Big I’s Virtual University Tops Insurance Journal Poll

By | January 12, 2004

You know you’re onto a story when anyone or anything outscores Maurice Greenberg in a contest for “most influential” in today’s insurance business. The Big I’s Virtual University and its director, Bill Wilson, did just that in a recent readers’ poll conducted by Insurance Journal.

Respondents moved the popular online learning center of the Independent Insurance Agents and Brokers of America to the top of the class in the magazine’s month-long survey, which for the most part tapped the opinions of P/C insurance agents and brokers.

Greenberg, the longtime chairman of American International Group, was the first runner-up in the balloting, followed closely by William Hold, president of the National Alliance for Insurance and Education Research, a leading insurance and risk management resource. George Joseph, chief executive officer of Mercury Insurance Group landed the number three position.

First-place Virtual University was cited by respondents for “providing timely advice to insurance practitioners throughout the country,” for being “free, personal and all-encompassing,” and for “ready access to high quality technical information.” Readers call it “the greatest resource available to the industry today; there is nothing else like it;” … “the best resource in the insurance industry, bar none;” the “most effective research library available;” a “treasure chest of reference materials for the agent,” and “one of the most valuable and substantive insurance Web sites.” Another observed, “the smartest insurance geeks out there.”

The stated mission of the Big I’s Virtual University is to evolve into the premiere learning center of the insurance industry. “Our philosophy is that no one type or style of learning is appropriate for all individuals or situations,” it says. “We believe that a comprehensive approach to online learning involves more than just taking some seminars or self-study materials, throwing them on the Internet and calling them a virtual university.”

The Web site features a biweekly e-mail newsletter, “The Vupoint,” which was rated the number one insurance e-zine on the Internet, winning twice as many votes as the next highest-rated newsletter in a survey conducted by Specific Software Solutions. Each issue contains articles on personal lines, commercial lines, agency management, sales and marketing, customer service and technology.
The newsletter, which appears every other Friday, began with a subscription base of 32 some four years ago and it just passed 30,000. “It’s grown dramatically since we’ve been up and running,” said VU Director Bill Wilson. “By the second issue we were up to a hundred and something—just by word of mouth. And then it just grew from there. We had no real advertising, just three or four press releases on particular articles that we’ve done. Other than that it’s been just largely word of mouth.”

The site also features a comprehensive research library, online courses, and an “Ask an Expert” section serviced by more than three-dozen volunteer faculty members.

In an interview with Insurance Journal, Wilson said, jokingly, that the concept, actually, “was conceived in a bar in Florida, but you probably don’t want to say that.”

The idea for an IIABA online university was first proposed in January 1997 at the annual convocation of the organization’s state association education directors. Wilson was there as an 11-year staff member of the Tennessee association, where he served as director of education and technical affairs.

“I pitched the idea of an Internet-based resource (this was probably about six or seven years ago),” Wilson said. “Nothing happened for about a year, when we got together again at our next annual convocation and I brought it up again. Our vice president for education at the time, Chris Amrhein, asked me to come up with a prototype. So, I came up with a one-page prototype of what I thought the Virtual University would consist of and he pitched it to senior management and they bought in and asked me if I would build it and I said yes and came on as a staff member.”

Wilson said, for the most part, content for the site is developed internally. “Most of the insurance technical content I either write or it’s written by volunteer faculty who contribute articles,” he explained. “For our business content, it’s either faculty members or third parties that contribute. We don’t buy any content. It’s either developed internally or contributed by others.”

Currently, he said, the site is not-for-profit and he is salaried by the association.

“As part of our original business plan,” he said, “we were planning on offering sponsorships and advertisements, but we’ve kind of rethought that as a revenue source. Right now, our plan is that sometime in 2004 we’ll make the site for members-only and then offer subs to non-members. Up to this point it’s been wide open. Anyone in the world could come in and access anything.”

Where’s the Virtual University going from here? “Really more of the same,” Wilson said. “We want to expand content. Right now, we have 3,000 pages of content and we’d like to expand it far beyond that and make it much more comprehensive. But we don’t have any plans for anything different in structure or format.”

Wilson believes the Virtual University model, electronic delivery of insurance information, is largely the way information will be communicated in the future. “I still love print, I still get most of the major industry [print] magazines,” he said. “And it’s probably the preferred format for me. If I don’t have time to read them during the day, I can lay back in my recliner at night with the print versions. But as far as convenience and expense and timeliness, you just can’t beat an Internet-delivered system.”

Asked if he thinks if products like his are changing the face of journalism in the insurance trade press, he responded, “It seems so.” Pretty much everybody has an online version of its publication, a stripped-down version, he notes. “You may not have the most current issue available, but it seems generally people are moving in that direction,” he said. “The biggest hindrance is, if you are advertising-based, can you get the same revenue stream from advertising when you’re online? And if you’re subscription-based, can you get people to subscribe to an online version. Right now that’s real tough to do.”

Wilson’s own choices for “most influential” in the insurance business today?

“That’s hard to say,” he said, “but whoever is at the helm of Insurance Services Office is always going to have a lot of influence because its forms are the industry standard. In my top five or ten, I’d always have the head of ISO, whether it’s Frank Coyne, or Fred Marcon before him, or Dan McNamara before that.”

He also points to Jack Gibson, president of the International Risk Management Institute, Dallas. “The heavy-hitters behind the scenes in the industry are all longtime IRMI subscribers.”

Tom Slattery, an independent journalist, is former executive editor and publisher of National Underwriter and former executive editor of Insurance Journal. He is currently managing director of Slattery-Esterkamp Inc. of Baldwin, N.Y. He can be reached at t.j.slattery@worldnet.att.net.

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