Social media: In marketing, avoid black hat social media

by Nick Westergaard, guest columnist
Published: July 20 2014 | 12:31 am in Column and advice,

A  media outlet recently phoned me wanting my opinion on a practice they’d gotten wind of — insurance agents using social media sites such as Facebook to spy on their customers’ lives so they can adjust their rates based on what they find.

My first thought (I kid you not) was, “That’s a thing?”

After some careful thought and consideration, I’ve expanded this to include: “That’s a thing given all of the other things you can do with social media?!?”

Sure, you could do all of this. If you started with a list of your customers, you could find that several of them fall into the 25 percent that aren’t using any kind of privacy settings at all on Facebook. From here, you’d have access to their personal updates, photos and more.

If you observed risky behavior or suspect conversations about an accident, you could use this to adjust their premiums and claims accordingly. That’s if individuals don’t have their privacy settings on.

It’s generally considered unethical if an agent or representative has to “friend” an individual to gather this data, but it’s another one of those areas where the technology is moving faster than legal precedent.

At best, from a consumers’ perspective, all of this seems ethically murky. But remember, if you aren’t guarding your online privacy you are in fact releasing information to the public.

I don’t want to get into an ethical debate on privacy. Let’s stick to the use of social media by businesses.

While you could use social media to do all of this, it’s a bit reminiscent of “black hat” SEO (search engine optimization). That’s the practice of using link farms, fake content and other forms of online trickery to drive up search rankings — most engines have found ways to detect these practices.

In the end, doing a good job of creating and optimizing quality content — “white hat” SEO — is a much better option.

This is true with the potential social media holds as well. If we stick with the insurance business, we can illustrate some examples.

By and large, insurance is a parity industry. Many companies have similar products and programs. The real differentiator ultimately is the personal service that delivers the product.

As with no other media form in history, social media allows us to scale these personal touches.

We can create thoughtful conversations. We can inform and entertain with helpful content. All of this works to build a stronger sense of community between brands and their constituents.

Why abuse these tools? Why not use them for good instead of evil and build stronger relationships?

Insurance agencies strive to form lifelong customer relationships. And yet Accenture notes that $400 billion in insurance premiums could change hands over the next year.

Why trade a quick adjustment for a lost lifetime of business when a customer feels spied upon or duped?

Coincidentally, shortly after this interview, I met with an insurance agent who was recommended by a family friend. He’d used my LinkedIn profile to learn more about who I am and what I do so he could customize our in-person conversation even further.

Shortly after our meeting, I got an email thanking me and inviting me to their email program. He’d used social media to enhance our personal meeting, which he further cemented with a promise for future communications online and off.

The key ingredient here is trust. These tools offer great potential but as Spider Man’s (late) Uncle Ben reminds us, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Save the black hat tricks for the shysters out to make a quick buck. With your white hat firmly in place, you can use social media to build strong relationships that will grow your business for years to come.

• Nick Westergaard is founder of Brand Driven Digital, nick@westergaard.com. Twitter handle: @NickWestergaard


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