Two current cultural shifts fueled by technology are, for many independent agents, a cause for concern: the democratization of data and the rise of virtual relationships. Today consumers have access anywhere, anytime to information once available exclusively from industry experts, and people of all ages are finding in the convenience of social networks a level of connection and trust once developed in person over time. On the surface, these trends appear to challenge the traditional role of the independent agent; however, both trends also offer agents new opportuni­ties to increase visibility, strengthen relationships and provide guidance when and where customers need it most.

Insurance agents aren’t the only professionals evolving as a result of these changes. Health blogs and online resources like WebMD provide hundreds of new platforms for patients eager to self-educate (and self-diagnose). Rather than condemning the “pop-medicine” on these sites, astute doctors are participating in the conversation, turning an uptick of patient engagement into healthier communities and more local prospects for their practices.

Publishing is another industry from which we can learn. Reputable reporters, once skeptical of the blogosphere’s journalistic integrity, are now supplementing their online articles by linking to additional information and replying directly to readers who post comments. Through these conversations the journalists share expertise and readers can enhance their understanding of complex issues. Plus, strategically archived, these threads live on as evidence of the authors’ thought leadership and as searchable resources for future visitors. Rather than fighting change, these professionals are bringing decades of experience to a new medium.

Fellow agents also have incorporated the Web successfully into their marketing strategies. Savvy realtors are using social networks to stay in touch with former clients, sharing community news and homeowner tips that keep their relationships fresh until the next move (and demonstrating expertise to hundreds of their clients’ friends and followers). By being active participants in virtual communities, these professionals showcase their value and build credibility with current and potential customers.

These creative approaches across industries suggest that rather than devaluing expertise and degrading relationships, these cultural shifts have had the opposite effect. Where a glut of informa­tion meets a scarcity of time, the need grows for technology that can filter data and trusted advisors who can make it useful. The same social media and technology that gives everyone a voice also gives consumers greater control over which voices they choose to hear. As a result, social network relationships aren’t simply lesser versions of the real thing; they’re carefully selected inner circles where friends ask ques­tions, share recommendations and seek guidance.

As agency business leader at Progressive, I’ve made it a priority to demonstrate the power of new technology to build relationships. We’re exploring social networks and running an agency blog where agents can post candid feedback for leaders and get answers to their questions. We’re offering training on how to create and operate social media pages. We’re providing services for agents to more easily and inexpensively optimize their online listings, and in 2011 we’re establishing an Agent Technology Advisory Board to collaborate on current and future technology needs, from e-commerce applications to quoting capabilities on mobile devices.

After years working with social media and technology we don’t have all the answers, but we continue to ask questions every day. I’m meeting more independent agents who are out there exploring, too. They recognize that in a digital age, being “local” means engaging residents in their physical and virtual communities. They’re investing assets online, interact­ing on Facebook® and Twitter®, counseling customers off-hours through Skype and optimizing their Google local search listings. Insurers must act in kind, investing our own time and assets into learning these technologies and helping agents shape them to better communicate and guide customers. Working together, we can build agent value by bringing proven expertise and new ideas to the virtual marketplace.

Karen Barone is Progressive’s national distribution leader for its agency business. Her responsibilities include leading the sales organization and advancing the company’s leadership role in agent technology.