How to achieve social media ROI in financial services

Ed. note: Missing social media ROI? Hardly. In the below article, you’ll read about Thrivent Financial, a Fortune 500 financial services organization (and Hearsay Social customer) that has been “able to show a strong correlation between online engagement and reduced churn, greater assets under management, and greater brand loyalty.” We’re proud to provide compliant and successful social marketing capabilities for Thrivent Financial through the Hearsay Social platform.

This article first appeared in the August 2012 edition of SocialEyes: The Insurers’ View of Social Media, a monthly newsletter published by The Customer Respect Group.

Social Success Needs a Bond, a Common Bond

Thrivent and Its Social Media Gold Fingers

Thrivent Financial for Lutherans is a faith-based, not-for-profit membership organization with approximately 2.5 million members serviced by 2,500 financial representatives. The company sits firmly in the Fortune 500 with more than $75 billion of assets under management. As a fraternal benefit society, it plays a far broader role with its customers, or members, than do most financial services companies. As part of Its charter they must service a common bond, in their case Lutheran, insurance, education, volunteering and opportunities for social interaction.

It is natural therefore for the social media strategy to focus on the community, the common bond and beliefs. The social media program has its roots in 2009 but in the past 12 months, the Facebook fan count growth has accelerated 400% to over 110,000. Continuous member recruitment is critical to the strategy, and the company has used a blend of organic growth, Facebook ads, and promotional campaigns. However, Gene Smaciarz, director of social media, stresses that “there is no desire to get as many fans as possible but we do want to engage members who have a close affinity with the organization and its mission.” The most recent promotional campaign, “Raise the Praise,” provided funding to youth ministries in exchange for page likes. This campaign appealed directly to members who want to strengthen their communities, encouraging existing fans to share the campaign with like-minded friends.

The driving reason for recruiting and engaging fans on social media is based on solid research and business objectives. Thrivent has hosted an online community, LutheransOnline.com, since 1998  (well before Facebook was prominent or even dreamed of) and they have been able to show a strong correlation between online engagement and reduced churn, greater assets under management, and greater brand loyalty.

With social media platforms such as Facebook, the available data is insufficient to directly demonstrate the same effects but the company conducts ongoing surveys with members and the findings indicate the same trends. Members that actively engage with the company through social media have generally higher Net Promoter Scores, deeper product relationships, and greater trust in the organization, with many already strong brand advocates. Many of these attributes are normally attributed to members that enjoy a strong relationship with a local financial representative:

Engagement is therefore critical to success, and Thrivent is constantly fine-tuning the content strategy to build involvement. In the past 12 months, the number of interactions per 100 fans exceeded the industry average every month and despite the growth in fans, the interaction rate has almost doubled in the same period. Engagement is now about 14 interactions per 100 fans, putting the company in the 87th percentile for the industry.

While the content strategy is to offer financial education, tips, and advice, this is social media and the overriding objective is to be engaging, and even fun and entertaining. Thrivent wants to be part of the community, not seen as selling products. The company posts about community fundraisers, religious celebrations, tributes, and volunteering and these posts invariably outperform financial education in terms of engagement. Smaciarz and his team are well aware that a blend of topics is required – not only to keep members engaged but also to maintain high EdgeRank scores.

As the value of social media gains recognition internally, especially with senior leadership, there are now growing demands to explore new opportunities. To be able to scale and respond,  a hub-and-spoke structure has been implemented and at its core is a “center of excellence” cross-functional team that includes members from legal, compliance and IT managed by Smaciarz. Aside from managing the corporate presence, they consult, train, and advise groups within the company. They also become integral members of various project teams.

Smaciarz and Thrivent are firm believers that, while community is the key to success, a multiplier effect comes into play once you include a local effect. Pilot projects have been ongoing on two initiatives – one involving financial representatives and the other on local communities based around chapters.

Compliance was always the major obstacle that prohibited rolling out a distributed model earlier. After testing various solutions, Thrivent settled on Hearsay Social. The product was able to meet the need for efficient content distribution and metrics but, more critically, it directly addressed the fears and concerns of the supervisory group.

One key lesson learned from pilot programs was that while social media is a very powerful tool, it is not for everyone. While some representatives really get it, others have struggled to see the value. One key indicator for predicting success is finding financial representatives that already use social media in their personal lives. This will naturally increase over time. The program will soon be available to all 2,500 financial representatives but it is provided on a cost-share basis to restrict access to representatives that see the value and are prepared to invest time.

As to whether the long-term success for social media will be at the corporate or local level, Smaciarz believes in the local option, but success requires a cooperative approach with the center of excellence providing valuable compliant content, training and expertise.

Fan count and normalized interaction rate for Thrivent’s Facebook page over 12 months.

To date, Facebook has been the focus of the strategy for corporate and local initiatives, pragmatically based on surveys of where members are active. But as the social media role expands, so does interest in other platforms. While the corporate Facebook page will continue to be the central repository, Thrivent are careful not to overload members’ newsfeeds, and the consequential limitation for posting frequency can be restrictive. Twitter, utilized today as a feeder to the website and Facebook page, is poised to play a stronger role during the latter half of 2012, allowing communications to new audiences without the same posting constraints.

LinkedIn also has a larger role to play. Currently valued for its recruiting opportunities and by financial representatives for data mining, it has the potential to help connect the important volunteer networks, linking members and volunteer opportunities.

Regarding how social media will change, Smaciarz predicts that as social platforms increasingly connect members with the company and local representatives, it will play a larger role for all communications, including lead generation and customer service. This will be especially true when members who have grown up using social media move into product ownership. Demand for customer service on social media today requires little more than monitoring with occasional intervention. However, the creation of processes to initiate service on social media will inevitably move up the priority list.

At 110,000 fans, Thrivent has plenty of room for growth without compromising community relevance. The hub-and-spoke structure looks able to manage inevitable expansion through marketing, sales, corporate communications, and customer service without the “turf wars” now common in many financial services companies.

Thanks for reading! If you want more, check out this other SocialEyes case study on Farmers Insurance agent and Hearsay Social user Joel McKinnon.

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