Photo credit: <a href="http://www.freedigitalphotos.net/images/view_photog.php?photogid=2664">Stuart Miles</a>

In what seems to many of us like the blink of an eye, the mainframe computer gave way to the personal computer to the Internet and now to social networks.

As social networks continue to gain momentum, they provide individuals, communities and businesses with potentially meaningful information that can transform how we, as a socio-economy think, feel, and experience anything and everything, including each other, anywhere, at any time. Imagine the possibilities for your firm.

Now re-imagine your firm through a social media lens and consider what it portends—the next stage in the evolution of your financial services business—the virtual kitchen table.

The Age of Everywhere Is Here

Social media is a seminal advancement in the technology of communication. It has the potential to transport the very critical services advisors provide beyond commoditization to a place called the social table.

Social media fosters a sense of interconnectedness that the masses—parsed into digital communities and constituencies—have forced into existence—thanks to the ubiquitous pathways of personal digital devices. A “recommendation-oriented” economy is quickly evolving because, at the core people are social and prefer to congregate and converse, albeit in the privacy of their digital wherewithal.

This is indeed a carpe diem moment for those advisors who want to invite clients and prospects to their social tables and offer transparency through an open and honest dialogue that will reset the way business is done and the place in which it is conducted. In a way, social media transports the insurance advisor back home to a place where insurance advisors started: the kitchen table.

The concept of social engagement fits in perfectly with a financial advisor’s business. Why? Social media encourages relationship-building and the premise of a successful advisor’s business is based on just that—relationships.

Social media as the central point of an advisor’s business strategy can help to create a “gated community” to which people will migrate based on recommendations and referrals from and between members of the community. But it can do even more.

Social media can bring together existing clients who “sell the advisor” and make way for a new referral-based system through shared branding. With a measured approach, transforming your operation into a social enterprise is one of the most important business investments you can make in the 21st century.

This Is Not the Time to Be Anti-Social

With the number of adults logging onto social media sites at 46%, the social media springboard has reached its tipping point, making it not only the next new “new” thing, but a lasting cultural phenomenon with infinite applications in every aspect of our lives and businesses. When used properly and responsibly, imagine the key role this new media can play in helping you to brand yourself, gather meaningful feedback daily, act on that feedback quickly and, as a consequence, drive sales more strategically.

Social media provides the advisor daily contact with constituents and a digital surveillance of their unmet needs, wants and sentiments—the next generation of the traditional policy review. Thus, social communities have the power to inform advisors post-haste about the emerging concerns of the community of prospects so that advisors can respond quickly and effectively and establish credibility in the process.

Where To Begin?

Facebook, Twitter and YouTube as the forerunners in social networking platforms are truly ‘social’. But to be ‘social’ does not relegate such media to recreational use only.

The ability to organize and harness information from these media and then transform it to meaningful knowledge can provide financial advisors with the competitive edge they need to expand their local market presence efficiently in a changing and increasingly challenging environment. The first step is for advisors to brand themselves within the social media space and to focus their activities with a keen eye on preserving brand equity.

Branding Activities

Who are you? What do you represent? What do you want others to think about when they hear your name or the name of your business, your products, your services? What do you stand for? What experience and feelings do you want individuals to leave with after interacting with you and others within your community?

Once you decide the answers to these key questions, your next step should be to ensure that all your social activities coincide with the message derived from the responses to these questions and that you deliver on that message continually and consistently. Your message must tell the world your story—the value you bring to the table. This exercise in defining who you are may be the single most important factor in determining whether or not you will be successful in the social media realm.

A social media platform is not a place for advisors to advertise, push products or their personal opinions. It is a place to provide intrinsic value—good will, intellectual capital, valuable information—that precedes the promotion of any product or service. It offers a way to cultivate in the minds of those congregating with you what you stand for. It is your resume in action. It is the shared building of your digital billboard with your community of followers.

A Rolling Stone…Gathers Moss

In a very important way, insurance advisors are ahead of the pack when it comes to going to where their audience is. Social media is an extension of this prospecting approach and in fact helps an advisor to stay relevant.

By bill-boarding a clear and focused message consistently and continually across social media platforms, advisors have the opportunity to stay current and gather “followers” by going to the pastures on which they already graze.

To have a social enterprise means that you interact and nurture relationships with individuals who seek you, or “follow” you. Followers stop by in their own time to visit the places where messages reside. The social media space eliminates phone-tag and assures that potential clients show up.

In its ideal form, it provides a forum in which to share candid thoughts with others and to listen to what people are saying about what they need and want from the marketplace in general. It is a real-time focus group and referral source in which those who participate cross pollinate with each other, including you. It is a virtual kitchen-table meeting scheduled and coordinated by your constituencies who want to be there and have the potential to become your die-hard fans.

Websites as Your Virtual Real Estate

Websites are still a critical part of any advisor’s marketing and necessarily so. Websites are virtual storefronts with window displays enticing people to walk-in once they happen to stop-by. However, websites are generally passive and require individuals to come to you.

Driving traffic to your storefront can be effectively accomplished in a number of ways, including the use of strong marketing campaigns that compel people to stop by, or initiatives to establish your website’s placement at the top of the search list in Google, Yahoo or Bing, for example.

With a website alone, there is no way to gauge, however, if and when people will drop by. And even when they do stop by the metrics you receive are limited in meaning. Thus, a social media presence serves as a virtual campaign to engage with people sufficiently enough to direct traffic seamlessly to where you want it to go.

Establishing A Digital Footprint

The social web is changing the consumer purchase journey. Unlike passive websites, social media is an active marketing tool that allows you to tag along this journey with your constituencies. As you prepare your marketing plan for 2012, consider the ways you can connect with your constituencies as they navigate their journey. Consider where your prospects are and the differences in the types of social media that exist today including Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, e-forums and blogs.

Real-Time Feedback

Twitter and Facebook, for example, can provide you the opportunity to be part of their respective search engines so people can find you. You can then have people follow you based on your message in your profile and then based on your connections, and the information and links you provide in the dialogue—the combination of which convey your story and your value.

With proper metric software in tow, you can measure registrations, reviews, downloads and viral forwards to understand, in real-time, the effects of your branding and the story you tell. Importantly, you must be willing to listen to your audience and scan and analyze conversations in blogs to learn what is being said about your story.

Observe what people are downloading and what they are sharing and re-tweeting or forwarding most. This is real-time feedback you can turn into meaningful information to help you quickly change course, take action or offer suggestions. If you pay attention carefully, the information you gather will provide you great insights and clues as to how to compete while remaining on message.

When done responsibly, developing a strong social enterprise can help you to keep your practice relevant moving into the future. Imagine the possibilities for your business. Now re-imagine it as a virtual kitchen table of clients and prospects.

Lina R. Storm. CLU, ChFC, is marketing director of The Advanced Markets Group at John Hancock Financial Services Inc., Boston, Mass.