7 in-your-face quotes the insurance industry needs to hear

By Vanessa De La Rosa

At the LIMRA/LOMA Social Media Conference for Financial Services in Boston this month, keynote speaker and best-selling author Gary Vaynerchuk — the only person out of 250 conference attendees who wore jeans and a flannel button-down — presented his story and ideas in a fashion similar to his outfit: casual and without pretense.

He began his speech by noting that “it is 2013, and 99.9 percent of the people in this room right now are marketing like it’s 2004.”

Vaynerchuk has used guerilla-style social media engagement (on top of traditional marketing) to propel himself into entrepreneurial success. His rags-to-riches story, on top of his quirky, in-your-face motivational speech, is pretty inspiring.

When other neighborhood kids in Edison, NJ were making a few dollars selling lemonade, eight-year-old Soviet Union immigrant Vaynerchuk was managing seven lemonade stands and selling baseball cards at the local mall. Eventually, he joined the family business, Shoppers Discount Liquors, and became a self-taught wine connoisseur.

In 1997, while naysayers doubted the implications of the newfound Internet, Vaynerchuk anticipated the dotcom boom. He started winelibrary.com before many other e-commerce sites were learning to walk, and he grew it using mainly email and direct marketing.

“I used the site to grow the store from a $3 million business to a $45 million business, and it was just the beginning.” He later went on to found VaynerMedia, an online marketing agency that teaches Fortune 500 companies how to find their voices in social media branding. His anecdotes, strategies and statistics were entertaining, but what I really found refreshing was his fearless, frank statements about financial professionals using (or more like not using) social media. Here are seven of Vaynerchuk’s key messages, told in his own blunt and candid voice.

1. “The quickest way to go out of business is to be romantic about the way you make your money.”

Many of you in the insurance and financial services industry built your successful businesses with direct marketing, radio ads, face-to-face prospecting and, after the Internet came along, email marketing and banner ads.

Vaynerchuk remembers that, back in 1997, his banner ad clickthrough rate was 41 percent. Now, .01 percent is considered a decent rate.

But while you may not love where marketing has gone in the past few years, you can’t deny the profitability of staying current.

“What you think is socially acceptable or proper or the way that it should be has absolutely nothing to do with the way you should be running your business. Just because you don’t think it’s great that people are on their phone 24 hours a day doesn’t mean that that’s not the way you’re supposed to market your business.”

It’s a harsh reality, but Vaynerchuk does a great job of reminding us: You are border-line irrelevant if you’re not on Facebook and Twitter. Do you ever rush to your mailbox to see which ads you’ve received? Are you just dying to get on the Internet and look at the banner ads? No. So why do you think your prospects are? Why are you marketing in ways you don’t want to be marketed to, yourself?

2. “Social media is a gateway drug.”

Another contender for this list: “I’m not Zen. I’m not hippie. I want money.”

Vaynerchuk is a self-diagnosed hardcore salesman. He loves to meet clients face to face. That’s the way he started; and it’s important to acknowledge how well you as an advisor did when that was the path to take. But you can’t get to the face-to-face stage these days without first understanding where your customers are.

Spoiler alert: They’re on social media, and they’re on their mobile devices — and that’s basically where they are 24 hours a day. Vaynerchuk asked for a show of hands for how many people watch TV on their own time — either online using Netflix and Hulu or with recorded TV like DVR. Almost every single person raised his or her hand.

When he asked for a show of hands for how many people watch TV while using another device (cellphone, laptop, tablet, etc.), the majority, again, raised their hands. There were even a handful of people who kept raising their hands for up to three devices being used while watching TV. Is there really any question about how to reach people and create relationships that will eventually bring them into your office?

One of his anecdotes involved a friend who simply tweeted that he was “thinking of moving” in the New York area. Within minutes, three realtors tweeted back to him. He met face-to-face with all three, and one of those realtors banked the commission on a $4.3 million home sale. That’s the power of knowing where to look.

3. “Compliance officers should educate their damn selves.”

Isn’t this a gem? During the keynote question and answer portion, a compliance officer asked how those who work in compliance can learn more about social media regulation from marketers. And this was his surprisingly frank reply. No one was nodding off, let me tell you that.

Granted, this particular compliance officer did take the initiative to attend this conference. And Vaynerchuk did address just how disadvantaged the industry is in regards to its freedom using social media.

But his point is that compliance needs to be on top of this social media business themselves, rather than wait around for marketers to somehow magically do the work for them. He recommends using features like Google Alerts that let the information come to you. Compliance officers should research conferences about social media regulation and look for lawyers having conversations on Twitter. You can’t rely on the corporate sphere.

At the end of the day, all this fear of compliance is keeping financial services companies from truly growing their businesses through social media venues, and it’s time to stop saying, “Well, that works for all the other companies, but in our industry, we have an abnormal amount of regulation.”

Vaynerchuk says that’s bogus. Airlines have just as much, if not more, regulation than the insurance and financial services industry. And they’re way ahead in the social media game. It’s an excuse to not move forward, and that’s got to change.

4. “Twitter is a cocktail party where you can join the conversation and not be considered creepy.”

It’s important to note that Vaynerchuk believes Twitter is by far the best social media network to use as a financial service professional. If you send a message to someone you’re not friends with on Facebook asking them how you can help them plan their finances, it’s considered weird and unacceptable. But if you spark or jump into a conversation on Twitter, it’s par for the course. It’s the modern-day version of joining the PTA or local club to schmooze and create contacts.

Vaynerchuk notes that the overwhelming majority of his wine detail is done with something known as “Twitter fishing.” He searches certain hashtags to find relevant tweets, and then engages with that person. Think about the aforementioned home sale story. If those realtors hadn’t been fishing for tweets from people thinking about purchasing a home in their area, they would never have seen the prospect standing right in front of them (or just a few keystrokes away).

Do your research and map out hashtags to search — maybe #LTCI, #lifeinsurance, #annuities, #advisor — and listen to (no really, you must be patient when learning) what potential clients are talking about. Then you can chime in like you would at a cocktail party — except you don’t need to bother with the formal wear.

Note: Yes, the scaleability is off the charts, but make sure you’re not just jumping in with an agenda to sell, sell, sell…

5. “Marketers and salespeople ruin everything.”

Vaynerchuk stood on stage in front of an audience of marketers and salespeople and said this, deadpan. (Thankfully, everyone laughed.) But he makes a great point. Companies like Groupon, Living Social and Daily Candy started out emailing people about awesome deals. In the beginning, everyone was psyched to snag $40 worth of sushi for $20. But these companies’ downfall was that they figured more was better, and they flooded people’s inboxes with deals they didn’t want. Same thing with Google AdWords. It all lost its value. AdWords clickthroughs have gone down 15 percent.

Marketers and salespeople push. “They’re treating Twitter and Facebook like it’s email marketing … They are bad at social media because it’s a marathon and not a sprint.” As we often hear, it’s about quality — and definitely not about quantity.

With so much noise in the social media universe, you have to have something meaningful and of value to say in order to be heard. To tell your story, you first need their attention. And the most important aspect of this concept is that the “eyes and ears of people are in a very different place than they were even two years ago.”

6. “I called my wine crap.”

When he was building winelibrary.com, Vaynerchuk started posting video wine reviews. He’d sit in front of a camera, drink a bottle of wine and let his viewers know his thoughts and opinions. Since he is brutally honest (and says lying is the devil), sometimes he had to call one of his own products “crap.”

Small detail: He had bottles and bottles of this particular crappy wine in his storeroom. And guess what? It sold by the case.

“As we go more Jetsons, the people who are going to be successful are the ones who act like the Flintstones.” This is one of Vaynerchuk’s favorite concepts. As the horizon of technology is broader than ever, so is the bright light being shed on our true motives. You can’t try to disguise your “Hey, how’s it going” post for authentic care, when you’re really just cranking out a certain number of tweets to gain followers.

“Purity of how you act is what matters; the shadows are taken away by technology.” What he means is that social media has upped the ante on transparency so far that there really is nowhere to hide. If you can’t deliver honesty to prospects and all you do is push out advertisements for your company, you blend in with the noise and are never heard. You must give something valuable.

7. “I predict that Nike — instead of buying ads on ESPN — will become a major competitor with ESPN.”

I wanted to use this quote, but at first glance it’s hard to see how this connects with insurance and financial services. When Vaynerchuk said it, he was referring to the undeniable fact that “you are thrust into competing as a media company … Everyone in this room in the media business, and you just don’t know it.”

Because the noise is deafening, you really do have to say something of value. No one wants to hear your sales pitch or your company mission statement. They want quality content. And instead of advertising on the sites that bring your prospects the content they’re looking for, why don’t you bring it to them yourself?

Knowledge bomb: Did you now The Guinness Book of World Records was created by Guinness Beer? They did some consumer research and learned that the two things people talk about most in bars is soccer and trivia, so they became the leading voice in that type of content.

And do you know why Michelin Tire Company created the Michelin Travel & Lifestyle guide? Because, 100 years ago, people weren’t driving much — and not driving much means you don’t need to replace your tires with new ones very often. So, Michelin went to the European countryside and started reviewing restaurants to entice people to drive more. And it worked.

Vaynerchuk says you must think of yourself as a media company. Think on a local level, he suggests, by seeing what’s vital to your community. Write about flyfishing, skiing or something that interests you and your town. If you have a popular high school football team, invest your time and energy to create a quality website with articles about the team. Ask high school students and other local experts to guest blog. Become the leading authority on that topic. Then, like BuzzFeed.com does, use every eighth article as a commercial for your business.

“If you are not putting out content and engaging with the end consumer, you are going to have a difficult time to break through in an extremely noisy world.”