Imagine a free Web site that can connect you with hundreds of prospects and offer you personal information about them – personal information that they are more than happy to share with you. The site is easy to use, and it takes only a small investment of time each day.

Sounds too good to be true, right?

Actually, such a site does exist. It’s called Facebook, and agents all over the country are using it to follow up with current clients and meet new prospects every day.

Facebook was founded in 2004 as a social networking site for college students. Since then, it has expanded to include more than 200 million users worldwide. And with the 35-and-older age group being the fastest-growing demographic on the site, Facebook presents a unique opportunity to network with prospects and market your practice.

A new way to network
For most users, the main benefit of Facebook is the networking aspect, as members can connect with others on the site by becoming their Facebook “friend.” Honey Leveen, president of the Houston-based independent agency Your LTCI Specialists, said she’s found many networking opportunities through Facebook.

“I just found a group for the greater-Houston area Women’s Chamber of Commerce,” she said. “Now I get notices of their events. When I go to their meeting, chances are I’ll meet someone who needs long term care insurance.”

Matt McDermott, employee benefits consultant for the insurance brokerage firm The Landmark Group, has also uncovered plenty of networking opportunities using Facebook.

“I had a friend on Facebook that I went to college with, and I noticed that we were going to be at the same event,” McDermott said. “I was able to make sure we met in person, and it turns out he works for a company that I’m interested in doing business with. It gets me closer to someone in the company, and I’m able to have a conversation with someone in the company about employee benefits.”

Leveen appreciates that Facebook provides a forum through which she can connect with people in a more casual setting.

“I go to tons of networking stuff where everyone is dressed in business suits and we have formal conversations, but when I meet that same person at a happy hour, we let our hair down and talk about our personal lives,” she said. “You kind of do that on Facebook, and I really love that.”

Virtual sales call
Jim Carney, an insurance professional from Doylestown, PA, has already seen his Facebook account pay off professionally. For example, he recently became Facebook friends with someone he went to high school with.

“They just had their first child, and they posted pictures of the newborn on their Facebook site,” Carney said. “It’s great for younger couples to start thinking about life insurance. So I commented on the pictures, just congratulating him and starting with a normal conversation. I found out they didn’t have any life insurance, and it was so easy for us to go in and explain the benefits of it.”

Carney made the sale, and was able to add a property insurance policy for the couple’s new house, as well.

“It’s worked out better than I thought it would,” Carney said. “I’m not only getting these leads, but if I write their policy, then I also get [referral leads] and write policies for their friends that I may not know.”

Carney added that Facebook is such a non-intrusive method of contact that he hasn’t encountered any feelings of consumer mistrust.

“We haven’t received any negative feedback,” he said. “If you phrase it properly, it’s almost impossible to get any negative feedback. Now, if I just contacted my former friend from high school and said, ‘Do you want life insurance?’ they might be taken aback. But if you do it the way we do it, where you go and get in touch with them, you’re establishing a relationship first. No one has a problem with that.”

Leveen also believes that using the personal information that people share on Facebook will make it easier to effectively communicate with her prospects. Many users post their political affiliations, religious beliefs, or leisure activities on their profile pages.

“I met with [a client] and gave a proposal, and because of her Facebook profile, I know a lot about her,” Leveen said. “We have less in common than I thought we would have, and the fact that we’re friends on Facebook is going to make it easier for me to get a straight answer from her.”

In other words, using the knowledge you can gain from a client’s profile, you can tailor your presentation to fit their individual needs, preventing yourself from making a mistake that could cost you the sale.

User beware
Although Facebook presents many opportunities, there are several things that you should be aware of. Linda Taylor, president of Taylor Marketing and Management, gives seminars on how agents can use social networking to their advantage. She said the key to success is learning how to use the site before you connect with other users.

“There is a great danger in improperly using social media,” she said. “One of the problems when agents get into Facebook is that they need to spend some time learning how to use it. You need to know how to block people, how to make sure you don’t have autoresponders enabled so anyone can be your friend … how to approve anything anybody posts on your wall.”

Taylor thinks Facebook can be a great tool, as long as producers recognize it for what it is and don’t end up being distracted – it’s essentially a brochure, she said, no different from any other marketing tool.

She adds that because Facebook caters to a certain demographic, it might not be the best option for some more specialized agents.

“If you are serving a marketplace that is young and aggressive, you probably need to be on one or more social networks,” Taylor said. “But if you’re chasing a mom-and-pop business or 65-year-olds, Facebook is probably not where you want to be. Don’t go there if nobody else is there that you want to talk to.”

When used correctly, Facebook can be an excellent way to reach out to prospects and current clients alike. Taylor said there are several reasons why every agent should consider Facebook.

“One, it’s free,” she said. “Number two, it’s consistent, once you know how to use it, meaning that everyone’s profile looks the same. You’ll always know where to go to get the information you need. And three, it’s designed to be a reach-out vehicle from the get-go. It’s designed to make someone know you, like you, trust you.”

Leveen said she thinks Facebook is well worth the time investment.

“I went on it for business, and I’m staying on it for business, but also because it’s an awful lot of fun,” she said. “It’s only going to cost a few extra minutes a day, and I’m happy to trade a few TV minutes for Facebook minutes.”

Heather Strickland is the associate editor for the Agent’s Sales Journal. She can be reached at 800-933-9449 ext. 225 or HStrickland@AgentMediaCorp.com.

The Dos and Don’ts of Creating a Facebook Profile

Do present a professional image. Choose a headshot, or a casual image that is business appropriate, for your profile picture.

Don’t post inappropriate pictures. A good rule of thumb is not to post anything you wouldn’t want your mother or your boss to see. When in doubt, don’t post.

Do manage your privacy settings. Facebook allows you to control every aspect of your page, including who can search for your profile and who can view the pictures that you post.

Don’t post anything containing your company’s name or logo without first asking permission.

Do take the time to learn how to use Facebook before you start seeking out friends.

Don’t post anything on other people’s profiles without considering whether they will want it there.

Do hire a virtual assistant, if necessary. Taylor said this can be especially helpful for those who are planning to join multiple social media sites. “This will be someone who’s probably under 30 who has grown up in this digital age, and they’ll make it easier for you to process all of this information,” she said.