One Big Trend for 2009

One of the most important jobs of an agency owner or manager is to look into the future and try to understand the trends that will influence the organization. As I tried to think about the major trends I expect to see over the next year, I realized that there is really only one: changes in how you communicate with your prospects and clients.

There are different labels being applied to these communication changes: Web 2.0, social media, blogs, and wikis, to name a few. The model most agencies currently use is based on a client purchasing relationship. With social media, you no longer just want prospects and clients who purchase products. You want to create long-term friends and fans. This change—from creating clients to creating fans—is hard to appreciate and understand.

But understand you must. This trend will affect every area of your agency’s operations. Here are just a few thoughts on areas that it might change.

Marketing: Marketing becomes less of a sales process and pitch and more of an open dialogue and conversation between you (the agent) and your potential prospect. Friends and fans of the agency will do more “marketing” for the agency among their peers than any marketing program could create.

For example, one agent sells boat insurance in 40 states. He has recently begun participating in a discussion forum for bass fisherman called BassBoat Central. He’s answering other users’ insurance questions, posting interesting information about insurance topics, and is becoming viewed as the boat insurance expert. He does not give a direct pitch to write their insurance. Yet his participation is creating “friends and fans” who will lead to increased business.

Client service: The trend of client self-service is well established and many agencies are already embracing this trend. An agency using social media tools will open up a conversation not just between agency and client but also between clients. An open forum where clients can post messages about how well you provide customer service would be one implementation of this concept. How scary is that!

New employees: Using these tools is second nature to the younger employees you will hire. They come out of college with these skills already in place. Yet, when they are hired by an agency, their access to these tools is blocked. In order to keep these new employees, the agency must undergo a mindset change as well as learn new management skills.

I am personally taking steps to learn and understand how this social media trend affects all of us. My first step is a new website for TAAR. The site has been completely redesigned and in the next few months, I will be introducing additional social networking tools that subscribers can use to easily communicate with me and other subscribers.

I’ve also established a presence for TAAR, as well as a personal presence, on many of the social networking platforms currently available. You can follow me on Facebook, Twitter, FriendFeed, Flickr, LinkedIn, and my blog. I’m not sure yet which of these will ultimately be the best platform to use. But I am committed to experiment and learn.

A small, but rapidly increasing number of insurance professionals are also experimenting with social media. I think you should be among them. I am committed to helping you by sharing with you what I’m learning as I go through this process. Take a deep breath and dive in.

Tools for Finding People on the Web

FindMeOn is a profile management service that connects online identities across social networks, blogs, and photo sharing sites. This is a meta-social network that you can use to update all your sites simultaneously. You can hide select profiles from coworkers or family and use identity controls to share only the content you want.

PeekYou is a site that enables users to search for people by first and last name, username, tags, or location. The aggregated profile pages contain bios and links to blogs and social networks. They also have modules for RSS feeds, so you can see what people are saying on their blogs and on Twitter.

Pipl, a people search engine, crawls deeper than most to include social networks, blogs, and publicly available information such as addresses, birthdays, SEC filings, court records, patents, and more.

Spock aggregates a person’s profile by crawling blogs, photo sharing sites, and social networking profiles. Users can vote on tags used to describe you.

Wink searches for people by name, location, school, work, and interest by crawling social network sites. The site plans to also start crawling blogs, photos, and general Web pages. You can create and share your own Wink profile.

Backgroundchecks  the Internet’s premier resource and database for everything related to Public Records, both online and off. Everyday, our Researchers add new resources to help you find the information you’re looking for.

Zoominfo is a business information search engine. It delivers comprehensive, easy to read profiles of 37 million people and 3.5 million companies. Search for prospects using targeted criteria including title, company name, location, industry, and company size. ZoomInfo delivers the business information you can’t find anywhere else, such as the person’s work history, educational background, and board memberships.

Social Network for Insurance

Sexy Insurance is a social networking site similar to MySpace or Facebook, but built especially for the insurance industry. Users log in, create profiles, network, share photos and videos, create and join user groups, find jobs, and more!

The site has already had over 2,500 visits from 24 countries since launching in early January of this year. I am not sure about the origins of the name, but as far as I can tell, there is nothing inappropriate on this site. If you have not signed up for and experimented with using a social networking site, this might be a good place to start. Who knows, you might connect with a long-lost colleague.

Web 2.0

As a buzzword, nothing comes close to Web 2.0. Nobody really seems to know exactly what it means, but we hear and read about it everywhere. Is Web 2.0 something you should pay attention to? What will the Web 2.0 experience mean for your agency?

At the consumer level, Web 2.0 refers to blogs, Wikis, social networks, mashups, and similar Web applications that allow people to publish information and content on the Web and to connect and collaborate with others.

Several insurance companies are beginning to experiment with Web 2.0 technologies by updating Web sites to be friendlier for policyholders who want to “connect” with the company.

Nationwide Insurance recently launched the “Have the Talk” campaign, a viral marketing effort centered on the difficult conversation friends and family must have regarding personal finances and insurance issues.

HaveTheTalkAmerica.com is a site hosted by the company that offers advice and educational opportunities for consumers looking to discuss serious issues with their loved ones, such as teen driving and life insurance options.

Progressive’s new Web site features easier navigation, more personalization and customization, additional and easier-to-use video content, and more visuals throughout. New information on the site’s AutoTech channel includes exclusive content from Ziff Davis Enterprise, which covers vehicle technology such as portable GPS, in-car DVDs, hybrids, and more. Lonely Planet Publications provides weekly Driving Destinations articles that describe great places in the United States to visit, explore, and experience. In addition, Progressive experts provide weekly content to help readers better understand how car insurance works.

This new type of collaboration and information sharing will have an effect on organizations. The CEO of a large publishing firm in Nashville recently agreed to replace his existing corporate intranet with a wiki open source program that will allow each employee to add and edit information contained on the corporate site. If you have never used a wiki, go to www.wikipedia.org, one of the most popular wikis on the Web.

Another place where Web 2.0 technologies and organizations intersect is when companies tap into the “wisdom of crowds.” A well publicized example is Procter & Gamble, which is using collaborative Web sites such as InnoCentive to solicit new product ideas from consumers, rather than relying completely on internal production development teams.

Web 2.0 technologies are not just for kids. Organizations that start looking for ways to leverage Web 2.0 technologies will help advance business and stay ahead of the game. Start small. Use low-cost, lightweight applications. Give employees the opportunity to pick up the ball and run with it.