Farmers Insurance's social media director is working to corral 1,500 Facebook (Nasdaq: FB) business pages created by local insurance agents and turn them into a cohesive marketing force.
The pages were created before Ryon Harms joined the company six months ago. These agents were representing Farmers online, but in a completely ad hoc, unmonitored, and independent fashion.
Also, most agents didn't quite know what to do with a Facebook page once they created it. More than 1,000 of the 1,500 pages turned out to be inactive -- or had stalled -- after attracting one or two "fans" or "likes."
At the same time, Farmers was putting a bigger emphasis on marketing through its corporate Facebook page and realized that effort would benefit from tapping into local agents' friends and business networks.
Harms had his work cut out for him. "When I started out, I knew I was going to have 15,000 agents to support, and I wasn't going to be able to do it with training sessions for three or four agents and work through the whole company that way. We really needed to figure out a scalable solution so we could support thousands of agents at a time."
Enter Hearsay Social, the first social media platform for businesses with a wide network of local branches or reps. It aims to help businesses to strike the right balance between corporate control and local, personal relationships.
Farmers is one of the first companies to use Hearsay, which was launched last month and is led by co-founder and CEO Clara Shih, a former Salesforce.com product manager and author of the book The Facebook Era.
The platform provides a veritable social media command center for people like Harms. It can be used to create status messages for use on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn; messages are then distributed out for use by agents, store managers, sales representatives, or whomever presents the local face of an organization.
"The power of this corporate/local model is in the local market knowledge, reach, and customer connections -- that’s why you invest having agents in local offices and stores," says Shih.
Harms says Farmers chose not to impose an approval process on content generated by local insurance agents. But Hearsay Social allows the company to monitor the content posted by agents and check for any profanity, lack of compliance, or violation of financial service regulations.
"We give our agents a little more freedom on what they are able to post. They're really independent business owners, at the end of the day, and they know there are certain rules they need to follow," Harms says.
Harms was more concerned about helping the agents use Facebook effectively. He particularly wanted to encourage them to post about community activities and news, not just about insurance products, so that their communication was more personal and targeted.
"I tell them any agent can sell insurance, but only you are who you are. Facebook lets you show who you are," Harms says. As a rule of thumb, he says no more than 40 percent of an agent's posts should be canned content distributed through Hearsay.
So far, Hearsay's Web-based software has been provided to a pilot group of about 300 Farmers agents, and broader deployment is planned for later this year. At this stage, Farmers is using Hearsay for Facebook only, as it figures that's where the largest audience is. Harms predicts the company will look next to LinkedIn as a potential source of business insurance customers.
And there are plenty more social media hunting grounds where that came from.
— David Carr is a writer, editor, and Web consultant based in South Florida.
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