Social media has changed the way we look at networking. This has implications not only for how companies communicate internally with employees or externally with consumers, but also for how they communicate with each other.
I work for a property and casualty insurance company that sells almost exclusively through an independent broker network. Brokers handle the majority of sales – that is, they’re responsible for selling our insurance products to customers. Without our brokers, we couldn’t sell insurance, so it goes without saying that maintaining strong relationships is essential.
As a communicator, I regularly produce materials targeted to this broker sales force. We distribute this material through email and a restricted-access website. Brokers share information, too, when submitting applications, renewing policies and the like – though, this information doesn’t come to me.
The company talks to brokers and brokers talk to the company, but we don’t do a very good job of talking to each other. What’s the difference? We share information, but we don’t engage in dialogue. This is where social media can play a role.
A recent Novarica report indicates that “a significant number of insurers with independent distribution are using social media for one-to-one contact with their agents.” If this is true, it’s certainly not common place – at least not yet. The internet abounds with examples of insurance companies using social media to connect with customers (check out State Farm’s magic campaign, for example, and response to social media feedback), but there is little information about how the insurance industry is using social media to open dialogue with brokers.
This could have a lot to do with how social media is generally perceived. Critics offer two pieces of advice that can help reframe social media for business-to-business (B2B) communication:
1. Don’t call it social media.
Joel York argues that that the word media “clouds our thinking with advertising concepts.” He explains that “at the heart of social media are the social networks, communication channels that are fundamentally different from traditional media, like television, radio, magazines, billboards and even most websites.” The dialogue made possible through social media is obscured by this conventional understanding of media as monologue.
Adrian Gonzalez also casts doubt on the word social. He quotes a workshop participant who explained “we don’t want to go to work to socialize,” but rather “we go to work to get our jobs done.” According to Gonzalez, executives often “view ‘social media’ as a medium to socialize… instead of a new type of communication and collaboration tool.”
So, what’s the alternative? York suggests instead that businesses focus on networking. “B2B social networking is not the descendent of new media, like a banner ad, only social,” he argues. “It’s the networking, not the media, that counts.”
2. Focus on people, not technology.
If we shift our focus from social media to networking, this argument is more about people than technology. Networking isn’t new – only the tools are. Long before Facebook and LinkedIn, people connected to form social and professional networks.
Networking isn’t dependent on technology. Rick Morgan argues that “many of the social activities on the social networks are no different than the real life activities we have engaged in most of our lives. If you have ever asked or given advice, given or received a recommendation, shared an experience, collaborated on a project, or interacted with a group, you have participated in social networking.”
If we look at B2B social media as an opportunity for networking and dialogue between companies, it becomes a useful tool for facilitating relationships like that between brokers and insurers. Bo Woloshyn makes the point that insurance brokers are already natural social networkers. “They were educating clients, investing in long-term relationships and growing their businesses through word-of-mouth referrals long before social media platforms existed,” Woloshyn argues.
If brokers are already adept networkers, why not use social media to network with them? Social networking isn’t just a marketing tool – it can facilitate other aspects of business as well.
Lessons for others
- For many, the term “social media” brings advertising and marketing campaigns to mind. A business network can have applications beyond the company/consumer relationship.
- Networking for business should focus on people, and social media is a tool for facilitating this network.
- B2B social networking can help strengthen relationships and improve company performance.
Adrian Gonzalez, Why Companies Aren’t Using Social Media for Supply Chain Management
Rick Morgan, Social Networking’s Value to Insurance Agents and Brokers
Novarica Report: Agents Using Social Media to Communicate with Insurer Staff
Bo Woloshyn, Social Media Changing the Insurance Industry
Joel York, B2B Social Networking: What’s in a Name?
Joel York, The Social Business Network
Submitted by: Vanessa Parks, University of Waterloo, SMBP student. To contact the author of this post, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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