You can do just about anything online these days: shop for curtains; date people in other countries; video chat with elderly relatives; share business documents; read books; publish blogs; play games about birds, farms and jewels…

Yet, in an age when you can tweet back and forth with Donald Trump, many people have a hard time locating so much as an email address — let alone a simple Facebook account — for their local insurance agent or financial advisor. A 2012 LIMRA-McKinsey financial advisor survey found just about 15 percent of advisors use social media to promote their practice, source new prospects or engage with existing clients. That’s too bad for the 61 percent of consumers who, according to another LIMRA study, go online to research individual insurance or annuity products.

Why has an industry based on relationships been so slow to adopt tools meant to drive personal connections? The fact that the insurance workforce is rapidly graying plays a role. Old-fashioned sales habits die hard, and hashtags don’t always come naturally to generations that didn’t grow up with them.

The biggest hurdle, however, is compliance. Most of FINRA’s rules governing advertising and communications with the public pre-date the social media age, but that doesn’t mean they don’t apply. For example, firms are obligated to record and retain all business-related communications made on social media sites, and any tweet or status update that suggests the recommendation of a particular product is subject to rules regarding suitability. FINRA has worked to issue notices (and even podcasts) explaining the rules, but they’re lengthy, detailed messages that may be difficult for the average producer to retain. Adhering to all the rules also adds an extra layer of work and, in most cases, expense.

The compliance problem is sticky — but not unsolvable, and there’s a small, but growing, social-savvy vanguard of advisors and carriers to prove it. Here, three social media leaders in the industry share their success stories — and their tips for how others can follow in their footsteps.

A thriving social media program

Two years ago, you couldn’t find a Thrivent Financial representative on Facebook. Today? You’ll find several hundred on the platform. And on LinkedIn, too.

In fact, Thrivent’s hoping to have more than half of its 2,300 total representatives on social media by this summer.

What drove the rapid about-face? A combination of agent demand and a thoughtful pilot program that launched in 2011, says Kyle Marie Woods, Thrivent’s marketing strategist. “Really [the impetus for the social media effort] was the demand and interest from the field reps,” Wood says. “They were really excited about it and saw the potential.”

Thrivent did, too, but it didn’t want to rush into anything, especially given compliance considerations. So the company began with a small pilot program, recruiting 20 top-performing reps to set up personal LinkedIn and Facebook business pages. As comfort levels and resources increased, 15 to 20 more field representatives were allowed to join the program at a time.

Then, about a year into the effort, Thrivent connected with Hearsay Social, one of several firms — along with companies like Socialware and Actiance — helping the financial services industry with social media compliance challenges. These companies’ automated tools can do things like monitor agents’ posts, flag unapproved content, and provide agents with a library of pre-approved materials to post. The service “really did allow us to quickly bring more field reps into the program,” Woods says.

See also: Taking a (compliance-approved) seat on the social media bandwagon

As a result, the program moved out of pilot mode earlier this year to become one of the company’s in-line marketing applications. More than 400 agents are now enrolled, and Woods hopes to have 1,500 signed up by mid-year. “There’s been much more interest than spots available,” Wood says. “We’ve definitely been met with excitement and enthusiasm.”

Or mostly, anyway. Woods has come across reps who have no interest in using social media. “And that’s okay,” she says. “We don’t want to force anyone to do anything they’re not comfortable with.” But she’s also most proud of the reps who are initially intimidated by Facebook and LinkedIn but forge ahead anyway. “I really like seeing those who aren’t necessarily social media savvy, but they heard about it from their kids or their grandkids, and they’re stepping outside their comfort zone and trying something new,” she says. Being brave can pay off, too. The social media program has already had 12 reported business cases in the first three months of 2013, according to Woods.

The Thrivent team’s goal for this year is to grow the current Facebook/LinkedIn program, with plans to expand to Google+ and Twitter down the road. “We’ll keep learning and testing and trying and hopefully have the majority of our field force, or at least anyone who wants to be, on social media,” Woods says. “We’ve been doing this for two years, but we’re really just scratching the surface.”

Next: One advisor’s success story

One advisor’s social success story

When one of financial advisor John Groth’s clients passed away recently, he knew right away.

It wasn’t because he has a spooky sixth sense or a nosy connection at the local funeral home. It was because he has Facebook.

“His family had posted about it, and as soon as I saw it, I called up the wife right away and expressed my condolences,” he says. “They really appreciated it.”

It’s just one way Groth, CFP, CLU, CLTC, ChFC, a financial advisor with Northwestern Mutual in Cleveland, is using social media to better connect with his clients and, ultimately, boost business.

Groth started using social media about three years ago, after receiving invitations to connect on various networks from several of his clients. “Some of my clients were on it and said, ‘Why don’t you get on it?’” he says. “So I did.”

After firing up his Facebook and LinkedIn accounts, though, he was promptly contacted by his compliance department. A chat with Northwestern Mutual’s team led him to Hearsay Social, which, he soon discovered, not only helped him remain compliant but also allowed him to better keep up with messages and updates from his connections.

“That’s the thing I was worried about the most, not having the time to stay on top of messages and updates,” he says. “You don’t want to come across like you’re being coldhearted or ignoring somebody. Hearsay sends out these alerts, and it makes it a little easier for me to keep doing my job.”

And thanks to social media, his job is a little more demanding these days. Groth says his social networking has led to several referrals as well as new business with existing clients. His presence online also means he knows about client deaths, marriages, divorces, home purchases and job promotions, sometimes minutes after they happen.“People post about that stuff all the time,” he says. “Before, you didn’t get that information for days or even weeks.”

Things have been going so well with social media, Groth says he’s planning to ramp up his Twitter presence in the near future.

Groth’s main advice for other advisors planning to get started with social media? Don’t think of it as a sales tool.

“I look at it more as a way to maintain relationships with my existing clients and prospects in a way that they’re comfortable with,” he says. “I’ve never looked at it as a way for me to get more sales, even though it really ends up resulting in that.”

Next: The insurance company with half a million likes

The insurance company with half a million likes

While many agents aren’t on social media, most carriers are. A 2012 LIMRA survey found more than 8 in 10 insurance companies engage in social media.

That doesn’t mean they’re all using it correctly. A tour of insurance Twitter accounts often reveals many that haven’t been updated in months. Some haven’t bothered to upload a profile picture.

Those companies could clearly use a few lessons from MetLife, which has spent the last couple of years racking up accolades for its social media efforts. On Facebook alone, the brand has more than half a million fans.

See also: How to connect with a new generation of life prospects

But fan numbers and awards matter little to Dave Hamlett, MetLife’s director of global social media. He and his team are too focused on providing their followers with worthwhile information. It’s why, before launching its social media accounts in 2010, the company spent a year figuring out what it could provide social audiences. The goal is actual participation, Hamlett says, not just a high number of uninterested fans.

“For us, it’s always been about engagement,” he says. “I don’t care if I have 550,000 fans if they do nothing with our content.”

The company holds regular contests — a recent one had fans photoshopping their kids’ heads onto Peanuts character bodies — to boost follower interaction. And customer service is paramount. Social benchmarking firm Unmetric says MetLife responds to follower inquiries on Facebook within 7 and a half minutes on average — one of the fastest social response rates in the industry.

That’s intentional, Hamlett says. “We knew we’d need to be able to handle questions before we launched, so we planned for it,” he says. “There’s nothing more gratifying to me than someone coming to us in the social space for help, with us getting back to them quickly for an answer and then having them come back to thank us. I don’t know if they just didn’t expect us to respond, but they’re always so grateful.”

MetLife is hoping to duplicate the success it has had as a company with its producers. A pilot program for individual distribution agents is going on now, with about nine firms — or roughly 50 agents — participating. “There’s no shortage of representatives that are coming to us, on a weekly basis, saying that want to do more with social media,” Hamlett says. “We know that the appetite is out there.”

And it’s not just in the United States. MetLife is also ramping up its social media presence with overseas partners in Japan, South Korea and Mexico. Social media, Hamlett says, is more than just a fad these days. It’s the future.

“I think agents, more and more, are starting to realize the benefits social media can afford them,” he says. “With Generation Y entering the market for insurance products, social media is really becoming that platform where people expect agents to be.” 


For more on social media, see:

To tweet, or not to tweet?

It’s selling time: Do you know where your prospects are?

Twitter chat recap: Estate planning and the new estate tax law