How an insurance brand is winning at social

Two Sundays ago, as Ellen Degeneres snapped her famous selfie and big brands everywhere live-tweeted every last detail of the Academy Awards, New York Life kept its cool. The insurance giant sent just two Oscar-related tweets, and even those had more to do with family than plugging in to specific buzz-worthy moments.

As you might expect from a life insurance brand, New York Life takes a sensible approach to social media. From its perspective, social media is about providing useful and interesting content about big life moments and financial well-being, not real-time silliness. And this approach has paid off. The 169-year-old company has the largest Twitter and Facebook followings in the industry by a long shot.

“We want to make our brand top-of-mind through social for important life events,” said Dipayan Gupta, head of social media marketing and strategy at New York Life. “But it’s not sales driven; it’s a conversation — I think it’s really important to establish a conversation outside of the sales cycle.”

As Gupta explained, New York Life’s social strategy hinges on sharing information that’s actually useful. This entails distributing both New York Life-generated content and content from elsewhere around the Web. This can mean tweeting an ABC News article about changes to the SAT for parents in college-prep mode, or sharing personal-finance tips like a handy “mutual funds 101” guide.

Gupta does this with the help of three others who make up the small social media team. For them, each day starts with scouring the Web for content worth sharing.

“We are people too. We look through the news and look through our favorite publications, and we pick and choose content that is relevant to us and people in general,” explained Gupta. “We don’t necessarily think of them as consumers. And we don’t just talk about ourselves; we are talking about financial responsibility in general.”

Gupta and his team also have meetings every two weeks with people across the company and agency partners to go over social media and content planning. After scheduling content around holidays and events that are important to family life, the social media content calendar remains fairly ad hoc.

“We set up the framework and fill in the blanks as we go depending on what’s happening,” said Gupta. But that doesn’t mean trying to plug life insurance pitches into tweets about the Grammys or National Pie Day. “We aren’t a consumer goods brand; we aren’t trying to market presents and shirts and sneakers.”

What New York Life does do is foster conversations about family and the future. This is not only a way for the insurance brand to make itself relevant to people when they are making important life decisions — like having children or taking care of elderly parents — but it also helps New York Life learn more about what its consumers need.

“We want to be in the room when people are talking about their hopes and dreams and what they want for their children and grandchildren so we can anticipate what they need and provide solutions,” said Gupta. “How we get there is through social media. That’s a great touchpoint; it’s how we do our homework.”

For example, New York Life uses its #KeepGoodGoing campaign as a way to share touching branded content about consumers’ personal stories — like this video of a grandfather’s life lessons — and to encourage people tell their own stories and share what they want for their families. New York Life uses the hashtag on both Facebook and Twitter to ask people about things like what advice they have for future generations or what makes small-business owners excited to go to work everyday.

While Gupta says he doesn’t see social just as a numbers game, he and his team have managed to steadily increase New York Life’s social media following over the past few years. New York Life first started testing out the social media waters in 2009 and really got serious about it in 2010, focusing on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube. Today, New York life has the most Twitter followers (more than 100,000) and the most fans on Facebook (more than 500,000) of all life insurance brands. For comparison, Allstate has just over 44,000 Twitter followers and 400,000 Facebook fans.

“Social isn’t just an advertising vehicle,” said Gupta. “It’s a way to be part of a broader conversation.”