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Utilizing Facebook to Drive Agent Referrals

December 13 2010

online media winsFacebook is a hot topic in business these days, but most businesses are still trying to “figure it out.”  The problem is particularly acute in financial services.  Among big companies, Facebook participation is hit or miss.  AllstateAllstate (~22,000 fans) and CitibankCitibank (~7,000 fans), for example, have fewer fans than they have insurance agents and loan officers.  Among small and mid-sized companies, participation is even worse.

Meanwhile, individual Facebook users aren’t having any problems.  Facebook is reportedly on track to become the first with a billion users in 2011, and seemingly all of Austin, Texas is following the 365 Things To Do In Austin, Texas365 Things To Do In Austin, Texas page. What’s going on here?  Rick Grant offers a handful of explanations in this recent HousingWire articlethis recent HousingWire article, and I agree with his overall assessment.  While it’s easy for banks to cite “lack of clarity regarding financial services regulations” as a reason to stay on the Facebook sidelines, the explanation rings hollow given their reputation for exploiting every regulatory loophole they can find.

The bigger problem seems to be, in Rick’s words, that financial companies “don’t know all that much about forging real relationships with their customers”.

If there is such a thing as conventional wisdom in social media, it seems to be that conversations are the key to social media.  As Rick puts it, companies need to be “proactive in starting and then participating in conversations about issues that are important to consumers”.  This advice is echoed by social media consultants of all stripes, and Facebook has supported this paradigm with a variety of analytical tools that help companies measure and track conversations.  While I certainly recognize that conversations can be valuable, there are big problems with the conversation paradigm that are rarely addressed:

  1. For most people, content creation is hard, time-consuming work.  Social media gurus are like infomercial body-builders — they make it look easy, but their regimens aren’t easy for the rest of us to adopt.
  2. People tend not to trust financial institutions and therefore don’t value “conversations” with these companies.  Rather, people value conversations with other people.  Allstate and Citibank seem to recognize this on some level — they have each replaced the Facebook Page Wall (the home of conversations) with a custom landing tab.

With these problems in mind, my view is that — for many financial services companies, at least — conversations are neither the most important nor the highest-ROI use of social media.  Rather, the low-hanging fruit for financial companies is the opportunity to permanently position themselves as a trusted resource and their sales teams as trusted professionals.  This means accumulating Facebook Recommendations and Reviews for each sales professional.  For example, with agent profiles are less dynamic than Facebook Pages, but that’s by design.  They are a permanent, public reflection of each employee’s track record, designed to answer the core question on every customer’s mind: Can I trust this person?

One of the better approaches may make some branding and compliance experts uncomfortable, as it requires empowering individual employees to solicit recommendations from friends and past clients, but guess what?  Sales and customer service teams are the core of financial companies’ relationships with customers, and Facebook is making a deliberate push to get more users to share professional information.  We estimate that a full 50% of Facebook users will have professional information online within months.  For commissioned sales teams, the rate could be much higher.  The brand-risk ship has sailed, and the most that corporate offices can hope to do is steer it.

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