More than two years ago, I gave a keynote speech at the ACORD LOMA event in Las Vegas, during which I suggested that the life and health industry, and all its participants (agents, insurers, etc.) “Go Social.” My basic message was that life and health is a personal matter. And because the matter is personal, advisors have the unique opportunity to engage customers in conversations that are meaningfully important to all involved.

The result would be: better products and services, innovative solutions and enhanced relationships among and between all of the industry’s participants based on trust, participation and real collaboration.

Since my speech, the world has definitely gone social. Individuals are conversing and leading companies are beginning their social journey by connecting customers to each other and to their brands. As proof, there are now 550 million Facebook members, 150 million Twitterers, 100 million-plus bloggers and hundreds of organizations that have built their own online communities. In addition, well-known businesses, among them Zappos, IBM, Nike, GE and AXA Equitable, are now using social media as a major source of business insights about what customers and employees want and how they want it.

In short, going social is “social intelligence” about your constituents’ wants and needs directly and cost effectively from them and in their voice. That is where the opportunity exists for life and health agents to become more socially and business intelligent by connecting us with each other so the industry can prosper.

The big question I hear from our companies and their leaders in this industry are: Where do I get started? What are the rules for success? And what are the benefits? To help your organization get started, below are three principles for success, as well as some case studies and some pitfalls to avoid.

FAQ’s from Industry Professionals

Q: Where do I get started?

A: Customer support is a good place to begin. In today’s socially networked world, the best way to provide support to your constituents is to let customers and agents support themselves.

As a customer of your industry, I know I would like to belong to an online community where I can learn from others about what they’re doing, which products they’re purchasing and which companies are the best so I can meet my family’s health and insurance needs. Allowing me to interact with others like me would engender trust. The good news is that companies like AllState, Prudential Financial, and AXA Equitable are already paving the road for others in this industry to go social. Check out their communities to see what they’re doing and what you can learn from them.

Q: What are the rules for success?

A: Engage your community to help you grow. As we all know, the industry is experiencing tremendous change due to factors like government regulation and our aging population. Given these changes, the life and health industry should engage constituents to help them create innovative solutions to these complex problems. Although it sounds like a major change in approach (community- rather than company-driven), it is an extension of what we all know to be a best practice: to be customer-driven. By including the industry’s customers, prospects, agents and partners in open innovation, your organization and the industry might be surprised to learn what is possible through crowd-sourcing. Companies in other industries–GE in the environment, Toyota in alternative transportation/technology, Pepsi in consumer package goods and GlaxoSmithKline in pharmaceuticals– traditional organizations are engaging their communities to help develop new products and services.

Q: What are the benefits?

A: Cut the cost of training and improve productivity. Who knows better what works and what doesn’t than the people who work in your industry? My answer: It is it not executives, corporate trainers or HR professionals. The real knowledge is in the minds of your front-line employees and your customers.

However, in almost all industries, including the life and health insurance industry, training is a top-down effort. It is expensive, time-consuming and often out of date given the rapid changes that are taking place. That is not to suggest that regulated content shouldn’t be delivered through traditional learning systems–it should be. However, traditional education should be complemented by community-based, social learning where peers share with each other what works and what doesn’t.

By creating online communities that enable peer-based sharing of information, your company can reduce costs and benefit from all the wisdom of the crowd through an online community. If you are worried about bad things being said or risks being created due to aberrant behaviors or comments, make sure that you have clearly defined terms of service for the community and that you have online moderators who monitor the conversation to be sure everyone is in compliance with the rules.

The Ball’s in Your Court

The above are just a few guidelines about where your company can get started, the rules for success, and the benefits you will realize using social media and online communities. There are many more including word-of-mouth marketing, lead generation, and research and development through crowd-sourced innovation.

The future is at your doorstep. Don’t hesitate another day. Build your online community using today’s social media tools and be prepared for the financial and non-financial rewards that your organization and industry will receive by engaging constituents’ hearts and minds.

Go social and prosper!

Barry Libert is chairman and CEO of Mzinga, a Waltham, Mass.-based provider of social software, services, and analytics tools for businesses. You may e-mail him at barry@mzinga.com.