There has been a lot said about the impact of social media on business, especially since it is the fastest growing medium for marketing and corporate communications we have seen since the advent of the web itself back in the mid 1990s. (It’s hard to believe that just 15 years ago, there was no World Wide Web, but there you have it.) Not everybody is sold on social media, though. One executive I spoke with writes off Facebook as nothing more than a colossal waste of time, and even a director of communications told me that Twitter was just plain “stupid.” Such opinions notwithstanding, however, the rest of the world has taken to social media with a vengeance. The numbers speak for themselves: if Facebook’s 500 million users were the population of a country, it would be the third largest in the world, after China and India, and ahead of the United States.

The life and health industry is taking notice, too. At the 2010 Social Media for Financial Services Seminar held on Sept. 21 by LIMRA and LOMA, experts discussed the vast potential of social media and the importance of figuring out how to harness it. “Social media is the bullet train that has left the station,” said Kip Gregory, a principal of the Gregory Group, who spoke at the seminar. “With Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn membership at 800 million accounts and growing, participation isn’t optional. Companies must incorporate social media into their overall business strategy in order to be competitive now and in the foreseeable future.”

So, what to make of all this? It is one thing to insist that savvy companies take advantage of social media, but what can it really deliver? The parallels to the early days of the Web are pretty clear, as everybody can see the potential, but not everyone has managed to take full advantage yet. But there are signs of life if you know where to look for them.

Take, for example, the ongoing “Retirement Reality Show” web series by AXA Equitable. This is a clever campaign of using reality-style interviews with everyday folks to get their unvarnished thoughts on retirement. The first episode polls people on Wall Street, where professionals are asked about their retirement needs and how much they are meeting them. The answers speak to a general under-preparedness for retirement. Which, to be honest, one expects, since it wouldn’t serve AXA’s interests to show off a bunch of people who wave at the camera, smile and say “I’ve got my retirement sewn up, thanks.” The episode then takes a trip down to the Jersey Shore, where folks on the Asbury Park boardwalk speak out about how much they have saved and what they could (and in some cases, should) have done differently. Again, the testimonials are predictably in favor of more retirement planning than less, but the reality here is that AXA probably didn’t have to work that hard to find these people. Industry figures point to a chronic lack of retirement planning, especially once people started cashing out 401(k)s and other savings vehicles to pay down personal consumer debt while the market was tanking. And who could blame them? Better to take a hit on taxes and eliminate $25K in credit card debt in case your job evaporates than to keep that around for a retirement most people don’t think they’ll ever get to enjoy, anyway.

The second episode focuses specifically on retiring in New Jersey, which is not exactly he cheapest place in the country to live out your post-working years. The episode looks at two situations, one a couple that burned through its savings prematurely, thanks in part to adult children coming back home to roost, and another case of a widow who saved from the beginning, acknowledged the need for professional financial advice, and looks to be doing pretty well for herself.

The AXA reality series is a neat idea, and I found the testimonials to be pretty compelling. But they still underscore the difficulty of harnessing social media to get the word out. The first episode launched on August 20, but at the time of this writing, its YouTube views are just under 250. The second episode, out since last week, has 65. That said, Axa deserves kudos for throwing its hat into the ring at all, and on a topic that most people would simply rather not talk about. The content of these videos is proof enough of that.

Another example is termlifeinsurance.org, which I discovered by accident just last night while wasting time on StumbleUpon. StumbleUpon basically lets you note what kinds of subject matter you find interesting, and then it gives you a shiny button to press, which then takes you to a random website it thinks you will enjoy based on your preferences. Think channel surfing for the whole web, only you’re not likely to come across anything really objectionable. If you’re thinking, “That sounds like a good way to waste an entire evening,” you are correct. Stumblers have become a potent force for generating insane spikes in web traffic, as a popular site gets referred by other Stumblers and voila! – instant web hit. Last night, I came across this page on early rock star deaths, which was all a clever plug for term life insurance, but you wouldn’t know it until you spend a few minutes taking in the cool graphics, fun content and pop awareness of the page. I don’t have insurance as a StumbleUpon preference, but I do have rock music, and these guys knew it. Very nice way to get their message out int the mainstream and by letting social media do all the heavy lifting.

Social media offers other risks as well for those looking to capture its potential. A pair of recent Twitter hacks turned the world’s most popular microblogging site into an elaborate prank for whatever scriptkiddies decided to send users to hardcore adult sites or to automatically blog about how much they enjoyed the romantic company of goats. (You know, I’m not giving you links to either of those. You’ll thank me for it later.) Likewise, Facebook went down for two and a half hours last week which seems like a short time unless you’re an avid Facebook user.  It all points to an environment that is more complicated than it seems, and offers huge success only to the very savvy, the very lucky, and most often those who are a combination of the two. After all, there’s no other way to explain why Ashton Kucher’s Twitter feed has become one of the world’s busiest media brands, now is there?