Looking for a way to promote his latest venture, a website where consumers can select an agent at the same time they buy their policy online, Alan Katz decided to start his own blog both as a hobby and in hopes that linking to it would increase the search engine optimization of the insurance website.

That was nearly four years ago, and in the intervening years The Alan Katz Health Reform Blog has taken on "a life of its own," says Katz. It's led to partnership opportunities, numerous speaking engagements and is followed by hundreds of carriers, agents, advisers, media outlets and others - positioning Katz as an expert in his field.

There's no magic formula to Katz's success. Anyone can leverage the power of social media platforms to work for them and their business.

"At the end of the day, it's all about fulfilling a business strategy you have," says Katz, principal of The Alan Katz Group. "If it's building your brand then you want to get your message out on different platforms so more people have an opportunity to touch that brand. If it's building a reputation for being an expert in your field, just as speaking at your local Rotary or Kiwanis club and writing for your local newspaper can help you do that. Social media can help you accomplish that as well, but on a much broader scale."


Be the expert

Katz formed The Alan Katz Group in 2007 as a vehicle for public speaking, writing and consulting. Two months after he began posting to his health reform blog, the California Association of Health Underwriters asked Katz to return (he was president of CAHU from 1992-1993) to lead CAHU's effort to shape then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's health care reform initiative. The blog continued to serve as an outlet for Katz to discuss the issues of health reform that were most important to him, not just those that CAHU was promoting. Readership started off slowly, but once Schwarzenegger's reforms began to take shape traffic to alankatz.workpress.com increased fivefold, says Katz.

When working in the realm of social media, it's important for business professionals to be cognizant of the difference between marketing and brand development versus direct selling or conducting an ad campaign, says Bill Corbett, president of Corbett Public Relations. Blogs and other social media outlets, such as LinkedIn and Twitter, should be looked at as one's "voice online" which is used to convey field expertise, ability and interesting information, says Corbett - not direct sales messages about certain benefits or 401(k) packages. "I think that turns people off," he says.

Directly asking people to buy your products or services is going to drive them away, Corbett adds. Instead, make it your goal to be viewed as an expert in your field by pointing out information that will lead others to believe you actually know what you're talking about. "You're building your reputation, and when someone ends up looking for the types of services that you're offering, they come to you" - and also often become more receptive to direct mail and other traditional sales tactics, says Corbett.

Principal at Renaissance Strategic Solutions, Courtney Hunt runs the "Social Media in Organizations" group on Link-edIn. As the former director of HR for a small firm, Hunt knows the value an employee benefit broker can bring to a small employer strapped for resources. She sees the Internet as an important opportunity for advisers to show their value - particularly in this time of uncertainty with health care reform.

"With everything that's going on, as we go forward there are huge opportunities for brokers to leverage social media to make themselves more valuable to both current and prospective clients," says Hunt.

The credibility afforded to Katz through his blog has lead to hired speeches and Web seminars on health reform across the country. "It shows the avalanche that can start with one post or one blog," says Katz, "and it builds your brand as well as touching people who can hire you ... At the end of the day it all comes back to, 'Why are you doing this, and is the effort worth your time and resources?'"


Politics and insurance policies

Although he's been a licensed agent since 1983, Katz first aspired to a career in politics as a student at UCLA. At age 19, he served as the press secretary for a woman running for the state senate and continued to work on various campaigns as he earned his bachelor's degree from UCLA and master's degree from Occidental College, then a law degree from UC Davis.

After a post-law-school stint at the SEC investigating broker-dealers, Katz returned to politics as the deputy campaign coordinator for Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley's gubernatorial campaign. When Bradley lost, Katz decided he wasn't enjoying law and wanted a break from the grueling political scene. "I wanted to try my hand at business," he says.

His father was a general agent for John Hancock, and had a subsidiary employee benefits GA with no full-time employees. In December 1982, Katz became the first full-time employee of Multiple Services Inc. A year later, Katz's father retired from John Hancock and his sister joined the father-son team to make Multiple Services a full-fledged family business. While the company continued to grow, Katz eased back into politics as a Santa Monica City Council member in 1985 and then took a break from the business to serve as chief of staff for Lt. Gov. Leo McCarthy for a couple of years. It was shortly after Katz's time at McCarthy's office that California took up small business health care reform and CAHU recruited Katz to get involved "as an insurance agent who understood politics." He calls the resulting legislation, AB 1672, "a very good bill."

Around the time Katz returned to the family business in the early '90s, Multiple Services merged with another GA, went through a name change to Centerstone, and was eventually bought by Employers Health Insurance, which in turn was bought by Humana. Today, the company that comprises the original Multiple Services is known as BenefitMall.

In the mid-'90s, Katz broadened his scope by joining the National Association of Health Underwriters as its legislative chair when the organization was gearing up to battle "HillaryCare." He testified before several congressional committees, helped to draft NAHU's reform position, and gave dozens of speeches and wrote extensively on health care reform. As he continued to serve in various officer positions at NAHU (eventually becoming president for the 1999-2000 term), Katz left his GA to join an Internet startup in Colorado Springs, Colo. He was with the company six months when WellPoint offered him a job as a senior vice president for Blue Cross in 1997.

Throughout the next eight years Katz held various roles at WellPoint as he worked on improving sales technology through products such as an Internet quoting system that allowed agents to have a quoting mechanism on their own websites and an agent finder tool for consumers. After leaving WellPoint, Katz focused on the website he had built for consumers to select an agent while buying their policy online that would lead to the creation of The Alan Katz Health Care Reform blog. The site, Insurance Neighborhood, shut down two and a half years later, but Katz recently re-launched it with a focus on life insurance. The blog remains an integral part of The Alan Katz Group.


From wall posts to Tweets

Of course, blogs are not the only form of social media that can work to the advantage of an employee benefit professional. With his own blog a successful example, Katz is enthusiastic about social media, but also finds some sites to be "simply a time sink." For example, he doesn't see the frequent use of Twitter to be a useful business tool. "What's important for business people to do is to think less about the technology and more about what they're trying to accomplish," says Katz. "I'm not sure what Tweeting accomplishes for most insurance agencies. Do clients really want to hear from them three times a day?"

Renaissance Strategic Solutions' Hunt takes a different approach to Twitter and social media in general. She is constantly speaking with people who are reluctant to participate in the medium because they are unsure about how to contribute. "One of the things that helps people in the beginning stages is to realize that they don't have to talk, they can listen. And there's actually tremendous value in using social media to listen," says Hunt.

She calls Twitter "a great listening channel" that allows brokers to follow organizations such as the federal government and insurance carriers to find out what they're talking about and stay current with real-time trends.

Charles Epstein, president of communications company BackBone, Inc., says while Twitter is "a socially acceptable stream of consciousness," it is most effective when integrated with a more "traditional" form of communication such as e-mail or a newsletter. For example, it can be used to send sneak preview Tweets about an upcoming event, raise awareness of a new program or link to a larger article on a range of relevant topics. "It's not simply a delivery platform for any random thought that comes into your mind," says Epstein.

One place that is certainly full of random thoughts is the "news feed" on Facebook, where status updates can range from overly personal to shamelessly promotional. However, navigated properly, "Facebook can be a useful tool because it creates a website for you so you can brand yourself," says Katz, "but you'd better be very knowledgeable about the privacy settings and who you let post things on your wall ... Your wall can be spammed very easily if you don't tend to it."

Katz finds the now-common practice of having multiple Facebook accounts, one personal and one business, to be a smart strategy for using the site.

For Hunt, LinkedIn is the minimum when it comes to social media participation. "I think every professional should be on LinkedIn. Everyone should have a good individual profile and as they're ready they should start to join some groups and pay attention to the conversation."

Jim Miller is an employee benefit consultant at the Graham Company in Philadelphia who uses LinkedIn. He sees the website as useful for keeping connections updated on career changes and a great way for brokers to access a broader range of potential clients. "It's also a great follow up tool," says Miller. "If you're out networking, the next day you can go back and look to connect with that person on LinkedIn."

One strategy Miller says many producers are using is to connect with a client on LinkedIn prior to an in-person meeting. That way, you know who their contacts are going into the meeting and can ask them in person if they'll connect you with Bob in HR or Sally at the company down the street.

Katz calls LinkedIn "perhaps the easiest social media tool for people to use ... because all it really is, is a mess of interlocking Rolodexes." Because it doesn't require maintenance after the initial setup, it won't take up too much time, he adds. However, Katz does caution that in his experience, LinkedIn's recommendation feature can have an unwanted snowball effect. "One warning I have for folks is if you recommend one person you'll have dozens of people, not all of whom you know, asking for recommendations," he says.

Corbett says having a YouTube presence is a must, simply because it's the third most searched website on the Internet. It's an easy site to post a video on benefits education and other topical issues that will position you as an educator, he says.

He also uses photo site Flikr as part of his personal branding and for an historical record of Corbett Public Relations events. Flikr is a particularly good tool for those working in small markets so that people can see what you look like and recognize you at events, he explains. "That's the goal when you're marketing or networking, you create a buzz or awareness of yourself so that when you do walk into a networking event or a meeting, people know a little bit about you," says Corbett.

Hunt uses a website called SlideShare made to share presentations, documents videos, white papers and the like - all searchable so that they will show up on a search engine. "It's good for brokers to show their thought leadership," she says.

One up-and-comer on both Katz's and Hunt's radars is Ning. It can be used as a private network for inviting select participants, or be open to the public. "Brokers can make a network of their small-group clients for people to share best practices, raise questions, connect with each other," says Hunt. "The broker is hosting it and the benefit to them, among many, is that they get to listen to the conversation."

"What's nice about that kind of network or social media tool is your clients become contributors; they add to the content," adds Katz. "Ning allows you to bring others into creating content and that can keep people coming back to it."


Constant presence

While many forms of social media are free or have minimal fees compared to other marketing formats, that doesn't mean effective participation is without its costs. "It doesn't take a lot of money, but it does take some sweat equity to build up a meaningful presence through social media," says Katz.

The Alan Katz Health Care Reform Blog averages five to eight posts a month and each post takes anywhere from 15-75 minutes or more, depending on how much research is needed to address the topic, says Katz. Most posts take at least 30 minutes because Katz likes to add a variety of linked sources. He recently hit the 500 posts milestone, which amounts to about 400,000 words. To put that in perspective, the book Katz released in 2010, Trailblazed: Proven Paths to Sales Success, was about 40,000 words. That's 10 books' worth of posts in the last four years. "It's exhausting!" he says.

In fact, after the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act passed in March 2010, Katz took about a four-month break from the blog to recuperate and reenergize himself. But it wasn't without a cost. Twitter, Facebook and blogs all need constant attention to keep readers returning. Additionally, Google and other search engines stop "spidering" your site as frequently, which means they won't look to it to pull information for their aggregators. Currently, Katz's blog is spidered just about every day around midnight, but he noticed that during his hiatus it dropped down to once a week or less.

Katz's blog posts tend to be longer than average, around 800-900 words. He attributes the verbosity to his effort to be thorough in locating source material other than his own view. A smart move, says Norbert Kugele, a partner at Warner Norcross & Judd LLP, in Michigan. "There's always concerns about misappropriating other peoples' copyrighted material and posting it on your blog," he says.

Linking is generally enough attribution to avoid a copyright issue, but cutting and pasting from another source - even with attribution - is "probably still a copyright problem," Kugele warns.

Katz knows people have an expectation that he'll be posting to the blog frequently and feels obliged to do a good job for them on a consistent basis. But even more than that, he says it's just plain fun to do. "I do the blog for the fun of it. Yes, it gets my brand out there, which has been great for my public speaking business. Some consulting jobs have come from the blog too."

Return on investment is imperative, says Corbett. He notes that it's important to analyze how much time you spend on social media efforts versus how many people are engaging with it and what kind of business leads are resulting from it. If no one is following you and no leads are coming out of the practice, "you might be better off spending one hour calling people, having lunch with people or going to a networking event," says Corbett.

However, because social media is such an increasing part of society, there is some danger in falling behind for those who are not on the bandwagon.

"As a way to reach out and build relationships with their clients, as a way of building a reputation and a brand for themselves and their agency, the Internet and the various social media tools are extremely powerful," says Katz. "If they're not using at least some of these tools they're out there campaigning with one hand tied behind their back."

Still, Katz warns against using the technology for the sake of using it. "I've seen people whose business has declined because they devote so much time to gimmicks," he says, recalling a broker who spent so much time on creating business reports in Microsoft Excel when it first came out that "he spent more time analyzing his business than generating business. The same danger exists today with social media."

People who are not using social media are shutting themselves off to a whole segment of the world, says Katz: "If you're selling to people who aren't engaged in social media maybe there's no harm in that. If you are, you want to be where your prospects are and where your clients are. If they're online that's where you need to be as well."

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