I’ve been enjoying a recent discussion on the LinkedIn Social Media 4 Insurance group focusing on whether or not companies are blocking access to social media sites at their places of business.

Some of those responding to the question say their firms allow no such access, while others report that some sites—including LinkedIn—are allowed because they are perceived as more “business friendly.” Meanwhile, some social media, including MySpace and Facebook, are excluded as being too “personal” in nature. What I don’t see, however, is any kind of consensus on what the best practices may be, assuming one is going to allow employees to use social media while logged on to the company’s network.

It is becoming increasingly clear that social media presents a true conundrum for insurers, brokers, agents and companies everywhere. Looking to our industry analysts and commentators offers little in the way of help, however. Pundits like me are extolling the marketing virtues of this new channel, especially in terms of reaching younger audiences. At the same time, however, pundits like me are warning that the security risks are enormous, and we have facts to back that up.

For example, USA Today reported in March that “Cybercriminals are moving aggressively to take advantage of an unanticipated chink in corporate defenses: the use of social networks in workplace settings. They are taking tricks honed in the spamming world and adapting them to what's driving the growth of social networks: speed and openness of individuals communicating on the Internet.” That makes perfect sense. Criminals are going to focus their efforts on the areas of greatest opportunity, and the exhibitionism-fest that is social media presents an inviting target.

In the end, however, the question of whether or not to block social media fully, to some extent, or not at all boils down to a risk-reward equation that will be different for every enterprise. How much security risk—and there clearly are security risks—are we willing to tolerate (or invest in ameliorating) in order to get what we perceive as access to a young marketplace? It seems simple enough; then again, do we really know how much additional profit we will derive from plumbing social media? And could we reach that same hip, young audience via some more secure means?

There are a lot of questions to be asked and answered before we really know what the best practices will be in terms of social media for the insurance space. The problem with embracing social media—and many insurance organizations are embracing it, at least to some degree—is that we have no track record to guide us. Insurers, being a cautious lot, are all too aware of the dangers of unknown risks. They will proceed slowly, carefully watching their competitors and the marketplace to gauge both the upside and downside of this new channel.

As always with our industry, insurance will not be on the cutting edge when it comes to adoption and leveraging of social media. On the other hand, if and when our industry does fully dive in, it will be able to take advantage of the hard lessons learned by early insurance adopters, as well as those in other industries. That’s really not such a bad position to take.

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