In this Brand Innovator Spotlight, Ken Hittel, VP Corporate Internet at New York Life explains how the insurance company is growing a positive brand presence online by allowing consumers to speak freely.
Posted by Brandon Gutman
Brandon Gutman: Please explain how allowing negative comments in social media has positively built your brand.
Ken Hittel: You do have to trust your base, your community. A few weeks ago we announced our new Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community site on Facebook and within minutes received three outraged comments. But over the next couple of hours another 15 or so comments poured in, praising New York Life for supporting the LGBT community, for producing a dedicated (and “really useful”) site, and for having the courage of our convictions. We didn’t have to say a word to justify our involvement with LGBT; we relied on our community to do that, and it did.
In fact, our policy is to not remove negative comments from our Facebook page. It’s risky but a risk we’re happy to take, because it pays off: negative comments have been few and far between but in each instance the complainer has been drowned out by the active, loyal community. I wouldn’t go so far as to say we wish for more negativity, but I would say we see opportunity in it: It’s an opportunity for your community to build your brand for you.
Some corporations are still just establishing their own forums on social networks. What is your advice?
Well, you certainly don’t want to be out there if you’re not ready. But you better get ready! At the very least, you need to be on Facebook and Twitter. Because it’s no longer the case—if it ever really was—that you can control your brand with advertising and PR. We’ve known for years now, courtesy of the Internet, that “information asymmetry”— sellers understanding so much more than their buyers—is effectively gone. I’d posit that “marketing asymmetry” is over as well, courtesy of social media. And you can’t “control” social media; rather, you manage it by being present and available and participating opportunistically. And, of course, participating authentically.
In what other ways has social media started to turn executive minds around?
Going back a couple years, I think most execs saw social media less as a business tool than a leisure time activity. Once our corporate social media efforts began generating meaningful data; however, the business aspects became a lot more real. For example, with our Facebook fan base approaching 100K, we’re now averaging over 125 million positive brand impressions per month—a rate of 1.5 billion per year—when our posts, advertising, and resultant fan engagements are considered. These results have not only made the business utility of social media very real, but they’ve also spurred investment to ensure that our agents are able to participate in social media and, ultimately, convert fans and followers into clients. Over the last year, we’ve introduced online compliance training for agents, deployed Socialware for monitoring and archiving as per FINRA requirements, and are currently conducting best practices training for our agents in their Facebook, Twitter, and Linkedin participation.
You’ve been with New York Life for 20 years – the last 15 involving all things Internet. What’s the secret to innovating within a conservative organization?
Yes, New York Life certainly does have a conservative culture, but that’s never meant hostility to innovation or to prudent risk-taking: our business, after all, really boils down to managing risk. You can’t manage risk if you avoid it; you have to embrace it. And, actually, for much of our 166 years, we’ve been one of the great innovators in our industry. So in 1995 we took the “risk” of creating a corporate Web site, and I took the career risk of developing and managing something that most people in those days, not just at New York Life, thought was the latest CB radio craze. (Now I’m really dating myself…)
I would say we went at it prudently: We built as strong a business case as we could around the question: What can New York Life intelligently do on the Internet? Granted, much of that business case was speculative. But it’s always like that in the earliest days of anything, whether that’s sales lead generation, or PPC, or mobility, or, lately, social media. And, sure, we had to do a fair amount of evangelizing to get a go-ahead on social media. But now social media is evangelizing for us!
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