If Mark Carney ever needed confirmation that building a social media following for HCC Medical Insurance Services LLC was a good investment, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti proved it.

The Haiti earthquake caused substantial damage to the infrastructure of capital Port-au-Prince and nearby areas. Cell phone and fiber-optic service was affected and radio stations were knocked off the air for a week in what is one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere.

“We had a number of individuals and groups who were insured members,” says Carney, president and CEO of HCCMIS. “We had provided insurance products to a number of missionaries in Haiti.”

As a result, it was nearly impossible to get through to the members. Fortunately, HCCMIS had in place a social media outreach strategy that included multiple Twitter accounts, more than a dozen Facebook pages and a number of blogs.

Twitter with its short message service of up to 140 characters per tweet was particularly important in reaching policyholders via smartphones to respond to their questions and concerns and disseminate information.

“The tweeting during that period of time provided a great value to our policyholders, and even with the damage to the infrastructure, we were able to communicate and get the message out,” Carney says.

“Unfortunately, the world has seen a number of crises since then, and I think clearly your social media strategy has got to be part of what happens during a catastrophe. So we had a significant earthquake in South America, we had the 2011 tsunami in Japan, there have been earthquakes in China, there have been railway shutdowns in India, the list unfortunately goes on. It's about once a month.

In the past three years, HCCMIS’ innovative effort using online marketing and outreach has helped the company to triple all online revenue and total premiums for 2011 reached $60 million. Here’s how Carney enhances his customers’ experience through social media.

Decide the goal of your presence

Google has reported that as many as 97 percent of U.S. consumers search for products and services online. That fact alone has spurred many companies to join the online bandwagon. But before you make a knee-jerk decision to do that, give some thought to what will be your most effective online presence.

Carney says that even in his own company the launch into the social media field didn’t come out of a well-calculated process. But the dedication and enthusiasm of his marketing people carried the day.

“To begin with, it was, ‘I heard this and we should do that,’ and unfortunately there was not much thought into why we should begin a social media presence, and I guess maybe that's the way these things start out,” he says.

One of the best approaches is to avoid the temptation to be all things to everybody. Instead, stick to your niche. Re-identify it if you have to.

“From our perspective, the broad goal was to try to enhance the insurance experience through our staff by the way of a process that was personal and timely. That process was social media,” Carney says. “I think that is one of the reasons why the social media aspect of what we are doing has been recognized by the industry.”

By providing technologically advanced solutions to customers, HCCMIS has earned a spot as a leader in its niche: the travel medical insurance industry.

“We went about early on looking at simple tweets regarding our business, and our leadership in the marketing area helped us pull together a process by which we could really impact our business through social media,” Carney says. “Those would be all of the brands that you would expect: Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and so on.

Broad concepts can be proliferated through an online vehicle that has a small-town feel.

“You should try to take advantage of those community-style relationships that are online,” Carney says. “For instance, it is evident that it is positive when it comes to travel. You'd be surprised at the number of people who post, ‘I'm traveling to India next week.’ They are posting to their community and issues invariably come up regarding ‘What happens if …’ and ‘Has anybody bought one of these types of products?’

“Those are the issues that you should try to take advantage of. Again, if you can assist someone in the purchase process, if you can make sure from an experience standpoint that it is positive, even if it is not as positive as hoped — can we get it addressed? Can we get it addressed quickly? Can we be seen as getting it addressed? Those are all the broad concepts that you should be trying to accomplish through the social media strategy.”

Get on board

Above the surface, a social media presence looks simple, engaging and easy to use. Below the surface, there are many intricate segments that have to work in harmony and take time and effort to develop.

Any new venture is going to cost money. That’s why it is critical to get buy-in particularly at the upper levels for a social media strategy. A financial commitment will also show the lower levels how you see value in the strategy.

“You have to understand the value and how you translate that value at some point to a product sale,” Carney says. “You also have to have a strong financial model that's supportable, because a technology strategy can be expensive.”

Once Carney realized that a rationale had to be developed to support a major technology upgrade at his company, he crafted it in terms that all employees would understand.

“We updated the systems that handle the transactions and then most recently we upgraded the back-end systems in order to be able to address on an online real-time basis our key stakeholders and their needs,” he says.

“So if think about our stakeholders being our policyholders; our brokers that help sell our product; our providers that provide services; and our vendors that support those services, we figure out how we can address as much of that online as we can in order to meet the needs of someone who is sick in a hotel room in China and does not speak Chinese.

“It's a bit troublesome when you take your child to the doctor in the United States, so you can imagine if you were a missionary in Africa trying to take your child who is with you to a clinic where you really don't understand the language and you know your child is ill. Taking those examples and thinking in terms of your ability to help folks out ties together the mission with the project.

In addition, you should be prepared for a mindset adjustment when your social media policy is being developed and initially launched.

“I think part of this is that you need to grasp that it is sort of unfolding right before your eyes,” Carney says. “And you’ve got to be nimble enough to have an IT organization behind you that can make adjustments as necessary. It is not really very static.”

For the overall technology strategy to be supportable, the pieces of the puzzle have to fit together.

“So you're talking about a customer service component of what you do, you're talking about a marketing piece of what you do, you are talking about a sales piece of what you do,” he says. “All of those roll up into an overall technology strategy.”

Under the surface, there are also technology concerns that your IT department will have to work out.

“So ease of use, accessibility of web browsers being able to address all of the various tools, be it Google Chrome, be it IE 7, I mean you can just go down the list of the opportunities,” Carney says. “And dealing with technology issues around the world, I mean 40 percent of our search comes from outside of the United States. So from our perspective, it becomes a question of localization and where we have our servers. Our organization has a firm footprint in the United States and in Europe. How do we take advantage of our brand in those markets and how do we expand into other markets in order to take advantage of the burgeoning markets of Brazil, Russia, India and China? Those are really critical issues for us as we go forward.”

Finally, be aware that your social media strategy can impact you and Google and Yahoo.

“As you look at search engines and how search engines determine relevancy for websites, the social media strategies deployed by companies are playing an increased role in determining the relevancy of the webpage,” Carney says.

In other words, how much you and your followers use Twitter and Facebook and text about your company affects your placement on a search engine page.

“Where your website shows up in a search engine really depends on how much activity that you receive,” he says. “There are obviously lots of reasons why you do what you do with social media, and one of those is in order to make sure that you appear on the first page whenever you can.”

Be driven to improve

It is often the involvement of employees with the process and the technology that will help lead to successful outcomes.

“We’ve grown the company since its acquisition in 2008 by HCC Insurance Holdings, even while upgrading all the systems, by almost 50 percent,” Carney says. “For the domestic travel market, it has probably grown by 7 percent so even with that I think we are doing things right.”

Of the various ways to keep the 100 employees motivated and engaged, an online suggestion box is especially fitting for a company that uses technology.

HCCMIS deployed a process called “Driven” this past year which is a website internal to the organization and is part of the operating system improvements.

“We created a process to reward employees based upon suggestions to improve our efficiencies that end up being implemented,” Carney says. “We have a specific process in place. A group evaluates the suggestions and selects the best ones. The people who made the suggestions are rewarded based upon the impact the organization undergoes as a result of those suggestions.

“It's all part of the equation for us. It should be an important piece of what you do to recognize people who cared enough about your organization to make the suggestion. For instance, printing can be a big issue. People like to have fulfillment documents with them when they travel. Can they download them themselves, or do they want the company to send them?”

You should ensure that a process to reward employees for suggestions goes across the entire organization.

“It has to be obviously because when you have a company that is so dependent upon technology, you are always worried about unintended consequences,” Carney says. “So what happens if you change this, and how does that translate into other departments? The process for the most part involves trying to invest in and improve the workflow — minimizing steps along the way to allow as much of the work to be done upfront as possible so it is not adjusted later.”

How to reach: HCC Medical Insurance Services LLC, (317) 221-8037 or www.hccmis.com

The Carney File

Birthplace: Indianapolis, Ind.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in science from Purdue University

What was your very first job?

Serving in the Marine Corps.

What was the best business advice you ever received?

Learn how to sleep on an airplane.

Whom do you admire in business?

L. Ben Lytle. He was the executive who was the catalyst for the transformation of Blue Cross Blue Shield in Indiana into WellPoint, one of the leading health benefits company in the United States. Lytle understood very early the significant role information systems and the Internet would play on a health care company’s ability to compete.

What is your definition of business success?

Success in business can be succinctly summed up as creating value for stakeholders.

Carney on maximizing customer services: We want to make sure that we can provide interactions on a more broad basis: making sure that the call centers that we provide behind-the-scenes for us are able to handle multiple languages, that we are able to do online chat, and we look at all those strategies in order to try to maximize customer services.

Published in Indianapolis