A few insurance points you need when planning your travels – http://tinyurl.com/lpl222

Confused about annuities? Send me a DM, I’ll explain.

Is it too late to consider life insurance? Is it important to provide? http://bit.ly/hBX7Z

All of these short messages are examples of recent status updates, or “tweets,” made on the social networking site Twitter. Agents just like you around the country are using the site to communicate with clients, prospects, and other agents, and some are even writing policies as a result of their efforts.

So what, exactly, is Twitter? And how can you use it to enhance your practice?

Getting started
Twitter is a Web site that allows you to create short, 140-character messages and send them out to your followers, from either your computer or your cell phone. You can also upload a picture and create a small biography, including a link to your homepage. It’s essentially an RSS feed for people’s lives, and it’s one of the fastest-growing social networking sites available.

Krista Farmer, director of public relations for HometownQuotes, took her time getting acquainted with the Web site before she began tweeting in earnest.

“I was using Twitter personally, and at first, I was so confused,” she said. “It really took me about six months to figure out how I wanted to use it. Then I saw companies on it, and I began monitoring them to see what kinds of messages they were using and the types of things they were tweeting about.”

From there, she obtained the support of her company to put HometownQuotes on Twitter. She uses the page to tweet insurance-related news updates, follow key industry players, and keep her fingers on the pulse of the industry. Plus, it’s allowed her to create a dialogue with many of her customers, as she responds to their tweets — and they respond back.

“It can be a great way to open up communication and establish relationships with people all over the country,” she said.

What to tweet
Once you establish your profile, you’ll probably want to start creating tweets right away. But, of course, you have to decide what you want to tweet first.

Tom Daly, managing principal at Hartwig Moss Benefits, a group health employee benefits firm, said that he watches what he tweets and only shares information that he thinks other people will care about.

“I find myself always stumbling upon relevant news to be passed around, and Twitter is a very easy and accepted tool to do that,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a more efficient way to pump out news than through Twitter.”

Never has that been more apparent than recently, as Twitter has been heralded as the new go-to media source. In fact, even CNN can’t keep up with Twitter — when Iranian protests made headlines, it was the social media Web site, not the news giant, that kept the world updated on what was going on.

Farmer thinks that what you tweet is key to how others see you, both on Twitter and in real life.

“If you want to position yourself as the best insurance expert in your area, tweet articles about new insurance laws, or articles about ways to keep healthy and keep your premiums down,” she said.

“Anything you can provide to the consumer to help them make an informed decision is just going to reflect on the consumer that you are an expert. Don’t go on there and tweet about what you had for lunch, because no one cares.”

If you do want to keep your tweets more personal, Twitter offers an option of protecting your updates.

Farmer suggested doing that if you have any intention of including information that is even remotely personal or unprofessional, although she ultimately recommended that you keep separate Twitter accounts for your personal and professional lives.

Finding — and keeping — followers
One of the most important aspects of Twitter is having followers — the users who subscribe to your updates. The more followers you have, the more people are reading what you have to say, and the greater your potential market penetration.

According to Farmer, one of the best ways to get followers is by using some of the various Twitter search sites available to look for like-minded users.

See “Twitter Applications” for more information on Twitter search sites and other go-to resources.

“I’ll find people that I want to follow, and [that] I hope will follow me back,” she said. “If I notice after a few weeks that they’re not following me back, I’ll watch what they say and I’ll engage them, or I’ll retweet them, or I’ll respond to something that they say. And usually that will encourage them to take an interest in me. But really there’s nothing you can do to make somebody follow you.”

Daly also notes that it’s not just the quantity of followers, but the quality that matters.

“I don’t necessarily need a ton of followers,” he said. “A few good followers would be as good as a thousand not-so-good followers.”

What makes a good follower? You want someone who is active on Twitter, and who has similar goals and interests to your own. A follower who re-tweets — or sends your tweets to their own followers — is a major plus.

But, is it worth it?
OK, so you’ve developed a profile, you’re spending time searching for news stories and other insurance-related information that you think your followers will find interesting, and you’re actively engaging your Twitter audience. But is all the time you’re spending on the site actually going to increase your bottom line?

Michele Tanico of the independent agency Sage Insurance Services in Las Vegas, NV thinks so. In fact, she has actually written business as a direct result of her involvement on Twitter.

“I’m pretty new; I’ve only been on since January,” Tanico said. “But I’ve sold about 10 or 12 policies so far.”

In most cases, she said, prospects contacted her after she sent out an interesting article.

“They just tweeted back and asked for a quote,” she said. “They said, ‘We got the information you’ve sent out in the past, and we’d like to get a quote from you.’ So I followed up with a direct message asking for their personal email address, then we moved everything off Twitter. Two of them came in to the office and we did a face-to-face meeting, but the others we set up the entire policy via email, fax, and telephone.”

Daly hasn’t written any policies yet using Twitter, and he’s not sure he ever will — in his field of group benefits, he thinks Twitter might be too impersonal. But he does think that the site has given him an excellent opportunity to get his name out.

“I recognize that I benefit from being findable, but as far as using it as a targeted marketing medium, I don’t think I’m doing that,” he said. “I think I use it to let people know what I do, and then if and when there’s ever a need they recognize me.”

More to learn
Tanico believes that she has only scratched the service of what she can do with Twitter. She hopes that, as her company grows, so will its presence on and use of the Web site.

“Even though we’re a local company, I can build relationships with people all over the country, which is fabulous to have such a large network,” she said. “You never know where the company is going, and we’re building a foundation. We could end up in all 50 states.”

And even though she’s still learning the ropes, Tanico has nothing to complain about so far.

“I’m very pleased with [Twitter],” she said. “It’s an excellent networking and social site. I’m loving the technology that’s out there today. It opens up a whole bunch more opportunity for not only insurance but a lot of businesses out there. I highly recommend it.”

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

The Twitter Dictionary

Confused by the language and acronyms on Twitter? Here’s a brief guide to some of the basics.

Tweet: The 140-character status update that Twitter has built its fame on.

RT (Re-tweet): The re-sending of a tweet originally sent by someone else, similar to an email forward. When someone tweets a message of interest, and you would like to send it out to your followers, Twitter etiquette indicates that you should begin or end your message with RT @username.

@Reply: A public message to another Twitter user, sent via a tweet. Whenever one Twitter user wants to acknowledge or communicate with another user, they can just include @username in their tweet. A navigation bar on the homepage collects all the @replies in one easy-to-access place.

DM (direct message): A private message sent only to the user through an email-like system. Direct messages are not public, and can only be seen by the sender and the recipient.

FollowFriday: A movement started by Twitter user @micah where each Friday, Twitter users suggest people for their friends to follow. This is a great way to establish a mutually beneficial marketing relationship.

Hashtag (#): The character inserted before a word when you want to highlight that word as a keyword in a tweet. For example, you might put #insurance if you want to allow people to search for the word insurance in your tweet.

Twitter Applications

Unlike LinkedIn and Facebook, most of Twitter’s applications are external. Here is a list of some of the more useful ones.

http://tinyurl.com and http://bit.ly: Two URL shorteners. Because tweets can only be 140 characters long, many links to news sites, blogs, etc. will need to be shortened. Both are easy to use, but bit.ly has the added benefit of allowing you to track how many people have clicked on your link, which lets you see how popular your tweets are.

http://wefollow.com: A directory of Twitter users, searchable by username, keyword, interest, and more. You can also add yourself to this directory once you sign up for the site.

http://www.twellow.com: Another directory of Twitter users, which allows you to search Twitter bios and profiles for specific keywords. This could be helpful in locating certain types of prospects.

http://www.nearbytweets.com: Allows you to search for people using Twitter in a specific geographic area, along with the ability to narrow down searches with keywords. For example, you can search for all of the people in Nashville who are tweeting about insurance.

http://www.tweetdeck.com and http://www.twhirl.org: Just two of many desktop applications for Twitter that automatically refresh with status updates, direct messages, @replies, etc.

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