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Agent to Agent: Social — The Must-Have Element of an Agency Growth Strategy

Chris Paradiso Photo 041113--cropped--168x200.jpgBy Chris Paradiso

Back in 2008, when I started to delve into the then-new social media arena, Paradiso Insurance was an entirely different agency. I had 600 customers and one staff member, and we had been thriving for just about two years. Facebook was just beginning to gain broad appeal, and I really knew nothing about the platform. As a new independent agent, I was focused heavily on growth, because, quite frankly, that’s what I had to do. As a father of twin toddlers, the thought of paying for college, weddings and more motivated me to take advantage of the new free marketing channels that were emerging.

You may have seen my social media posts, read articles about my agency or heard about me from carriers or others in the industry. I want to take this opportunity to explain my story: The truth is, our five-plus-year journey to become a social agency has not always been easy. We’ve had several failures, which I view as teachable moments, and even some regrets.

As I write this article today, I operate four blogs and have 3,165 personal Facebook friends, 757 agency Facebook fans, 1700 Twitter followers and 500+ LinkedIn connections. I post on 21 Pinterest boards, with 2500 pins and Instagram photos. Our agency’s accomplishments were five years in the making and were achieved with the help of an outside digital marketing consultant, a team of interns and a now-full-time marketing staff. Getting here was not easy. Maintaining momentum is not easy. Of course, nothing worth much is ever really very easy.

My digital marketing journey began in 2008, when I needed a website. My agency was growing and we didn’t have any web presence. Yes, it took me until 2008 to develop a website. After launching our first site, I personally started to become engaged in Facebook. At the time, Facebook was an up-and-coming way to communicate. I found friends, colleagues and lost acquaintances; even better, Facebook found people for me with whom I hadn’t connected in years. I did what everyone does on Facebook: posted pictures of my family, shared great quotes, provided updates and chimed in on topics I felt passionate about. If you look at my Facebook page today, you will find I love my family, America, insurance and our country’s veterans.

Before long, I learned that the more I posted about my favorite topics, the more referrals would trickle in. I started attracting customers across the entire state with interests similar to mine. This confirmed one of the first principles of great marketing: People want to buy from people they like. Facebook allowed me to show who I am and find people with similar philosophies.

I want to take a moment to address a common misperception many have about Facebook and other social networks. I hear weekly from agents that believe social media is a waste of time. My response: What could we possibly spend our time and resources on that yields a higher return than social media? Successful social media is not about what you like; it’s about what your customers like and where they spend their time. As agents, we too often forget the brilliance of our industry. Virtually everyone has to buy our product, whether they like it or not. Unlike many industries, insurance agents don’t need to spend time finding little pockets of prospects. Our prospects’ only decision is whether they purchase from you. To be successful in social media, you have to know why someone would buy from YOUR agency.

After I started routinely generating leads from my personal Facebook presence, we launched an agency fan page. Today my personal page still has more friends than my agency page has fans. In all honesty, I view this as a weakness in our current social media strategy. We need to boost “likes” on our agency page. It is our mission this year to earn fans with the help of our new Social Media Engineer.

As I gained traction on Facebook in the first couple of years, several other channels began to erupt, including LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram and more. The thought of capitalizing on all these channels became overwhelming. I couldn’t imagine meeting my goal of doubling my book while, at the same time, executing a social strategy with a high level of effectiveness. It was at that time—in 2010, I believe—that I decided to invest in a paid, part-time intern to help the agency continue to maximize these channels.

As we became more invested in our social media strategy, I started encouraging my team of two CSRs to get active on social media—sharing content and generating referrals. We allowed them to have Facebook open all day on their computers.

One day, I was on-site with one of our agency’s vendors, whose account manager had become friendly with my team and were connected on Facebook. During that visit, the vendor shared with me something that was not only hurtful to me as the agency leader, but infuriating to my customers: one of my CSRs was playing Farmville the entire day, while I was out of the office. This was all clearly displayed on Facebook.

I knew I had a decision to make. As I drove home, I pondered my dilemma. Do I abandon my social media strategy because I can’t trust my team? Or do I realize that, in my agency, if you can’t focus on using these tools for our customers’ and prospects’ benefit, you simply are not the quality of employee my customers deserve? I became convinced of the latter, and fired her the next day.

Today, at our agency, we talk about the appropriate use of social media as a way to enhance client relationships. If an employee cannot handle this responsibility, he or she is not a good fit for Paradiso Insurance. Here is the biggest take away I had from this experience: I didn’t need to change my agency and my beliefs to accommodate an employee.

If you are fearful of abuse of these new channels, you need to think critically on what’s more important—your vision or their lack of discipline. Secondly, you need to answer the question, “Why would you want to pay someone like that every week to manage your customers?”

Many agencies struggle attracting young people into the business. Interns proved to be a great source of talent. So far in 2014, I have had 4 college interns. One of them, Dan, became the youngest licensed agent in Connecticut. Jenilee is now an agent with New York Life. Kevin is in a Masters Program for Political Science. And Mallory is a sophomore in college.

Don’t be afraid of hiring young talent. And pay your interns! These students brought energy, vitality and a new perspective to the agency. Of course, you’ll need to work with interns to teach them about insurance, but this became an agency mission. Everyone in the agency helps new interns understand the value of the independent agent.

In my travels I find that too many agents let fear of training and managing young people stop them from investing in interns. You need to have a plan and you need to spend time with them. But their skills will pay you back for your investment, many times over.

At any point in time, Paradiso Insurance has three people whose main role is social marketing—one full-time position, one part-time blogger to support four blogs, and one part-time video-editing person. One important blessing I’ve had in this journey was learning all of the social media channels personally and being able to do them myself. If you as an agency owner don’t understand these channels, you will always struggle to see the value and how they can take your marketing to the next level.

In 2011, with a then-growing team of three social media team members, six office employees and several outside producers, I realized how important it was for us to clearly define our agency brand—our corporate identity. An agency brand aligns culture and values, and provides a framework for everyone’s daily decisions. As we got more involved in identifying who we were, why we existed and why someone would buy from us, our content and social posts became more personal—more “human”—and less corporate.

The shift generated greater interest in our agency. What we learned is that, because social media is a communication channel, if you don’t know who you are, your communication will always be vanilla, generic and no different than your competition. We simply were not willing to be average. Today, if you come to our agency, you’ll notice our corporate identity and a list of why someone would do business with us posted at every desk.

As my social media journey took off, my passion and enthusiasm for my new found secret led me to want to share information with other agents. The way I saw it, the more agents I could get excited about what I had learned, the better our independent agency channel would fare.

This represented an entirely different process for me.

I had metrics and proof that a social strategy worked. However, I had to fight naysayers—and I still do. I find agents fall into one of three buckets: those who love the concept and take right to it; those who love it and toe-dip, then find some resistance and back away; and those who feel that certain channels don’t work or who simply don’t believe. The last two buckets concern me the most.

You need to know you will face resistance; I do every day. Currently, our producers are not routinely connecting with prospects on social media. I stress over and over the importance of getting engaged, but I know it’s an area we need to focus on. This year we are implementing a system of checks and balances that will make sure every prospect knows to connect with us.

There will be challenges. There will be concepts you have to test, refine and sometimes re-launch. Keep learning and stay with it; it will pay off.

I encourage all of the agents out there who don’t believe in one channel or online marketing at all to ask themselves one critical question: “Do you really understand these channels or are you making an assumption based on other agents’ experiences or what you have heard through the grapevine?” If you have tried the channels, did you toe-dip or test and refine? As agents, we need to embrace change and new ways of doing business or our options will diminish quickly.

At the height of our social media strategies, a new problem erupted for me and the agency. We were generating more leads than ever and our agency was growing! Of course, these are great problems to have, but I realized we were not just a three-person agency anymore, with me as the producer. My agency lacked a real strategy for sales and service processes that would let us capitalize on every opportunity.

Imagine this challenge: we are growing each month, closing more premium than we did the previous month, and maintaining a 92% retention rate. Still, I knew we weren’t as efficient in maximizing every opportunity and if I did not tie up loose ends, these numbers could quickly decline.

Our 2014 goals revolve around process—everything from renewals to client on-boarding, new business call sequences and understanding when our team reaches critical “new business overload” so we can load balance. I am working with an insurance agency consultant who is helping identify our areas of opportunity, mapping out the process and rolling it out with our team. This has allowed us to capitalize and convert more leads and most importantly celebrate daily our success.

I used to get frustrated when quotes were backed up. I felt like our team was failing. I now see our numbers each day and realize we need to realign expectations. And we need to make time to celebrate quoting 23 pieces of business in 48 hours, which we recently did. Our full time social media engineer left us in January, and we are actively looking for a good fit for the agency. We are working to get a marketing communication roadmap together so that we can execute in conjunction with our new processes.

I personally have been running our social media strategy by posting, blogging, tagging and commenting several times a day. That is the benefit of really understanding all these channels; it gives me the luxury of time that will allow us to find the right person for the social media position and wait for him or her to graduate!

I want to conclude my story by repeating that social marketing is not easy. Still, it’s critical to the modern agency’s strategy. In 2014, we can no longer buy marketing; we have to do marketing to be successful.

No matter which of the three buckets best describes you, I hope this article helped you realize that I have had struggles, success and challenges. And I still do today!

Start by understanding the platforms personally, and then find a great candidate to work with you to handle your social strategy. Be sure to identify your brand and share it throughout your agency. And finally, review your processes to maximize every opportunity. The competition is heavier than ever in insurance. Use your social strategy to stand out.

Christopher Paradiso is one of the most passionate, dynamic agency owners in the insurance industry today. His willingness to embrace change and adopt technology has taken his agency to the next level. Chris has been acknowledged by several insurance publications, such as Rough Notes Magazine (Cover Agent), The Insurance Journal, and PIA as a leader in the industry for his use of digital marketing and social media to help brand his agency and promote other small businesses within his community. Chris has also been recognized for his charity work with The Connecticut Children’s Medical Center.

In 2011, Chris was excited to introduce “Paradiso Presents LLC”, a social media program aimed at teaching small agencies how to not only survive, but compete in today’s complex online marketing world. Chris resides in Stafford Springs, CT, with his wife and two children, Mia and Gianni.