Realism About Social Media and Insurance Agent Productivity

Recently I was avidly following the LIMRA-LOMA Social Media Conference (##LLSMC) on my Twitter stream and was delighted to see a tweet from my friend Terry Golesworthy of Customer Respect Group (#TerryCRG). Terry reported that Financial Advisers using social media at @Thrivent were 22% more productive than a control group of non-users. Terry seemed to imply that this was just the sort of evidence, to be directed to recalcitrant insurance execs, that social is worth it, that indeed social really does have a quantifiable ROI.

The fact that the 22% stat came directly from Hearsay Social, a company I esteem highly, gave me a nice little lift, too. But if the uplift was sweet, it was also very short. I couldn’t help but reflect back to the early 1990s, when a colleague and I created and produced the intouch client newsletter for New York Life agents. The idea was simple: Supply to agents a soft-sell newsletter that they could use to stay in touch with their clients and prospects. The call-to-action was to “talk to a professional experienced agent.” We also provided a nice little tear-off section that when mailed went directly to the agent who had graciously sent you this newsletter.

Intouch was an immediate success: Within two years we had almost one-third of New York Life agents subscribing to the newsletter program. No other company-sponsored program had ever shown more than a 10% uptake. We were so proud that we quickly set off to prove to the non-participating two-thirds that they should be subscribing, too. To validate the bottom-line impact of the program, we looked at the first year commission (FYC) results for newsletter subscribers versus a control group of established (i.e., at least 4-year) non-subscriber agents. And, guess what? Subscribers to the newsletter produced 33% more FYC than established non-subscriber agents!

I remain proud of what we accomplished with the newsletter. The articles were indeed “soft-sell,” seldom even mentioning, let alone pushing specific insurance products, and always expressing concern on the part of agents for their customers and prospects. However, the 33% figure was essentially bogus.

Once we took a look at our list of subscribers and compared them to the control list of non-subscribers the truth became obvious. Yes, we had made a pretty strict comparison: our control group wasn’t a generic list of present day company agents — 80% of whom, BTW, fall or fail out of the business every four years — but rather a group of established agents. They were professionals who had stayed the course; they had proven to be “successful” and were likely to continue being so. There were even a handful of stars, guys and gals with well-established positions in their communities who simply didn’t see any particular value for them in a newsletter program. But, ceteris paribus, they weren’t the real stars. The real stars, were the existing stars, the guys and gals who were already the most successful agents in the company or reaching their way there.

Not surprisingly it was those stars who instinctively grasped that regular, discreet, non-pushy communication with their clients and prospects was simply an intelligent new course of action. Of course, they produced 33% more FYC than the control group; they always had and they always will, newsletter program or no newsletter program. Or, to adapt the observation to the @Thrivent results, of course they were 22% more productive, social media participation or no social media participation.

Now, while the observation should counsel caution on evaluating the true ROI of social media, it does not mean that either the newsletter of yesterday or the social media of today is without value. On the contrary, I think both tools kept these productive agents on the upswing. Nor do I believe that the Thrivent agents who participated in the Hearsay pilot in social were not smart to do so — or that those in the control group were, shall we say, less smart. Actually, it turns out that the pilot agents were to a great degree already participating in social, and in fact had been were required to have a minimum number of Facebook friends, be on LinkedIn, and have a Twitter feed. These guys and gals were natural social networkers; how could they not want to take advantage of online social networking?

And my second bet is that they were already among the more successful Thrivent agents. It is difficult to quantify how much either newsletters or social media might increase agent productivity, but smart, savvy use of communication media is natural for agents smart enough to understand how they might be used effectively to improve client engagement.

As Terry says, “so many senior execs dismiss social as something their kids do.” Lamentably, this is true. But you aren’t going to convince them with bogus stats that they quickly understand are really just self-fulfilling prophecies: Give our agents permission to do X and the best of them will take advantage of it and (continue to) produce better than those who disdain it and will continue to produce at a lower level.

BTW, there are good, in fact, unimpeachable arguments to convince senior execs and agents to participate in social, and to achieve Digital (not social) ROI. But one of them is not a 22% increase in productivity.

More on the good arguments for using social media coming soon in this forum.

Originally posted October 9th, 2013 on Insurance Innovation Reporter.

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