In 2013, almost a decade after the founding of Facebook and seven years after the founding of Twitter, companies that aren’t listening to and participating in the social conversation do so at their own peril.

I recently suffered a retina tear in one eye on the weekend and, much to my surprise, my previously-great insurance company doesn’t want to pay for the effective, emergency treatment I received to fix it and prevent it from possibly becoming a detached retina. (Readers in the UK: this denial of coverage can happen in the U.S.)

After several weeks of conversations, I hand-delivered a letter to the office of the CEO of the insurance company, expecting at least a response and possibly a swift resolution.

When I hadn’t even received confirmation of the letter in more than a week, late last Thursday afternoon I posted it to my blog and socialized the link through LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter.

My blog doesn’t have quite the traffic that the Econsultancy blog does. Typically I have 0-10 readers a day, while my posts for Econsultancy are read by a few thousand people. 

So I was more than a little surprised the next morning when I checked Google Analytics and found that 500 people had looked at the post in less than eight hours late on Thursday, and a steady stream of people were in the process of reading it Friday morning.

 

When I drilled down deeper, I found the source of this traffic: a link had been posted on Universalhub.com, a popular news site for Boston, and on Reddit.

 

And the post was getting dozens of comments on UniversalHub, Reddit, Facebook, and my blog. Here’s one example: 

Wow, that’s ridiculous! I have Harvard Pilgrim. It never occurred to me that their lack of weekend hours means that one is not supposed to seek emergency care during that time! I am going to call and ask some questions. Good reason to switch plans next year if there is an affordable alternative. 

Amazingly, even though I used the @HarvardPilgrim twitter handle of the insurance company in my tweets, the company seemed oblivious to the fact that this critical conversation about it was happening.

On Friday, more than 500 additional people read the post, making the total more than 1,000 people in about 36 hours, with dozens of them taking the time to post often-negative comments. But Harvard Pilgrim did not even respond to my tweet of the link on Twitter, something that it should have instantly been aware of Thursday afternoon.

Harvard Pilgrim Health Care is not a small company. It provides health insurance to over 1m people in New England, and has won multiple awards. But it appears to not have even rudimentary social listening and responding efforts in place.

This is not the case at other major companies that regularly monitor and participate in the social conversation. Companies have found social media to be an effective channel to market, increase sales, provide customer support, and build their brand.

And these aren’t just B2C brands. Cisco, for example, reports outstanding return on its social media listening and engagement.

Of course, companies have to participate sensitively, whether they’re undertaking a campaign that they created or responding to posts from others. Done poorly, social media can be a disaster.

But, in 2013, to not participate at all in real time is simply no longer an option.