NEW YORK: Brand owners in low-interest categories like insurance could benefit from making greater use of social media, a study has argued.

In a new report, the Boston Consulting Group stated rising numbers of shoppers are thinking about which policy to choose based on information and recommendations discovered on Web 2.0 sites.

"Scenarios such as these are real. They are already happening," BCG said.

"And they represent an enormous opportunity for insurers that have the vision and drive to make the global explosion in social networking ... work to their advantage."

The company questioned consumers with life insurance policies concerning the role of offerings including Facebook and Twitter in shaping their decisions.

Overall, 59% of panellists who had leveraged these channels did so to read the views of people recently completing the purchase process in this category.

Another 47% of interviewees followed the same route to obtain the opinion of friends and peers.

However, only 14% of contributors had connected to an insurance agent on social media, and of this audience, 25% have done so on two or more sites.

"The fact that just 14% of surveyed consumers are linked to their agents online shows the vast potential yet to be realised," the study said.

Further evidence demonstrating firms may prosper from utilising this medium is that 64% of the sample picking an insurer after hearing positive comments made by a friend proved happy with their choice.

This figure can be measured against a 56% rating where similar feedback had not been solicited prior to selecting an organisation to do business with.

One recommendation was to establish an internal team dedicated to this field, formulate clear guidelines regarding what constitutes appropriate output, and identify who should deal with complaints.

"The ultimate goal is to create consumer advocates on behalf of the company," BCG said.

"Indeed, the best company-run social-networking programs foster and monitor conversations across the web."

Aetna is one operator which has sought to move forward in this area, rolling out an online game, called The Life Game, which is centred around personal wellbeing.

Allstate has also exploited new tools on LinkedIn allowing brand owners to add product information to its pages, and linked back to its own website so people could apply for a quote.

Roger Tye, director of consumer engagement marketing for Allstate, said: "If LinkedIn is [customers'] social network of choice, I don't want to make them go somewhere else. It's all about accessibility and consumer preference.

"Since we don't have a physical product, social helps us interact with customers more often on their terms," Tye says.

Elsewhere, State Farm Insurance is using software and guidance provided by Hearsay Social, through which its 18,000 agents log on to sites like Facebook and Twitter.

"Hearsay empowers our agents to strengthen these relationships on social media while engaging customers and prospects with useful and relevant content," said Craig Allen, VP of agency at State Farm.

"Agents benefit from corporate-approved content suggestions and branded tabs which they can one-click post to their social network profiles."

Data sourced from Boston Consulting Group; additional content by Warc staff