As we start 2013, the role of social media within the insurance industry has never been under greater scrutiny. While it's still early in the year, it is time to deliver some of the benefits that were sold.

Too much effort has been exerted on platform knowledge rather than developing a business strategy. Significant time and money has already been spent collecting Facebook fans, followers on twitter and engagement using a healthy dose of trivia and emotive images—but for what purpose?

But, playtime is now over.

Social media is a new way that people communicate, but not the only way. We will still meet, email, and speak on the phone but we have added social media, which is a more public form of communication—ironic given the privacy concerns less than a decade ago. The concept is not even new; bulletin boards and forums have been with us for many years—who can forget BYTE in the ‘80s, Prodigy and AOL in the ‘90s. Free email democratized electronic communication. The permanence of email, combined with the power of the CC (we have all suffered from an ill-advised CC list) has now evolved into something much bigger, more powerful and certainly more disruptive.

Insurers do not need a social media department; they need social media expertise spread throughout the organization. Social media is not just about how to send out your message. It is just as much about listening to and gathering information—it's a communication channel, not a broadcast channel.

Social media will prove invaluable and necessary in diverse areas such as fraud, recruitment, market analysis, customer service and investor relations. Just look at the possible impact on sales alone; people have access to the same communication channels as large corporations. They use the channels to post photographs, tweet about breakfast and their love of a sports team because they are documenting their lives. Insurers have spent years trying to reach people at particular life stages but now people volunteer that information. Facebook recently added a capability to discover and reach people that have changed jobs in the past 30 days—over 800,000 have volunteered this information it seems. If you were in the business of IRA rollovers, you could be set for life and never have to make another cold call.

So ignore Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and the rest in your discussions about social media. The question must be: Who do you want to communicate with and why? If cold calling works best, start dialing, if email blasts work, which they do, email away. But, to understand if social media plays a role, you need to understand social media—you cannot delegate that to a social media expert/guru/overpaid consultant who does not understand your business.

We do not need the ROI of social media to make it successful; we need to understand its role and place in the corporate communications strategy.

This blog was posted with the permission of the Customer Respect Group. It originally appeared at Insurance Networking News.