New York Life Learns to Love Social Networking

Among its recent posts, New York Life Insurance Co. has tweeted that Life Insurance Awareness Month spokeswoman Leslie Bibb has “been in a bunch of movies. Name your favorite!” (Hint: You may have caught her in Talladega Nights.) As part of a Twitter crowdsourcing initiative, the company has also invited followers to send real-life stories of people and families positively affected by its services.

On its Facebook page, New York Life has directed traffic to its audiocasts on financial guidance, and it announced its movement up Fortune magazine’s ranking of global corporations to 221st place and its 64th place ranking on the Fortune 500 in the United States. The company even encouraged users to hug their grandparents on National Grandparents Day.

The insurer’s LinkedIn page is more buttoned-down, detailing a long, proud corporate history that goes back to 1845 and stating that the company now oversees more than 20,000 employees and licensed agents in the United States. Links to more than 6,900 of those agents and employees are posted on the site. One individual details his wealth of professional experience, having sold everything from “encyclopedias to ice cream and cars to insurance and financial services.”

Each of these social networking sites performs a valuable function. However, until recently, they would have been forbidden at the company, despite considerable interest in using them for business.

“Our agents—and the managers who recruit them—have been using these sites for a long time for their personal use,” says Tom Shea, first vice president at New York Life, who oversees delivery of IT systems to agents and serves as CIO for the agency department. “They’ve seen the growth of interest there, and they’ve wanted to use these sites for business.

“Agents can use them as a way to connect with customers. Our recruiters see these sites as effective tools to communicate with potential agents. This is also a great way to get our branding messages out and highlight our strengths.”

Until this year, however, New York Life had a very simple policy when it came to the use of social network sites for official purposes: “No.” As in, no social media was allowed in any official capacity by agents. This meant no Twitter tweets, Facebook status updates or LinkedIn profiles.

The company knew it was missing out on an opportunity in the process. But it, along with the rest of the insurance industry, needs to comply with a number of regulations as determined by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, a self-regulatory organization. New York Life reports to both the SEC and FINRA, and it complies with all policies mandated by these organizations.

How complicated can this get? Routine social networking posts and interactions have to be classified as either “advertisements” or “correspondence.” All these activities require considerable oversight on the part of an insurer with respect to tagging, monitoring and archiving. Content that is clearly out of bounds or even questionable needs to be blocked.

Initially, New York Life simply didn’t have the right technology to capture the electronic communications taking place on social networking sites. “It requires that you track and monitor everything, really,” says Gerard Rocchi, who is chief operating officer of the company’s agency department. “We weren’t prepared to do that at first. So, for the longest time, there was no Facebook or Twitter for agents—or anything else within the social network communities.”