Agency Marketing Must Move Online and Beyond Yellow Pages

Insurance agents could be more effective with their marketing efforts by incorporating online tools into their advertising strategy. After all, online resources often are free — and they’re a good way to build relationships with present and future customers. Moreover, a growing number of carriers are assisting agents with content and technical support when they don’t have the know-how or time to beef up their Web presence.

The 2008 Future One Agency Universe Study found that the average agency spends about $27,000 on advertising and marketing. Of that, 24 percent is spent on Yellow Pages ads, according to Alice Cameron, vice president of marketing for Fireman’s Fund. “So that’s about $6,500 of the average agency’s marketing budget going toward an outdated print resource,” she said. “Think about if an agency transitions its thinking to largely free, online ways to position the agency with potential clients and existing clients, how much more effective the agent could be by using that $6,500 for other kinds of marketing initiatives to drive business into their agency.”

But the reason it’s important for agents to be involved in the social media space today — more important than spending marketing dollars wisely — is because that’s how customers today communicate and want to do business.

“It’s very important for agents to be involved in the social media space today, because that’s where their customers are,” Cameron said. “Think about the transformation that’s happened in the market over the past five years, even. How many people do you know that are managing their lives and their relationships through Facebook, through LinkedIn, or have subscribed to Twitter to get updates on things that are important to them? Independent agents really need to be out in that space so that they can be talking to their customers in the way that their customers are relating to their own relationships.”

Boosting an agency’s Web or social media presence may not bring in hundreds of new leads immediately. Instead, building a social media presence is more about creating relationships with existing customers, and then getting them to be your cheerleader, to refer business to you, said Dale Steinke, manager of digital marketing for Safeco Insurance, Liberty Mutual Agency Markets. “It’s about continuing the relationship with your existing customers, providing valuable information, and giving them ways to interact with you that are convenient for them,” he said.

“[Agents] don’t need a Web site to get started in social media, although it’s not a bad idea,” Cameron said, but “agents can be out today building a Facebook page in an afternoon for their agency, talking about what they’re doing in their agency, how their contributing to their community, and providing information to their clients that helps them solve problems around their risk and insurance programs.”

Short on Resources

Unfortunately only half of agents today have a Web site, according to statistics compiled by Fireman’s Fund. It’s likely that even fewer have a social media presence.

That’s not surprising, said Mike Randles, owner of Insurance Center Associates in Los Angeles. “One of the hardest things for an agency is finding time to build a Web site and write content. We’re agents; we sell insurance. We’re not Web masters; we’re not copyrighters.”

Avi Wilhelm, vice president of The Wilhelm Agency in Lakewood, N.J., agreed. Although marketing themselves is something agents absolutely have to do to grow, he said agents are notoriously bad at doing it, and the online component adds another level of complexity. “Agents especially in today’s market don’t have budgets to go out and market effectively the way they need to,” he said, noting that they are up against larger marketing behemoths, the direct writers. Geico alone spent $800 million on advertising in 2008.

How Carriers Can Help

More carriers fortunately are realizing that they can help their independent agency partners, and in doing so, both will benefit. If an agency boosts its image and grows its business by spending more time online, the carrier’s brand recognition grows as well.

Liberty Mutual Agency Markets has found that working in the online space with agents is a “fantastic” way to engage in the community, according to Jennifer Kline Shernoff, director of online experience for the Regional Companies Group of Liberty Mutual Agency Markets.

Through its Bricks & Clicks program, Liberty Mutual Agency Markets offers classroom training along with online workshops layered on top that agents can “attend” on their own time. The workshops, which are available for both personal and commercial lines, teach agents such things as how to target customers online, build a trustworthy Web site, use Web analytics to measure marketing effectiveness and get started in social media. In more advanced Web modules, the company offers lessons such as generating leads with paid search, managing a social presence to build loyalty and generate leads, how to use the next generation of Web tools, and how to figure out the return on investment for various marketing campaigns.

Additionally, Liberty Mutual offers consulting services for agents who already have an online presence but want feedback and assistance to make them more powerful. The company also offers online services, such as e-mail hosting or helping to set up Web sites and blogs for agencies that don’t have the resources to create them themselves.

When carriers help their agency partners to create a strong online presence with good content, that gives the agency and carrier the ability to show their combined expertise, which can help to win and retain good customers, agreed John Hosbein, vice president of online services for Fireman’s Fund.

Fireman’s Fund provides content that agencies can use on their Web site. As another option, the carrier is delivering streaming content to some of its agents’ Web sites for them to use to position themselves as experts on risk advisory issues with their clients.

For instance, Lewis Chester Associates in Summit, N.J., uses content about senior living facility risks provided by the carrier in a co-marketed Web site. “That means the agency benefits from our expertise, but they show it on their Web site,” Hosbein said.

The agency increases its brand recognition as an expert in the consumers’ eyes. The carrier benefits, too, because by providing the content, “we’re able to glean some really important information,” Hosbein added. For instance, “We’re able to understand what the biggest risks that these senior living facilities face. What we’ve learned is that when patients wander off the facility is a huge risk.”

Hosbein said his company is also providing content on servicing high net worth clientele. Fireman’s Fund believes good content will be the distinguishing factor that leads customers to see an agency as an expert and a leader in the community.

“What makes good content? That means you need to find an audience that you think you have credibility with, and you create messages that are going to help them do their job more effectively,” Hosbein said.

Wilhelm said using Fireman’s Fund’s streaming content helped to position his agency as an expert on risk and advisory issues for high net worth clientele. About a year ago, he set up Web site and didn’t really have a goal. But by using the carrier’s streaming content, he noticed more referrals. As his agency builds the dialogue with customers online, “customers get to know us, and see us being a little bit different than everyone else set us apart,” he said.

Randles of Insurance Center Associates appreciates that his carrier gave him the seeds he needed to improve his online marketing without having to reinvent the wheel — and that’s translated into measurable results. A Web search for insurance in his region brings up his company on the first page of listings, rather than on page seven like it did before he upgraded with Safeco Insurance/ Liberty Mutual’s help. ICA’s Web site offers direct online quotes, and that’s led people to pick up the phone and inquire more about insurance.

“The important thing is [having the Web site and direct online quotes] gave us legitimacy,” he said. “People have decided to call, which is great because we want to have more of a personal relationship anyway.

Rob Stamp of Meadow Park Insurance said he’s added another avenue to communicate with his clients. He’s used content provided by his carriers, as well as Liberty Mutual’s services, to build a customized Web site. This has created more dialogue with customers because people can now read an e-mail or browse the site whenever they want, he said.

“Sometimes the stuff you see blows your mind because they’re worried about their insurance at 10 or 12 at night,” Stamp said. “But that’s what’s convenient for them, and it works for us, because it makes it easy for us to get back to them.”

Todd Spangler, owner of Spangler Insurance LLC, said his business is up about 10 percent, which he credits in part to an improved Web site, which he created with the help of Safeco/Liberty Mutual, and attended their online marketing courses.

The bottom line is agents need to understand what today’s online tools are, and leverage the expertise of their carrier partners to benefit their agencies. Today’s customers expect insurance agencies to be online, and it may boost business.

“We encourage agents to think about social media as a piece of their overall marketing strategy,” Shernoff said, noting an online presence is part of an agency’s brand image.

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