have to live and breathe it.”

Indeed, Leman says, “A lot of people kind of laughed at us when we started this four or five years ago, but now it’s like breathing air.”

“When you think about our history and coming out of that traditional insurance environment, we have every reason and every excuse in the book to not want to be progressive, to not be fresh, to not want to do something new like using social media to grow our business, and we haven’t. Instead we’ve harnessed it and it’s been a huge driver for our organization,” he adds.

A lot of people will ask Leman the million-dollar question: Do you get anything out of the effort? “I say, if I could do it all over again, I would do it all over again —  just sooner and do more of it,” Leman says. “We’re starting to run a lot more metrics and really dig into [the statistics], but I can’t really tell you that six clients with X revenue came in because we were tweeting something. And I don’t think that’s really the way you should look at it.”

“What I can tell you,” he continues, “is that I walk into a prospect meeting and before we start talking about employee benefits or insurance, they’ll say ‘Hey Tim, I read your blog last week and I related to it.’ That puts a whole different tone on the meeting we’re having with people.”

He continues, “We’ve had record new business at Gibson over the last four or five years, every single year. It’s definitely not tied just to social media, but has it not been helpful? It has.”

What matters the most to Gibson, however, Leman adds, is providing value.

“We want to be valuable to the employers in our community that we’re in,” he says. “It’s OK if they’re clients or not. None of this stuff is rocket science and we don’t think we should hoard it. So we put everything we know out there and share it. We want to be perceived as thought leaders. We figure, if we are, the business will follow.”

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