Within 30 minutes of being contacted, insurance agent Dal Watson had already added this reporter on most of his social media sites - Google+, LinkedIn and Twitter. And doing so with clients has brought him and other brokers who are on social media increased business, better reputations and stronger connections.

But not all brokers are on social media, and in this modern technology-driven age, it's not why they shouldn't join, but rather why wouldn't they, says Rick Morgan, chair of the Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of America Agents Council for Technology Social Web Workgroup. Not being on social media is like starting an insurance agency but not having a website and not showing up at any meetings, Morgan says.

As a broker, "I don't know that you have a choice" about joining the sites, he adds. "You hear all the [concerns], yet looking at the dominant position social [media] has got in our lives, I think that not doing something actually is not neutral . . . [it's] a negative branding signal."


An answer to health care reform

Watson, a broker at Midland, Texas-based Don Crawford and Associates, began his social media use on Twitter in May 2009, when President Barack Obama had been in office for a few months and unveiled his health care reform plans, creating the "perfect storm." Watson joined Twitter to follow the legislation, and once it passed used the sites to learn more about health care reform and stay up-to-date on developments.

Clients now look to Watson's social media accounts for the information he shares, building a stronger bond and trust in the processes. "Health reform [was] the 'ah-ha' moment why I am so engaged," he says. "My clients and prospects call me and they want to know . . . 'How is this going to affect me?'"

Watson created Twitter lists to answer his clients' questions, which allow users to follow other Twitter users of their choice in a list format. Watson has different news organizations that feed into his lists by subject, which he uses to know about the changes, relay that to his clients and "make me more valuable in terms of an information source."


Keeping a constant connection

Social media helps brokers stay in the loop. Recalling a Chamber of Commerce meeting where people were talking about LinkedIn, Ryan Hanley, a broker with The Murray Group Insurance Services Inc. in Albany, N.Y., logged on that night and found "all these conversations people were having online," that he wasn't a part of, he recalls.

Not only can social media help brokers communicate the latest news, but also during times of natural disaster - when phones lines are down and power out - smart phones often still work. For example, in the past year as Connecticut experienced large snowstorms and a hurricane, social media was a way to communicate, explains Cindy Donaldson, director of marketing and sales at Torrington, Conn.-based Founders Insurance Group. "Clients did not have power in their offices, but [were] still able to access stuff via smart phone. On that level we can connect with them.

"We were able to post storm updates on Facebook, able to put out emergency information and how to contact the insurance carrier. . . . It also had my personal information, updates to where our local power company was," she adds. "It was about that client's experience, going above and beyond. It separates us from people not doing that."


Added business

Watson uses LinkedIn to reach out to potential new clients, using the LinkedIn homepage feature that alerts of new people in his area, which gives him an opportunity to reach out and connect with them. And Hanley recently picked up a client from a blog post he wrote on pay-as-you-go workers' compensation insurance.

A woman who owns a construction business read the article online, called Hanley, and they closed a deal with a $50,000 premium and likely $3,000 in revenue. "I didn't have to do any prospecting," he says. "No phone calls. Two weeks later she was a client."

He says that he has also closed countless home and auto policies with $200 in revenue from people reading his blog. "That's really the deal," he says. "These people have established a relationship with you before [you] ever pick up a phone or send an e-mail. They feel they know who you are and are comfortable doing business with you."

Watson acknowledges he can't put an exact dollar amount he's brought in through social media, rather it's keeping his name in front of the decision makers. "I want to keep my name in front of people as much as possible and on a favorable basis, so when they think about making a change they will think of me or come to me," he says. "Over time, I'm planting seeds for future reference . . . and hope to reap the harvest down the road."


Client action

Watson extended invitations to be followed on his social media sites to Jared Blong, director of risk management and safety at Midland, Texas-based Western Drilling Inc., an $18 million company with 140 employees.

Blong began to track Watson on these sites for news tidbits and his thoughts on articles. "That allowed me to formulate a fairly accurate opinion about Dal and what he's passionate about, what his area of expertise is," says Blong. "I knew he wouldn't put garbage up there and began to follow that more closely. . . . [I said] 'Dal's the kind of guy I want to work with' and he was the only broker I communicated with in an effort to move what we had away from the broker handling our business.

"[Dal] continues to use [social media] to communicate that helpful information to me. . . . He's done a balanced job, I don't get overwhelmed, and it's also helpful and timely."


Broker concerns

Brokers who are not on social media often express concerns about legal issues, time requirements and question the return on investment. But all of those concerns are just not true, says Sean Nelson, co-founder of Norcross, Ga.-based Surge Labs, a conversion optimization firm.

"I think you can always find a reason not to do anything [by saying] 'I don't have time to waste,'" he says. "But the question is not why you shouldn't do it; the question is why you should be doing it - social media can drive business."

Time and legality are just "excuses," agrees Hanley. He points out that you have a much greater chance of saying something incorrect at a networking event versus writing it down and doing brief editing as you would before posting online.

"Don't say things like, 'If you are 62, you will get X return.' Those are stupid things to say," explains Hanley, who blogs on insurance agents use of social media at RyanHanley.com. "You can give useful advice and talk in generalities. As long as you are keeping your head with what you are writing, you are [more likely] to say things on the phone that are ten times worse."

Watson agrees that you just need to be careful and add value, not give advice. "One answer doesn't fit all situations," he says. "I need feedback from individuals over their particular circumstances before I give a good piece of advice; it needs to be a two-way conversation."

In the end, it is a new way of doing business, says Morgan, the social media tech guru for the Big "I" and senior vice president of Aartrijk, a Springfield, Va.-based branding firm. Social media "is not just an add on, [it] becomes the way you do business," he says. "It doesn't feel like taking extra time. You replaced a lot of outdated procedures. . . . Instead of e-mail, you are doing some posts on Facebook or write a blog instead of constantly answering the same questions."

And once you get in a routine, time becomes less of an issue. "There's a learning curve, once you get over that, it doesn't have to be something more than integrated into your daily routine," adds Jennifer Benz, chief strategist and founder of San Francisco-based Benz Communications. "When I first started using Twitter, it took me a while to get my arms around it and now it's something I don't devote extra time to. It's just how I work . . . [and] it's a great resource to share your expertise."


Free advertising

Linda Rey, the director of marketing at Rey Insurance in Sleepy Hollow, N.Y., did not have a large advertising budget, so she could only post in the Yellow Pages. But social media is free other than the time investment. From social media, her small family firm not only brought in more business but also connections and resources. "It's been invaluable for us," she says.

"The biggest advantage to make a business case to an agency is that if you look at traditional forms of advertising - radio, television, print - if you are a small or mid-size agency, you're at a larger disadvantage, always outspent," Nelson, of Surge Labs, adds. But on social media "they are all free sites so the big guys can't necessarily outspend you. All you have to do is out-hustle them [and] post more content," he says.


If not you, someone

You need to get started now, Hanley says, as someone in your market is going to do it, and that's who clients are going to find. "Consumers are going online to search for professionals and if you are not online, they are going to find the guy down the street," he says. ""They are going to establish a relationship with him and go to him."

Morgan agrees and says that if he were looking for a new insurance agent, or looking to confirm his agent is the right choice, and couldn't find them on social media, he would "begin to worry that these people are behind the times and out of touch."

Brokers and agents need to meet their clients where they are and that's online, says Hanley. "I would bet that 75% of your clients are online and agents are finding [those potential clients and] are getting their information," he says. "So you have a huge gap in that relationship. It should be about the client, and not about the individual and how comfortable they are."




DalDubya Tweets

A selection of Tweets from Dal Watson's Twitter feed

Like this TED quote... "More important than making money is to be successful in working on/in projects that your [sic] passionate about!"

Part of me wishes I was in Austin TX USA @ #SXSW meeting people like @jenbenz and @stevegarfield that I follow on @Twitter. Have fun guys!

RT @EBAMagazine: Anyone who says no to voluntary benefits doesn't know what they're saying no to, says Mike Kapustin, don't let them #wbr2012




Social media - by the numbers

The sheer volume of people using social media sites is huge - and continuing to grow. According to data complied by The Realtime Report, here are the main sites and their users as of February 2012:

Facebook: 845 million

Twitter: 200 million

LinkedIn: 135 million

Google+: 90 million

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