A lack of marketing acumen and a complicated three-way relationship between agent, carrier and customer highlight the many reasons the insurance industry has yet to take a leading role in the use of social media.

While there are certainly insurers making significant strides in social media efforts, those that are slow on the uptake seem less concerned about this new medium, chiefly because they already enjoy a robust customer service infrastructure and culture. In time, however, competition may hold the key. Based on the insurers’ business models, customer sets, and the many types of social media pages and benefits available, social media will become a presence too big to ignore, say experts.

According to The Customer Respect Group, an Ipswich, Mass.-based provider of qualitative and quantitative online analysis, Facebook fan recruitment is critical to developing recommender networks and comparing fan count has become a key part of social media bragging rights in the industry.

In its “SocialEyes” report, the firm lists USAA as continuing to lead the field, a feat accomplished month-on-month for a year and a half. This lead narrowed and came under pressure in recent months following a highly successful recruitment campaign by Farmers Insurance, which promoted the Farmville social game. Farmers grew their fan base from 6,200 in September 2010 to more than 129,000. USAA on the other hand is the social media ‘Energizer bunny,’ with consistent growth over 18 months without any significant campaign boosts. State Farm, another consistent recruiter, has had double-digit monthly growth for over a year. A year ago, they were celebrating reaching 10,000 fans and now stand at over 60,000.

According to the report, New York Life is also worth of mention, with strong growth over the past six months on both Twitter and Facebook, due not to any single campaign but to a generally enhanced commitment to social media. Fan count has increased from 2,600 to over 10,000 in that period.

As those insurers choosing to compete in this new medium battle forward, they face the challenge of how to start conversations that will engage fans. Engaged fans, says the Customer Respect Group, will more likely to return to the page, and provide the first level of referral as their network recognizes their participation. New conversations started by insurers average about 19 a month but there is significant variation. [IMGCAP(1)]

However, starting more conversations does not always correlate to fan growth.

“Consumers have indicated that brands that ‘overstep their welcome’ are in danger of deletion,” the report states. “If there is a sweet spot, the group that includes State Farm, American Family, and New York Life, with about one conversation a day, seems to be finding it.”

Many insurers allow fans to start conversations but there are exceptions; Allstate, New York Life, Liberty Mutual and VALIC do not provide this opportunity to fans. Another recent trend has been to add moderation rules and guidelines with at least six insurers recently doing so, including USAA, New York Life, Travelers and The Principal.

Corporate Facebook pages are most likely to attract fans that recognize the company for its core business activities and value. Adding core business functionality has been tentative as insurers struggle with the business and social mix. Other industries have already recognized that reaching out to consumers where they choose to surf can be more respectful.

While more insurers than ever provide company Facebook pages, the report notes that there are some noticeable absentees (which are represented on the platform only by automatically generated community pages). Included in this list are Ameriprise, UNUM, Prudential, and Mass Mutual.

And in the true sense of using social media to market the brand, insurers are using advertising images, many of which tend to stay ‘in character’ and rarely mention insurance. The leader by far is Progressive’s Flo who boasts over two and a half million fans. Also popular are The Gecko (GEICO), Mayhem (Allstate), and The World’s Greatest Spokesman (Nationwide). While fan growth has been traditionally strong, there has been a slowdown recently.

State Farm Nation provides an example of marketing for the sake of marketing’s sake: the site promotes itself as ‘where you discuss life’s challenges and opportunities, connect with others facing life-shaping decisions, find helpful tips and information while you search for your place in the world, and plenty more’.

This site has experienced meteoric fan growth from 11,000 in November to over 370,000 in February, notes the SocialEyes report. It’s aimed at a younger demographic and linked from the highly successful State Farm-branded Facebook game ‘Car Town’. The social game lets registered players collect and customize virtual cars, build their dream garages, and help their friends to do the same. It has a reported 7.2 million active users.