How an insurance company created a thriving internal network

American Family Insurance was known as a stodgy company. Then it started allowing comments and even ‘dislikes’ on its internal network.

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American Family Insurance used to be known as a stodgy, top-down kind of company.

You’d log in to the intranet, and the approved news and messages of the day would come down from above, says Pat Miller, corporate publications manager.

Then company communicators—somewhat nervously backed by their executives—decided to try a social intranet-driven new model: The intranet would allow comments, add an employee blog, start electronic shout-outs for a job well done, and even offer staffers a “dislike” button.

“This is what people are used to doing in their real life,” Miller says.

The results were improved morale, ideas flowing from the bottom up, and even one big blowup over benefits that—surprisingly—had bigwigs praising the new voice-of-the-huddled-masses model.

In a Ragan Training video, “American Family Insurance: Win support for and create a powerful social intranet,” Miller walks you through everything from winning leaders’ approval to helping turn a blog into a must-read in your organization.

Sometimes major successes are revealed in small ways. American Family proves this with what Miller calls “our warm and fuzzy recognition tool.” The Shout-Outs page enables everybody to call out a good deed, mention a birthday, or compliment a colleague. The shout-outs appear in a public feed, and the recipient gets an email.

‘Very impressed’

One colleague wrote, “This evening, I spoke to a customer over the phone named John who was very impressed with the high level of customer service that was provided to him by [redacted].”

It proved to be so successful, at the end of the year, people began including the attaboys in their performance reviews: “I received 48 shouts.”

This video clip is taken from the Ragan Training session, “American Family Insurance: Win support for and create a powerful social intranet.”

That sounds fun and spontaneous, but it wasn’t always like that. It took planning to build a good internal platform, particularly in a regulated industry such as insurance, where companies must maintain records for 10 years.

Still, Miller’s goal was to make the social network “as less Big Brotherish as possible.” She talked the bigwigs and the lawyers into letting comments go live instantly, without vetting.

Profanity filter

The lawyers did insist on a profanity filter, consisting of 5,000 potty-mouthed phrases somebody thought up, probably while watching the Chicago Cubs play.

Miller explains: “If you type in your comments and you get a little creative with your use of language … you’re going to get a message that says hey, please rephrase,’ and it highlights the word.”

It mostly worked great, although one agent called from North Dakota—where urban argot has apparently been slow in taking root—and complained that the filter wouldn’t let him post his thoughts.

“Well, what are you typing?” Miller asked.

Well, dang it all to heck, he was writing about a change in homeowners coverage. Which agents abbreviated HO.”

Employees to agree to follow a one-page sheet of guidelines. Every time they click to post, they must confirm their remarks are within the guidelines.

Perhaps more controversially within internal comms, American Family employees can “like” and “dislike” stories that are posted. Some of the top dogs didn’t favor this aspect, “Because, darn it, it’s cowardly to just click ‘dislike’ and slink away.”

The importance of ‘dislikes’

Miller argued that allowing dislikes was important. Why? Because it was trying to counter criticism that it was a “good news” culture—not allowing negative news to get through.

Should this happen to you, tell your sensitive bigwigs to get over it. Miller told her execs that American Family is a company of 18,000 people—the size of a small town. “You’re never going to make everybody in the town happy,” she said.

This model was tested when the company got the greatest number of dislikes ever for a story titled “Health benefit changes.” The story, spelling out new options, drew 439 “dislikes” and 69 “likes.”

Some people had reasoned and thoughtful comments, but many of them “just went off,” Miller says. Some staffers were very specific: “I have this condition and my daughter has this condition, and I want to know what’s going to happen.”

An easy-going, reassuring guy from HR answered the questions, thanked the employees, and directed them to further information or a hotline. The tone of the comments changed. People started thanking the HR guy for his comments.

Says Miller, “One of our executives actually said, ‘This is the example of why we did this.'”


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