Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg talks about history of Facebook during the September f/8 conference in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)

If there has been a single theme to this year’s LIMRA Annual Conference, it is that technology in general and social media in particular are not just handy tools for facing the life industry’s myriad challenges. They are essential for anyone in the industry to make the necessary evolution in order to survive as everything radically changes over the next 10 years.

LIMRA head Robert Kerzner made this point loud and clear during his opening speech on Day One of this year’s LIMRA Annual Conference, here in New York. He pointed out that we are in a world of 6.8 billion people and 5.2 billion mobile phones. That dynamic alone should be enough to prove that anybody who wants to sell anything to anyone needs to be able to do it through a phone. Entire communications architectures in India, Africa and Asia are leapfrogging land lines altogether, and the already wired West is becoming even more so as new generations grow up with smart technology of some kind or another in their pocket. And with that comes different expectations of how people are to interact. What makes a social circle anymore? What kind of response can you expect from a friend across the world and who you have never seen? What does it mean to have a circle of friends who span continents and are united more by their common interests than by their heritage, nationality or location? Selling to this brave new world will not be easy. But it must be done. There is no other way.

Kerzner noted that other technologies are also rising to make it possible for life to be sold in entirely new ways. Tablets can be used for agents to take on-the-spot refreshers right before a sales call, or to videoconference with a mentor while sitting curbside at a prospect’s house. Virtual conferences can transform how recruiting is done, while interactive websites enable insurers to engage their customers in a much more inviting, engaging, organic way.

But the prime mover of all of this is social media technology, and it was a point made repeatedly throughout the conference. Following Kerzner was Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, and an engaging visionary whose job it is to help companies better innovte their way out of problems. He does this by engaging what he calls “design thinking,” which is essentially approaching innovation with three needs in mind for any proposed solution or new product:it must be desireable (people must instinctively want it without being sold on it), it must be feasible (it has to be actually deliverable) and it must be viable (it must create a sustained value). The key to this, he pointed out, was that often times, products do not necessarily deliver on these needs. But experiences do.

He used Apple as an example. He noted that that Apple’s products are not fundamentally different from anybody else’s. They are computers, music players, the same basic types of technology built and sold by many other companies. But what Apple does so well is it uses those products to deliver a very unique experience, from point of sale, to unboxing to initial use, to ongoing support, and to follow-up sales. The entire thing is a seamless experience that makes the user feel not that they have been sold to, but that they have been invited to join in with something that understands their needs.

This kind of engagement creates a network of people, and networks, Brown pointed out, are a very powerful way of changing people’s behavior.

This is where things like Facebook and LinkedIn and Twitter and YouTube come in. Right now, these are the four primary social medial platforms in the world. It will not stay this way forever, of course. Each is still less than five years old. But right now, there are more people on Facebook than there are in most nations. YouTube counts its pageviews in the daily billions. And Twitter is such an active torrent of information that the average lifespan of a tweeted story on it is a mere five minutes. And guess what? This is only the beginning. Each platform, according to recent LIMRA research unveiled at the Conference, showed a specific applicability for insurance operations, based on how they are already being used by your colleagues.

Facebook is the premier tool for customer engagement, community building and enhancing your brand. LinkedIn is the primary recruiting tool (I should know; it’s how I got my job at National Underwriter). Twitter is the go-to for quickly informing customers or providing them with any kind of needed rapid reaction. And YouTube does more for brand awareness as well as recruiting (helped by the fact that it works so seamlessly with Facebook).

If we can all successfully use these tools for business purposes, Weiss said, it can shift perceptions and build trust. This is a good thing, especially since Generation Y needs to be sold to, and fat, and it wants to be sold to in an entirely different way than this industry is used to. It wants to vet things through its friends. It wants to customize what it is buying. It wants to be in control. And if the industry can’t provide that, well, then Gen Y will just buy something else. but it doesn’t have to be this way. This is a huge opportunity for those willing to learn to really understand the ebb and flow of social media tools, to use them in their personal as well as in their professional lives, and learn how to connect to tomorrow’s customers.

The point was made one last time, on Tuesday morning, as social media professor Sidneyeve Matrix (which is surely a superhero name if ever I have heard one) pointed out a lot of the same kinds of information you might have already heard about social media, or that I’ve mentioned in this post – as you can see from our video at the end of this piece. What was interesting this time around was that without the first-day buzz that keeps any opening session full and closely attended, the Tuesday session had more no-shows, and a lot of the people in the crowd openly harrumphed Matrix’s presentation. I even heard one attendee nearby say, “I already know about all this stuff,” but he didn’t say it as he was retweeting on his iPhone, he did it with the kind of disparaging hand-wave that grouches like myself have used to dismiss the anti-capitalism of Occupy Wall Street. This social media stuff is kerfuffle, a fad, somebody else’s nut to crack. But surely, not mine.

If it was just the fellow next to me, it would have been one thing. But this attitude was all around me. Folks who seemed genuinely disinterested or perplexed by such basic details about social media as to reveal a near-total awareness of it. Facebook? Twitter? Whatever.

I can sympathize with folks who feel this way. Before I joined National Underwriter, I remember being told by a high-ranking executive of a prominent trade association that Facebook was a waste of time and that Twitter was merely a way of spouting pointless details to a world that did not want to hear them. These were smart people saying this; it’s not that they couldn’t understand such technology. It was that they feared what kind of upheaval it would mean to adopt them fully. Reinventing how one speaks ot their audience is a scary thing. And for many in the life industry, where the average producer is about 57, there are an awful lot of folks who would rather run through their home stretch and retire into a world where other people can sprain their thumbs typing out little messages on their smartphones.

Indeed, it’s a tempting thing, to not want to engage. But this industry is changing too fast to simply sit this one out, people. Communications, community building, expectations management, story telling, design thinking…all are the hallmarks not of some consultant’s jargon-laden dreamworld. They are what’s describing the world outide your window right now. Groups like LIMRA should be commended for spending so much of its annual meeting stressing this point again and again. And it will have to keep doing so as the industry slowly adopts these things as standard operating procedure. Until then, the life world will slowly separate into two camps, like oil and water. The first will be those for whom social media is merely the new telephone, fax machine or e-mail. The second will be those who will eventually have to try to find a job working for the first.

Take your pick. Just make sure to fire off a Facebook update about it when you do.