The power of digital customers: a brief introduction to web psychology for insurers

A web psychologist looks at how customers use social media, the challenges for the highly regulated insurance industry and offers some practical guidelines for insurers.

Social media's fundamental role

In recent studies the vast majority of people stated that they preferred to contact a brand using the company’s social media site rather than the phone. Digitalisation provides the possibility to engage with people via a range of platforms and techniques. People use social media for a variety of reasons:

  • To keep in touch
    Translation tools mean that communication can be truly global.
  • To be up-to-date on trend topics
    Social media is the primary source of news for increasing numbers of people.  
  • For social validation/belonging
    Retweets and 'likes' make us feel good about ourselves. This is the single most important mechanic underpinning successful social platforms.
  • To reduce stress levels
    Stress hormone levels fall dramatically and rapidly if we are able to communicate with others about cataclysmic and social events.
  • Social signaling
    To share our values or to try and impact culture.

Proactive vs reactive engagement

Customers will engage in two main ways:

  • Proactively (generally negative)
    A person is seeking a customer service response; they want to get something done or air grievances, because they cannot get a response elsewhere. The key here is dialogue to avoid a situation escalating and inflicting brand damage. An example of what one person, with an awful experience can do on social media is the song “United Breaks Guitars”, posted in 2009. With 15 million views, some argue it cost United Airlines as much as 180 million dollars in brand damage.
  • Reactively (can be negative or positive)
    The challenge for insurers is not only to create interesting, emotive content on their social media site, but to respond swiftly and meaningfully to individuals. A report of an event can go viral if a brand does something meaningful or listen to someone when it wasn't expected. For example, Morton’s Steakhouse delivered a steak to a comical Tweeter at New York airport. This type of action is not easily replicated in the regulated insurance industry – but we need to find ways to translate the principal.

Implications for increased online customer engagement

First, our contact with customers has to be a lot more personal, i.e. more emotive, engaged and one-on-one. Second, we need to use the information gained from these interactions to ask ourselves why people are contacting us in the first place and use this information to improve future brand experience.

Five golden rules for responding to customers on social media

  1. Respond quickly, in real time: Find ways to do this to avoid problems escalating. 'Xbox support' is a good benchmark, with their elite Tweet fleet that has gained 837k followers.
  2. Personalise your reply: Remember the reasons people go on social media in the first place. A company who does this very well is Nike, with 6 million followers.
  3. Mirror customer’s tone and style: At least initially, if it is not rude, mirroring will tend to increase customer trust and boost communication effectiveness.
  4. Make transparency and integrity a high priority: Social media is the new CSR (corporate social responsibility). Customers are more likely to forgive mistakes if you admit to them and show you are learning and pursuing core values.
  5. Avoid purely self-serving campaigns: Such actions will evoke negative response and generate problems. A classic example of this was the McDonald’s, #McDStories.

Psychological risk factors on social media - anonymity and trolling

The apparent anonymity provided by computer-mediated communication can lead people to act in ways they would never do in the real world, leading to loss of self-awareness, deindividuation, disinhibition and disinhibited action, including self-disclosure. Empathy is reduced, risk disregarded and aggression heightened. This mix of psychological ingredients can be difficult for brands to manage when a situation blows up on line. Applying the golden rules above will help ensure you get the right kind of PR attention and avoid damaging online situations.

Trolling, or deliberately posting comments to inflame disagreement, anger people or disrupt conversation around a topic, poses challenges to brands and needs to be dealt with carefully and effectively; not least because people who engage in trolling tend to have narcissistic, Machiavellian, psychopathic or sadistic personality traits. Insurers you should establish a code of conduct from day one. Set out what behavior you will and will not tolerate from your social comments. Link this conduct code to each of your brand’s social platforms and finally avoid feeding the trolls. Identify them by their online profile, block and report them if necessary.

Closing words

You need to engage with and delight your customers both on and offline.

  • First, find appropriate ways to mirror your audience, through personalised and personal responses.
  • Second, find a way to respond in real time. As a regulated industry, this is your biggest challenge.
  • Finally, set up guidelines and hand over to a team, who can get real-time communications out and respond quickly enough to nip potential problems in the bud.

About the speaker

Nathalie Nahai, is a leading expert in web psychology, international speaker and of the best-selling book, Webs of Influence: The Psychology of Online Persuasion (Pearson). She spoke at the "Insurance Industry Digital Transformation" which took place on 30-31 May 2016 at the Swiss Re Centre for Global Dialogue.

Summary by David M. Taylor. The article is based on the "Insurance Industry Digital Transformation" which took place on 30-31 May 2016 at the Swiss Re Centre for Global Dialogue.