They began in the late 1990s as personal Web sites for hobbyist-authors to climb on their soapboxes, voice their opinions and reveal their daily activities to the whole wide world. Today, there are more than 17 million "blogs"-short for weblogs-and they're making their way into the business world, including the world of insurance."Weblogs have such a strong appeal to Web users," says Julie Ferguson, a communications consultant for Lynch, Ryan & Associates, a Westborough, Mass.-based workers' compensation consulting firm. "They're an important source of information, and if companies do them right, they speak with a more authentic voice than other forms of communication."

Lynch Ryan takes credit for launching the first insurance weblog in 2003. Called Workers Comp Insider (www.workerscompinsider.com), it provides commentary on news related to workers' compensation, risk management, business insurance, workplace health and safety, occupational medicine, and injured workers. It also contains links to insurance news sources and insurance Web tools.

"As a weblog, we were pioneers both in our topical areas, and in business weblogs in general," says Tom Lynch, president and CEO.

"Workers' comp is a business issue that touches every employer in the country, as well as injured workers, yet it is often misunderstood," he says. "We thought that a weblog might be the ideal platform to educate clients using real examples from the daily news."

Specialty consulting tool

Since 2003, several more insurance blogs have been launched, many of them by specialty consulting firms like Lynch Ryan.

For example, Joe Paduda, principal of Health Strategies Associates, a managed care consulting firm based in Madison, Conn., launched his blog located at www.joepaduda.com a year ago-also to educate his clients and prospects.

"I wanted to do more for marketing my business, and I didn't want to follow the traditional mass direct mail or mass e-mail process," he says. "There's an awful lot going on out there in managed care that nobody is talking about in the blog space. So I said, 'There's an opportunity here.'"

Paduda was already writing a newsletter for his clients and a number of them had asked him if they could distribute it internally within their firms. "I said, 'It's just easier to put this out on the Web-and anybody can access it,'" he says.

Has he gotten new clients as a result? "Absolutely," he says. "I have quite a bit of business coming in the prescription drug area. And now I have a retainer client-a small pharmacy benefit manager-that found me by doing a Web search and finding my blog and reading a lot of my opinions about what is going on."

Paduda's audience has grown steadily, he says, with 4,000 unique visitors on his site at press time. Workers Comp Insider has also grown-exponentially-since it launched two years ago, says Lynch. Currently, Lynch Ryan's blog has 10,000 unique visitors per month.

That's enough readership to sell advertising space. And, in fact, Google has called Workers Comp Insider many times to put ads on the blog, says Lynch.

"We keep saying 'no.' This blog was made pure and we want to maintain its credibility. But I'd be lying if I said there was no business reason for doing this."

What most insurance bloggers will tell you is they're spending roughly six hours a week sifting through many news sources to filter information for a very specialized professional audience that doesn't' have the time-or the inclination-to do that on their own. What's more, bloggers typically write in a breezy style that promotes their personal point of view on the subject.

"Judging from the rapid popularity [our site] has enjoyed since the August 2004 launch, the main advantage is that actuaries and other industry professionals just find it really useful," says Claude Penland, partner, Web sites and Internet strategy at D.W. Simpson & Co., Inc., a Chicago-based actuarial search firm that publishes a blog at www.actuary.net.

"If Dr. Grace at http://riskprof.typepad.com, Eliot Spitzer at www.spitzer2006.com or the actuaries at www.actuarialoutpost.com have something particularly interesting to say to actuaries, visitors to my blog will know it," he says.

Because they see the potential to reach customers and prospects through a ubiquitous medium, even insurance technology vendors are jumping on the blog bandwagon.

For example, Firstlogic Inc., a LaCrosse, Wis.-based data quality firm launched a data quality blog in July that features Frank Dravis, Firstlogic's vice president of information quality (http://weblogs.firstlogic.com/dravis).

"We focus very much on trying to convey some information we've learned, especially anecdotes from customers about data quality issues," says Chris Colbert, market development director for Firstlogic.

With an average of 6,300 visitors per month after four months of operation, Firstlogic's blog will likely evolve into a lessons-learned sharing space-much like an electronic bulletin board-for companies grappling with data quality issues, according to Colbert. "We're starting to see people asking for help-and we'll see the sharing that can happen on these sites."

Overall, blogging represents a shift in power, which gives some individuals and small groups the potential to be as influential as established media outlets, says Matt Josefowicz, insurance practice leader, at Celent, LLC, a financial services research and advisory firm based in Boston. "Most of the current insurance blogs are quite similar to the types of newsletters that industry consultants have been publishing for a long time," he says. "But the industry should keep an eye on the use of blogs by advocacy groups and disgruntled customers. In an industry with a less than stellar reputation with the general public, the proliferation of blogs could represent a significant potential [public-relations] challenge," he says.

In fact, an item posted in October on www.disabledworkerlaw.com, a blog for injured workers from New York law firm Turley, Redmond & Rosasco, warned readers not to talk with the insurance company and not to sign authorizations.

It reads: "Within a few days of your work-related accident, the insurance company claim adjusters will pounce on you. These people are NOT your friends. They are employed by the workers' compensation insurance company to save money on your claim."

Blogs may play a role in public-relations challenges for insurance companies, but that's not any different than traditional media does now, says Bob Sargent, president of Tennant Risk Services Inc., a Hartford, Conn.-based wholesale underwriting manager and broker of specialty risk insurance.

"Those efforts aren't going to get much traction unless they are right. And if they are right, blogs could be effective in spreading the word," he says.

Sargent views his company's blog (http://specialtyinsurance.typepad.com/) as an effective way to reach his customers-retail insurance agents who sell professional liability coverage. "We spend a lot of time educating our clients when they're working for a particular insured that needs professional liability coverage. The blog is a way to communicate our expertise to our clients."

Whether insurance blogs become a significant phenomenon in the industry remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: Insurance carriers are unlikely to launch their own blogs-even as a way to reach customers or agents-primarily because the immediacy, informality, and "personality" of a blog doesn't fit their risk-averse culture, sources say.

"Although I understand and appreciate their position, insurers don't want anything to go out to the public without their imprimatur," says Tom Lynch, describing what happened when he wrote an op-ed article about Massachusetts insurance rates for The Boston Globe several years ago when he worked for a large insurance company.

The editorial was very well received, he says, except by the company. "You would think I had committed a hanging offense," he says. "They tap-danced on my head because I had dared to put something in The Boston Globe without clearing it through the legal department first."

WHERE TO FIND SOME INSURANCE-RELATED BLOGS

URL/Author

www.workerscompinsider.com/ Lynch, Ryan & Associates

www.joepaduda.com/ Health Strategy Associates

www.actuary.net/ D.W. Simpson & Co.

http://specialtyinsurance.typepad.com/ Tennant Risk Services

http://riskprof.typepad.com/tort/  Martin Grace, Professor of Risk Management and Insurance, Georgia State University

http://spewingforth.blogspot.com/ Labor advocate Jordan Barab

www.pawc.blogspot.com/ Robert Vonada, a judge in the Pennsylvania Bureau of Workers Compensation

http://employerslawyer.blogspot.com/ Texas-based labor and employment attorney Michael Fox

http://matthewholt.typepad.com/the_health_care_blog/ Consultant Matthew Holt

http://employmentblawg.blogspot.com/ Missouri attorney George Lenard

www.disabledworkerlaw.com/ Turley, Redmond, & Rosasco

Source: Lynch, Ryan & Associates

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