The media furor over social media right now is reaching a yawn-inducing high, as headline after headline continues to call out every agonizing, minute new detail in its development. While the coverage is perhaps overkill, many in the insurance world are still slow to recognize that the endless buzz does, in fact, warrant bite.

Indeed, in my research for an upcoming story on social media as one of INN’s Top 5 Trends for 2011, I was shocked to learn from multiple sources that many insurers still deny their employees access to social media sites in the workplace. Sure, the use of social media for recreational purposes differs from how the company might use it as a sales, service or recruiting tool, but the mindset regarding the technology needs to be changed.

“It’s an interesting conundrum that insurers face with social media right now,” says Forrester Research Senior Analyst Ellen Carney, who points to a lack of governance structures in terms of how they’re going to use social media as the reason.  “But let’s face it, employees are accessing it from their iPhones and using Facebook at lunch,” she says.  Carney adds that insurers are planning to set up Starbucks-like cafes in their cafeterias that would offer open access to their employees because they understand its importance.

Ok, so some carriers are caving into workers’ demands and accepting that this shift in how people communicate and interact is at least important for employee morale, but are they also ready to accept that it’s a game-changer for the business?

At the TENCon conference in Chicago in September, ASCnet Chairman Lisa Parry-Becker posed this question to a panel of insurance company CEOs, eliciting dissenting opinions. Only one of the four panelists, Robert Joyce of Westfield Group, believed social media is already a game changer for industry. He asserted that Westfield sees it as a collaboration and recruiting tool, and it’s helpful for interacting with their niche market customers as well as employees. Mike Lex, president, national agencies for Nationwide Insurance, announced that it wasn’t yet a game changer, but that the company plans to increase spending on it by 50% in the coming year. “It aids transparency, and it’s about being where the customers are,” he said. Counter to the others, Richard Dunning, president, CEO and director, Fremont Insurance, didn’t buy into the game changing hype, but agreed social media is important for relationship-building, especially for agents looking to build their Web presence.

Stoking the flames further, Terry Golesworthy, president of The Customer Respect Group, told the audience at IASA’s September Executive Edge conference that social media is, in fact, a game changer in the agent-driven sales model. “Thanks to an explosion in comparison shopping sites for consumers, they’re now looking for a choice,” he told the audience. “[Customers] want cheap, but they also want a good experience.” He offered San Antonio-based USAA as an example of an insurer effectively using the rating, referral and recommendation aspects of social media to help sell policies.

Given all this, it seems a natural inference that if social media is where the customers are, and employees are demanding it (let’s not forget, they’re customers, too), then the game has, perhaps, been changed.

Alex Vorro is a senior editor with Insurance Networking News.

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